Book review: The Cult of the Leader, by Christopher Bones

Can big companies foster the same enthusiasm in their staff that SMEs count on?

by William Chase
Last Updated: 01 Feb 2011

There is (or should be) one aim for all staff in a successful business, and that is the greater good of the business. In this book, Chris Bones explores various ways in which different types of leaders have tried to achieve that aim.

He charts the unhappy rise of leaders driven by financial rewards, promotion and even aspirations to become 'famous'. And he suggests that, although there's a place for hiring employees based on their 'competencies', the overriding need in business is for a broader, less tick-box approach: 'a full range of skills and behaviour that the whole organisation requires for it to be successful'.

The essential task of persuading people to work for the greater good of the group, however, has not been made easier by the rise of selfishness. This trait, Bones suggests, has been in the ascendant since the 1970s, as the emphasis in society has swung away from the collective to the individual. He refers to the 'L'Oreal Generation' of people who believe the world owes them a living 'because they're worth it'. Their attitude is not defined by politics or economics but by physical attributes and personal wealth as a measure of success.

In my view, the best type of leadership arises naturally as a result of common commitment, good communication, and shared values and beliefs. And as Bones implies in the first of the book's two parts (entitled 'The Diagnosis'), this is most likely to be achieved under private ownership; an owner treats the money as his or her own. But if the business is owned by venture capitalists or a private equity firm, those in charge are looking after someone else's money or brand and are in it for short-term gain rather than long-term prosperity.

In these circumstances, it is much harder for leaders to persuade their team of the virtues of the common good. I sold the majority of my first business to a private equity firm. As the owner, I had given the brand everything: I worked 100-hour weeks. If you want something to work, you have to live and breathe it.

Leadership is also complicated by the huge difference in culture between a small family firm and a large corporation. People who work for small companies take ownership of the organisation, they multi-task and work hard for it. In large companies, people tend to work for themselves, for big bonuses or other financial gain.

The chapter headed 'Diamonds on the soles of your feet' neatly demonstrates another undesirable characteristic of big companies - the way in which corporate structures tend to make simple problems complicated. The job of the line manager should be a simple one, in theory. One of the biggest leadership challenges is that today's corporations live and die by 'the book of rules' and pay too much attention to KPIs, balance sheets, score cards and similar paraphernalia that generate vast amounts of often contradictory data. How much easier it is to empower line managers to exercise common sense. This is what I like most about The Cult of the Leader. It explains how to build a structure without over-complicating it. It's a must for those trying to build an organisation that works, whether the business is large or small.

My only criticisms are that there is too much detail in places, and I'd like to have seen more about the psychology behind leadership, what makes great leaders, and how to expose the fakes - I believe that they can hide in a big company.

But Bones' thoughts on how managements evolve chime with my own, derived from putting senior management teams and boards together and my not-always-happy dealings with non-executive directors (usually of the 'I'm on every board going' type). It's a process too often driven by personal rewards rather than by the greater good of the company.

The moral of the story is that good leadership depends on the broad strength and character of a small number of individuals, who must keep things simple and strong, from the ground to the sky.

Overall, the book confirmed my own observations and experiences of leadership - particularly the importance of getting people to take ownership and work together. As Henry Ford said, the average person will produce the minimum possible unless they are motivated by a shared commitment.

The Cult of the Leader - a manifesto for more authentic business
Christopher Bones
John Wiley £18.99

- William Chase is founder of ChaseDistillery.

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