Ten minute tutorial – Leadership

The quick guide to leadership.

What is it?

Leadership is a vast subject, and there are numerous theories about its meaning. But it is generally agreed that leaders must have a panoramic view of an organisation’s role and future. While managers implement strategy, and are involved in the nitty-gritty of organisational politics, leaders work out that strategy in the first place.

There is also a consensus that leaders in the modern organisation are more likely to operate as collaborative team members than to be working single-handed and leading from the front. And the emphasis is now on creating an atmosphere of trust.

However, in spite of the dogma, the idea of the “super-leader” still persists. Larger than life leaders are more likely to catch the imagination. “There is still a yearning for the Tony Blair figure who uses strong personal charisma to bring about big change,” says Robert McHenry, chairman of Sigma and the Oxford Psychologists Press. “Work is frustrating and attaining goals is hard work – and the idea of a leader who can sort all that out is still around.”

The story so far

Theories about leadership go back as far as Confucius and Buddha – as long as human beings have organised themselves, some have led, and others have followed.

But the leadership theories that are relevant today came into being in the US in the early 80s. Since then, academics have come up with a whole raft of ideas, including situational leadership, vision-based leadership, action learning, personal growth, and contingency leadership. Most recently, competencies have come the fore as the latest attempt to decide what qualities and skills a leader needs, to train them in these skills and assess the improvements they have made.

“It is a massive topic,” says Ian Lawson, director of the Industrial Society’s campaign for leadership. “The traditional idea is of ‘white charger’ leadership, based on historical figures, often military or political, charismatic and usually men. But there are real drawbacks to following the individual – they don’t necessarily create a legacy which people can take forward. Now the trend is for inspirational leadership, in which they inspire people to share the belief set.”

The promise

As the rapid pace of change continues to accelerate, the ability of leaders to have a clear idea of where their organisation is going and how this will affect staff becomes even more important.

Gene Horan, director of the leadership programme at Ashridge Management College, comments: “There is so much information chaos, so much change, that leadership can offer stability in the midst of all that. People don’t trust organisations any more, but they may trust the person who is their direct boss. In that sense, we need leaders to provide enthusiasm in tough times.”

Professor Andrew Kakabadse of Cranfield Management College – who has researched leadership in 8,000 companies across the world, sees an increasingly complex role for top teams: “Companies will need to involve 30 or as many as 100 people at the top in decision making – and they will have to collaborate and communicate,” he says.

“And in organisations which are brand leaders – such as Virgin or Glaxo Wellcome, there will be a greater need for flexibility, and discretion – the ability to change the goal posts if necessary.”

Pros and cons

The complex history of leadership, and the changing needs of organisations have created what some experts – including the Industrial Society – see as a crisis. Traditional styles no longer meet peoples’ expectations, but there is confusion about what to put in their place. So how should organisations proceed?

Looking at the nature of the organisation is the first step. Leaders need self knowledge, and so do the companies that employ them, so the first step is to look at how the operation works, and how quickly it needs to change.

But there are no hard and fast rules about “traditional” and “non-traditional” companies. Some apparently bureaucratic organisations – such as the Ministry of Defence – are making radical changes to management.

The Institute of Directors takes the view that starting with the competencies and activities needed at board level will dictate who you choose and how you develop them, and has just launched the first UK qualification for company directors to make this easier.

Professor John Potter of the Centre for Leadership Research at the University of Exeter says that looking at competencies is essential if firms are to avoid one of the most common pitfalls for leaders: “One of the dangers is to develop confidence rather than competence,” he stresses.

“If you choose the wrong approach, you give people an over-inflated idea of their abilities – without the competencies to back this up.”

And Potter emphasises that – irrespective of the nature of the organisation – leaders need to be smart. “You have got to identify people with the mental ability and thought processes to look beyond the black and white,”” he says.

Key players

There are many big names in leadership theory and development. The UK’s best-known guru is perhaps Charles Handy, who has written about the future of work and the role of leaders in holistic terms. Among the most significant US thinkers are John P. Kotter and Warren Bennis. Meredith Belbin’s ideas about team roles are still highly influential.

All the major management schools in the UK feature leadership studies in their programmes. Academics who specialise in this area include Professor Sumantra Ghosal and Professor Lynda Gratton of the London Business School as well as the other experts quoted in this guide. Among the best known consultancies are the Leadership Trust, which has set up a forum and ideas-exchange for international thinkers on leadership and the Industrial Society, which is running a campaign for leadership and a range of leadership training programmes.

Who’s on board?

UK companies whose leadership training programmes are particularly innovative include Midland Bank, the Body Shop, Glaxo Wellcome, Motorola and British Aerospace, which has benefited from changing its leadership and management structures. The company set up a leadership audit, set up a league table with the most collaborative leaders at the top, and re-organised its entire management style.

Global companies which have made a success of radical leadership programmes include IT giant Electronic Data Systems (EDS), which has organised 72,000 employees into accountable teams.

The HR contribution

This is an issue which needs to be thought through clearly in organisational terms and no one knows more about the mechanics of the workplace than the HR department. So HR staff have a key role in both auditing organisational needs, and helping senior staff to identify the leaders they need.

Yet again, however, there is an issue here about the status of HR and its involvement at board level – in some companies very senior appointments will still be made without reference to the personnel department, and specialist recruitment firms will be used instead. Clearly, there is a lobbying job to be done so that HR departments are involved in a leadership programme which is integrated into the overall training and development structure of the organisation.

Professor Alan B. Thomas, director of the executive MBA programme at Manchester Business School, comments: “If you don’t have the ear of top management, no one will listen. HR departments need to do some leading themselves in the area of leadership.”

Gene Horan, director of the leadership programme at Ashridge Management College, believes HR staff need to constantly update their expertise. “To keep informed, they need to visit programmes, talk to participants, and perhaps do them themselves. You need to really study the market – and not slip into a comfortable relationship with one supplier.”


The role of leaders is constantly changing – and theories about why this happens and how leaders should behave will always be plentiful. One reason for this is that being a leader is difficult and many fail. Great leaders tend to be “one-offs”, and looking at what makes them tick doesn’t necessarily help the next person in line.

Nowadays, the idea that big personalities are needed is out of fashion, anyway. Currently, the search is on for inspirational leaders who mean what they say, win the trust of employees give an impression of honesty and integrity and can persuade employees that their goals and aspirations are shared by the whole organisation. It’s a tall order.

“Leaders need to catch the imagination – and that’s not tangible,” says Ian Lawson of the Industrial Society. “Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream’, not ‘I have a strategic plan’.”

Essential reading

Liberation Management by Tom Peters. Pan Books

The Empty Raincoat – Making Sense of the Future by Charles Handy. Arrow Business Books

The Coming Shape of Organisations by Meredith Belbin. Butterworth Heinemann

Learning to Lead by Warren Bennis and J. Goldsmith. Nicholas Brearly

Leading Change by John P. Kotter. Harvard Business School Press


www.leadership.co.uk The Leadership Trust

www.indsoc.co.uk The Industrial Society

www.ashridge.org.uk Ashridge Management College

www.ccl.org The Centre for Creative Leadership

www.lbs.ac.uk London Business School

www.mbs.ac.uk Manchester Business School

www.johnpotter.demon.co.uk Professor John Potter

By Sally O’Reilly



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