EDITORIAL: Anxious times need special leaders

EDITORIAL: Anxious times need special leaders - We all have leaders on the mind at the moment. With our economy looking green around the gills and a war in the offing, this is quite natural.

by MATTHEW GWYTHER, Editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We all have leaders on the mind at the moment. With our economy looking green around the gills and a war in the offing, this is quite natural.

When times are troubled we tend to look to those above us for guidance and reassurance, whether in business, in politics or in our families.

Anxiety looks upwards and leaders are supposed to offer the answers to problems that we cannot fathom on our own.

Exactly what constitutes good leadership in business is hard to pin down, as our feature this month shows. Everyone has their pat epigram on leadership, from the pragmatic Harry Truman's 'a leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do, and like it' to the more whimsical Warren Bennis: 'Leaders must encourage their organizations to dance to forms of music yet to be heard.'

Good leadership is not command and control, which makes people passive automata. (Army types get very annoyed these days if you use their trade as an example of unthinking acceptance of orders where troops just pour out of trenches like robots at the push of a button.) Empowerment remains the way, even if times are difficult. At JP Morgan Chase, for example, they've taken the unusual step of declaring that each and every one of its 95,000 staff is a 'leader'. This new model of all chiefs and no indians seems a little strange, but one can see what they are getting at.

It was highly significant that Winston Churchill, the top gun of all British chiefs, came first in the BBC's recent Great Briton's poll. Although he'd in many ways been a failure in his earlier political life, the 65-year-old depressive outcast proved to be the right man to get Britain out of a tight spot when those who went before him had almost capitulated.

It's equally interesting that Tony Blair's downbeat New Year message had many parallels with Churchill's famed, expectation-reducing speech 'I have nothing to offer you but blood, tears, toil and sweat'.

Another relatively late starter was Rod Aldridge, this month's MT interviewee.

The CEO of Capita didn't make his push out of obscurity until he was past 40 and decided it was time to stop being a pen-pusher and run his own business. Aldridge is not yet as famous as Churchill, but his company plays a part in nearly all our lives and has already been dubbed 'the most unpopular in Britain' after a series of mishaps dealing with that most unreliable and infuriating of customers, Government. Capita and Aldridge, as Matthew Lynn's piece shows, are about to face their greatest test yet as the company boots up all the back-end systems that will make Ken Livingstones' congestion charging scheme in London work. Or fail.

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