Denise Kingsmill: Failures of leadership

From overpaid bosses to politicians' lacklustre response to recession, a lack of vision and ability at the top is all too common.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 May 2013

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In the heady world of business consultants, advisers and other purveyors of snake oil to the impressionable, there seems to be an obsession with leadership in all its many weird and wonderful forms. Last month, I received invitations to at least 10 business conferences, lunches or breakfasts on the said topic. They all seemed to have wacky titles, such as 'Are You a Two-Years-Ahead Leader?' and 'Leadership for the New Normal'. Best of all was 'Upside Down and Inside Out Leadership'.

I was tempted to go to one or two just to see what baloney was being served up and to whom. One thing that seemed certain is that nobody in an actual leadership role was likely to be present. Perhaps I should be worried that the organisers think I might be a potential upside-down leader.

Yet I am not sure they are all that discerning about their audiences. Directors and managers everywhere are bombarded with these invitations, as are journalists, MBA students and teachers - in fact, just about anybody who has ever expressed the slightest scintilla of interest in business.

I have had the purpose of these events described to me by a friend who is an expert in marketing and branding. The conference is usually organised to promote a book and the author will appear as guest speaker to propound his or her leadership theory. The attendees have often been required to show up by their employers as part of their 'management development'. The conference fees are paid by their company out of the jealously guarded HR training budget. The books are provided by the publishers at a discount and distributed free to the participants. Thus the author gets exposure, the publisher a bulk order, the organiser a fee and the participants a day off work. Since the expenditure can usually be set against a company's liability to tax, everyone is happy.

Given that more books have been written on leadership than any other theme in the field of management, we can expect many more of the same sort of thing. What is interesting is that most of these books, with one or two honourable exceptions (including MT's two 'Masterclass' books, of course - Ed), appear to be written by people who have no discernible leadership experience and yet claim to be able to reveal the magic formulae that will transform ordinary managers into brilliant leaders.

Alternatively, they are written by people like Alan Sugar or Donald Trump, whose leadership examples only sad 'apprentices' would wish to emulate. In the field of business books, as with sex manuals, it definitely seems a case of those who can, do and those who can't, write about it. Nevertheless, these tomes get churned out in vast quantities, as any cursory glance at Amazon will demonstrate.

Profiled CEOs always claim that the latest whizz-biz book is on their bedside table. The less imaginative often fall back on Jack Welch's Straight from the Gut or Sun Tzu's The Art of War, both of which promulgate a leadership style more suited to managing Mongolian hordes than a modern business. It is fervently to be hoped that few of them actually read the books, let alone put such thinking as Sun Tzu recommends into practice, including: 'leadership involves deception', 'although you are competent appear incompetent', and 'though effective, appear ineffective'.

On second thoughts, perhaps that is just what recently deposed leaders David Brennan at AstraZeneca or Andrew Moss at Aviva were doing. If so, they may have been a bit too successful in their deception. Shareholders seem to be waking up to the leadership deficit in many companies and asserting their muscle in opposing pay awards, particularly if performance has been lacklustre. Many companies have been shaken as challenges to remuneration packages have become more common and shareholders, particularly pension funds, have used these as a means of showing dissatisfaction with their leaders. The boards of William Hill, Barclays, Xstrata and Premier Foods have all found themselves under pressure from a new wave of shareholder activism labelled the 'shareholder spring' - a wry reference to the uprisings in the Middle East last year when unchallenged incumbents were abruptly overthrown.

Failure of leadership is also grossly apparent in European politics. We continue to wallow in recession, growth is non-existent and government policies seem increasingly out of touch with the needs of business and the people. Seven governments have been removed in Europe this year as the contradiction between cutting jobs and pay while increasing taxes becomes increasingly apparent - electorates have become angry. Government borrowing and debt increases, and the prospects for economic recovery slip further away. Our own Coalition government seems to have lost its way as internal divisions lead to 'omnishambles'.

Perhaps the bedtime reading of Europe's leaders should include someone worthwhile. John Maynard Keynes, for example, understood that when the main pillars of the economy, such as consumer spending, bank lending and manufacturing output fail, the only pillar left to support the economy is the government. Otherwise, recession becomes self-reinforcing and leads to a downward spiral that destroys wealth.

They might also take comfort in his words: 'The day is not far off when economic problems will take a backseat and the arena of the heart and the head will be reoccupied by our real problems - the problems of life and human relations of creation and behaviour.'

- Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director on various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com

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