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The art of leadership: From Marcus Aurelius to Martin Luther King

The management consulting industrial complex has peddled many theories - transformational, servant, visionary etc - but is leadership really a lot simpler than that?

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 27 May 2020

“In a real sense, America is essentially a dream – a dream yet unfulfilled. It is the dream of a land where men of all races, colours and creeds will live together as brothers.” 

If those words ring a bell, it’s probably because, significantly reworked, they appeared in one of the most resonant, most quoted and most influential pieces of 20th century oratory: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 28 August 1963, to 250,000 civil rights supporters, King’s eloquent address has inspired its own legends.

The famous peroration – “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls” – is reputed to have been inspired spontaneously by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s cry of “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” It is true that King did depart from his prepared text but those famous words did not, as Jean Hartley, professor of public leadership at the Open University points out, emerge suddenly from nowhere like a lightning bolt of inspiration.

King gave that “dream of a land” speech on 25 September 1960 to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in Charlotte, North Carolina. As Hartley says: “He had been trying out versions of the famous speech in events across America, gauging reactions, fine-tuning it, developing it, rehearsing it before he gave it in Washington DC.” 

These earlier iterations do not diminish the power of King’s words, but they do illustrate our tendency to misunderstand and simplify the business of leadership. In essence, the more thoroughly King practised, the more of an oratorical genius he became. As a civil rights leader, King was both preacher and pragmatist. He knew how to use words and deeds to advance racial equality but he also recognised when compromise, negotiation and patience were required.

That combination made him more effective as a leader, rallying his own supporters and, by earning the trust of millions of white Americans, paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.


King’s inspirational example tells us that leadership – especially if you are doing the leading – is more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than we care to admit. We view leadership, to use a term associated with Steve Jobs, through a reality-distortion field. Since Jobs’ death in 2011, his legend has often been used to traduce his successor Tim Cook. In truth, if Jobs had simply been one of the greatest blue-sky thinkers in business, he would not have changed our lives as profoundly as he did. 

The myth of “Jobs the visionary” obscures the reality of “Jobs the obsessive micro-manager”. Presented with the first iPod prototype, Apple’s CEO instinctively felt it was too heavy. When engineers insisted they could not make it any smaller, he walked over to a water tank, dropped the device in it and watched as it sank to the bottom and bubbles floated to the top. Jobs told the engineers: “Those are air bubbles. That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

So how many leadership styles are there? Ten, according to online recruiter Indeed. Six if you believe The Wall Street Journal. Three according to Salesforce and others – although they don’t always identify the same ones. Our attempts to pigeonhole particular exemplars by assigning them a particular style are doomed to fail because these styles are not mutually exclusive. The heroic theory of leadership tends to overlook the role played by environment and circumstances. 

Laissez-faire leadership may look complacent in times of crisis while transformational leaders, as even Jobs recognised, must know when to let up to avoid exhausting themselves.

The management consultancy industrial complex has exacerbated this confusion. Defining a new leadership style can be an attention-grabbing revenue earner but, in Hartley’s view: “You can’t define a leadership style by simply sticking an adjective in front of the word ‘leadership’.” 

The profusion of such terms as servant leadership, transactional leadership, pacesetter leadership, coach-style leadership, bureaucratic leadership and supportive leadership encourages many managers to follow their natural inclination to forget theory and focus on practice.

“Leadership theory is not instead of practice,” says Hartley. “There is an idea that theory is just fancy thinking about leadership, with classrooms, long words and obscure theories, but you don’t adopt one particular theory and apply that rigidly in any situation. What you can do to help yourself is draw on a set of theories, ideas or concepts while you’re practising leadership.”

Management theorist Chris Argyris calls this “theory in practice”. A manager who broadens their horizons by grounding themselves in theory is more likely to challenge the assumptions that frame a response to a particular challenge and are less likely, if that response fails, to propose that the best strategy is to do the same again but better. 

It might help, Hartley says, if we consider leadership not in terms of the styles of those who are leading, but the kind of issues they show leadership on. “In 1994, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz argues that leaders are essentially confronted with two types of problems: technical and adaptive. 

A technical problem is one where you know what is wrong and how you can fix it. Your task then is to encourage people to do what needs to be done, get the right people in the right places, allocate resources effectively and ensure everyone focuses on the objective,” she says.

“An adaptive problem is one where you know something has to be done but you’re not sure what, probably because you’re not necessarily sure exactly why the problem is happening.” The most frequently cited examples of adaptive problems are poverty, drug abuse, climate change and, more recently, the coronavirus. These require a very different approach. 

“A leader’s primary task is to convene a space where people can explore, analyse and freely discuss the adaptive problem,” says Hartley. The freer the discussion, the better. Participants need to feel their contribution will be valued, even if they question time-honoured shibboleths, challenge established practice and identify realities others prefer to ignore.

Because this process inevitably takes time, adaptive problems are often misread as technical ones that can be solved quickly. “Leaders can come under tremendous pressure to produce a technical fix, especially in times of crisis,” says Hartley. “Take the issue of flooding. A visit by the prime minister to the worst hit areas may be good for morale – and politically sensible – but it is not going to solve the problem.” 

A truly adaptive solution would need to consider a host of factors – from flood defences to housebuilding policies and the present and future impact of climate change – to develop a plan that different parties with different interests can be persuaded to get behind.

One of president Donald Trump’s flaws as a manager is that he has a technical solution for every adaptive problem. Whatever he might think, the problems of immigration, global trade imbalances and North Korea’s nuclear threat are too knotty to be resolved by a wall, tariffs and face-to-face summits. 

