The Tools of Leadership
by Max Landsberg
HarperCollins pounds 14.99
Leadership has consumed more words to less effect than any area in management.
The problem starts right there. Is leadership part of management or something that operates over and above management, in a relationship akin to that between brain and mind? The analogy is fruitful. Just as mind cannot exist without brain, so leadership cannot be effective without management, of which leadership is the enabling force that makes the ultimate difference.
How to make that difference is the subject of Max Landsberg's book. The slim compass contains a series of prescriptive essays on leadership, which start by offering an equation (Leadership = Vision x Inspiration x Momentum) and end with 'The VIM of Self-Leadership'. Then comes a short collection of practical precepts and exercises. But the longest passages tell a 'faction' narrative of turning round a financially parlous ad agency.
The writing is not a candidate for the Booker Prize, and Landsberg's characters don't ring true, although there are elements of reality in his portrait of DKNU. The agency has a valuable collection of art, for example, and its creative people and account executives work in isolation.
The saga hinges on achieving fusion between them. One character says: 'Most agencies wouldn't risk letting the client even see the creative director'.
In Landsberg's account, the staff were unanimously opposed to selling the art to save the agency, which sounds unlikely. But the book's real-life elements have been heavily adapted to serve as text for Landsberg's sermon.
It strongly endorses the argument that leaders are made, not simply born, and that managers can be successfully educated in the arts and skills of leadership. The creation of VIM, says the author, hinges on both techniques and personal traits. He asserts that the traits are probably ingrained, so personality may as well be left alone while you concentrate on technique.
This is potentially dangerous advice, because misdirected behaviour can mar leadership - and behaviour is certainly not ingrained.
Nobody can deny the necessity for dealing with 'focus, urgency and factions', especially when leading turnrounds. But by concentrating on these situations, Landsberg puts too little emphasis on the more typical role of leaders, running an organisation not in crisis. True, many of the turnround lessons apply in all circumstances. But the turnround leader has advantages - like the reality of urgency - that are normally missing.
Today, no circumstances are normal. Large and successful companies have suffered because their leaders have not led them out of complacency and into radical change. They would have been well advised to adopt the constructive paranoia that Andy Grove developed at Intel: acting in constant fear that some competitive or environmental threat will cut the ground from under their feet.
In that context, Landsberg offers valuable semi-technical guidance on the difference between good and bad teams, effective and ineffective visions, building trust, galvanising progress, living the values, and so on. All the areas he covers are important, but the fact is that objective techniques with measurable results play the lesser role in effective leadership. It rests heavily on subjective elements and perceptions. Every leader lives the values in a different way, and is perceived differently by different people. The subjective nature of leadership, though, demands more understanding, not less.
Landsberg's book, brief and cogent, is a valuable stimulus to thought and action. Its vital message is that responsible managers at all levels become vastly more effective if they think about their leadership. It should stimulate leaders to analyse their leadership and its effects continuously, and to grasp the need to take thought before, during and after taking action.