BOOKS: An action plan for leaders

This guide is sound and practical, even if its premise is flawed, argues John Adair.

by John Adair
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This book is an active guide to leadership rather than a stock of knowledge ... With this opening sentence, the authors nail their colours to the masthead. What they mean, I think, is that their concern is with active leadership - leadership by doing - rather than offering a guide to leadership theories, such as found in those excruciatingly awful American academic textbooks on leadership.

The opening section spells out this action-centred orientation: 'Leadership is a doing thing; a performance art. It is not defined by any set of personal qualities or competencies, but by what we actually do when faced with challenging situations.'

The authors' recipe for becoming a leader sounds simple enough. Leadership and management overlap, but are distinct concepts. To become part of the leadership in your organisation: 'Decide on the most significant challenges facing your organisation, determine what needs to be done about them and then do something that leads to a useful outcome.'

They use 21 challenges as vehicles for teaching and learning, emphasising the importance of developing one's ability to recognise and respond to challenges. I wondered whether the concept of challenge could bear the weight of the house the authors build on it. In fact, the 21 challenges are divided into 'inners' and 'outers'. The chief inner challenge - Leading Yourself - is at the centre of their model, leading to the other core leadership practices and on to the outer or organisational challenges.

Inner challenges include living with risk, facilitation and networking; outer challenges include organisational structure, work process, social responsibility and major change. The sheer variety of these 21 'challenges' made me reflect on the meaning of the word - if everything becomes a challenge, nothing is a challenge.

So much in life and business depends on perception. The ancient Israelite army trembled at the size of Goliath, but David said to himself: 'He is so big that I can't miss.' When a real challenge presents itself, people look for leadership. A valuable function of leaders is to help others put a challenge into perspective, often with a touch of humour. Leaders must show that a challenge can be met.

Human beings need challenges. They test our abilities and stretch us.

Good leadership is often a catalyst for a release of the inner human resources of energy and spirit.

What I need in order to grow as an inspirational leader is a body of knowledge that will enable me both to be more effective in a leadership role and to prepare myself for great leadership responsibility ahead.

Without this knowledge, how can I learn or teach myself?

The authors believe, apparently, that no such body of knowledge exists - the general view of academics and management consultants. In my opinion, it is not true. It reflects the transatlantic confusion on the subject.

From the 1980s, the Americans subjected leadership to saturation bombing, yet missed their target. They concluded that it is all relative and subjective.

Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell seem to endorse the orthodoxy that 'there is no one correct definition of leadership, or any one set of personal qualities or competencies that characterise leaders'.

For good measure, they add that 'there are no experts in leadership'.

How do they know? And if they are not expert, why write this book? Who would buy a guidebook on Alpine ascents that was not written by an expert on mountaineering?

Despite the book's conceptual weakness, the authors list and discuss some of the key functions of strategic leadership. Their advice on how to perform them - and learn in the process - is invariably interesting, sound and practical. Managers moving into strategic leadership will find this book an excellent introduction to the personal and organisational issues that they will encounter.

John Adair is visiting professor at Exeter University and the world's first professor of leadership studies. His most recent book is The Inspirational Leader. The Adair Leadership Foundation runs programmes based on his work

A Manager's Guide to Leadership

Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell

McGraw Hill Business £19.99

MT price £18.99 (see panel, p28)

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