To be fair, Trump’s behaviour is merely an extreme manifestation of the wishful thinking found in many boardrooms, as Facebook’s response to revelations that it had improperly shared user data with Cambridge Analytica proves. In the first 24 hours after the story broke, the social media giant’s PR team engaged in a pedantic, tone-deaf argument that what had happened was not a “data breach”. 

Technically, it was right but, as Julia Carrie Wong wrote in The Guardian: “What happened with Cambridge Analytica was not a matter of Facebook’s systems being infiltrated, but of Facebook’s systems working as designed: data was amassed, data was extracted and data was exploited.” 

After a five-day silence, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the right noises (“We have a responsibility to protect your data and if we can’t, we don’t deserve to serve you”) and, one year later, announced a “pivot to privacy”. Zuckerberg’s privacy plan – integrating WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger into one, protected by end-to-end encryption – has, critics claim more to do with protecting Facebook from competition than protecting users’ privacy. 

His claim that the company had “changed its DNA” has, so far, left many users, regulators and journalists unconvinced. In 2016, Facebook’s profits sank by 16 per cent to £14.1bn with managers warning of more costs, relating to privacy and regulation, to come. It sounds counter-intuitive but if a company needs to change its DNA to survive a crisis, sometimes the best thing a leader can do is not lead but listen.

As Heifetz puts it: “Most leaders die with their mouths open.” Listening is difficult because, he argues, it challenges the pervasive myth that leaders are born not made – which can lead them to act irresponsibly and encourage followers to do nothing until a decision is taken – and requires us to recognise that sometimes you don’t need authority to lead. 

The likes of King, Greta Thunberg, Mahatma Gandhi and Lech Walesa may, Hartley suggests, be better placed to clarify values, face inconvenient truths and seize new possibilities because they had no formal authority as such – and no vested interest in the status quo. Within companies and organisations, leadership doesn’t always come from the top of the table, it can come from the bottom, too.

The bigger picture

If you accept Heifetz’s theory – and it seems much more persuasive than the “adjective + leadership” models and encourages leaders to dwell on challenges rather than their own status – then the hardest, most valuable thing you can do as a leader is to create an adaptive organisation that can cope with emerging challenges. To do that, leaders need to be sure they are, to use Heifetz’s phrase “getting on the balcony”, making sure they see the bigger picture when they diagnose – and reflect upon – a problem.

That is effectively what president John F Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Gung-ho, cigar-chomping Air Force general Curtis LeMay – the inspiration for crazed military officer Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove – urged him to bomb Cuba and likened a deal in which America withdrew its missiles from Turkey to “Munich-style appeasement”. 

Kennedy said: “I’m just thinking about what we’re going to have to do in a day or so… possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take missiles out of Turkey. When the Soviets grab Berlin, everybody’s going to say: ‘Well, that was a pretty good proposition.’ Today it sounds great to reject it, but it’s not going to after we do something.” 

Thinking ahead to a crisis that had to be avoided, Kennedy overruled LeMay – and all his advisers – secretly agreeing to pull the missiles out of Turkey when the Soviets proved they had withdrawn theirs from Cuba. The argument between LeMay and Kennedy illustrates many of the avoidance mechanisms that make adaptive working so hard. 

The Air Force general misidentified the issue as a technical problem that could be fixed by air strikes, ignoring the risk that this could have triggered a nuclear conflict. President Jimmy Carter would have handled that task very differently. His preferred modus operandi – he called it “rational discourse” – was to have staff prepare papers on the pros and cons of any issue and weigh their views in private. 

That meant, Heifetz says, Carter listened to “arguments analytically but not musically”. By minimising meetings in which people postured, argued and haggled, Carter made it harder to go beneath the surface and ask: “What’s the real argument we’re having here?” As Heifetz observes: “That’s a critical question because, if you can’t answer that, you get superficial buy-in, a pseudo-consensus and people who go along out of deference rather than genuine commitment.”

Arguing and haggling helped Bill Gates reverse one of his worst decisions at Microsoft. In the mid-1990s, he concluded that the internet wouldn’t really take off. When everyone he listened to assured him he was wrong, he did a U-turn. 

Traditionally regarded as a sign of weakness, such flexibility will be a strength for leaders in the future, Heifetz argues. In the 1980s, Digital Equipment Corporation co-founder Ken Olsen decided that personal computers would not amount to much. He took so long to reverse his decision that, with the company in precipitous decline, he was compelled to quit as CEO in 1992.

Another unfortunate consequence of the management consultancy industrial complex’s relentless invention of adjective + leadership styles is that it encourages the delusion that management is something we have only recently invented and are continually reinventing. 

This can lead us to adopt a new style uncritically (consider how fashionable Six Sigma was in the late 1990s and how little we hear of it today) or aspire to replicate the practices of the successful companies of the day (the way Amazon manages works brilliantly for Amazon but it won’t necessarily improve your business).

“Leadership needs to be seen in context,” says Harley. So rather than grasping at a new style – “more will be invented next year” she predicts – it would be more useful for leaders to reflect on such germane questions as: What are we trying to do? How much time do we have? Who are we trying to mobilise? That would also be more constructive than perusing most of the bestsellers purporting to offer managerial wisdom from the likes of Attila the Hun, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln (although most managers could learn from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals). 

As for titles that promise shortcuts to success, “management hacks” if you will, isn’t it time we stopped kidding ourselves that leadership is easy? Sure, we can all improve, but leadership is always complex, sometimes dangerous and infuriatingly hard to hack. But if you are craving some managerial wisdom, you could do worse than read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. 

They will not advise you on how to restructure your business, take on Amazon or cope with the effects of Brexit but they are jargon free, succinct and remarkably relevant. Many recent corporate crises could have been averted if managers had heeded the Roman philosopher- emperor’s simple maxim: “What is not good for the hive is not good for the bee.”

Image credit: Getty Images


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