Books: The realities of leadership

Although this book fails to recognise some important characteristics of command, it offers practical advice to ordinary mortals with aspirations, says Rod Aldridge.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Leadership books - there are just too many of them. The already swamped self-help bookshelves groan in irritation at their sheer numbers. Can we really improve the way we do our jobs from books? Publishers must think so.

A more pertinent point is whether leadership is an innate quality. Recent Mori research revealed that many captains of industry have followed an unswerving path from champion of the playing field or school prefect to the boardrooms of today's biggest companies. Only 5% of the directors and executives questioned in the survey of FTSE-500 companies and large private businesses said they had no leadership role of any kind at school.

The authors of Living Leadership: a practical guide for ordinary heroes disagree with this. Leadership, they contend, is not something you either do or don't have. Furthermore, it 'can't be bottled or reduced to a simple formula'. Armed with these convictions, the authors - three former management consultants, George Binney, Gerhard Wilke and Colin Williams - have written this guide for 'people at all levels who make organisations work'. They want to 'talk openly about the realities of leading' and 'what can and can't be achieved'.

Binney et al have certainly done their research. Living Leadership is based on a four-year experiment where they worked alongside leaders in what they term 'leading' organisations. They saw these leaders holding key discussions with their teams, formulating strategies, plans and visions, and gained an insight into their behaviours, ambitions, fears and frustrations.

Although not earth-shattering, the book is a refreshing and engaging break from the torrent of formulaic, sanctimonious self-help guides offering unrealistic views of leaders. So far, the trend has been to spotlight leaders' prized qualities and hail the biggest corporate chiefs as magicians. But the authors renounce the notion that leadership is the preserve of the great and good. Moreover, the book rejoices in exploding the myths and misconceptions of leadership in action.

Throughout, the authors remind us of the limits within which leaders must work, and some uncomfortable conclusions emerge. For instance: 'Even the best leaders cannot be great leaders all the time. The practical and encouraging question is not how to "correct" flaws, but how to make best use of the special qualities each individual has and how to complement what they haven't got with the special abilities of others.'

Living Leadership is based on three themes. First, leadership isn't the property of the leader or the follower. It's what happens between people in a particular moment or situation. Second, leading is shaped by context. What works in one moment, with one group, may not work with another. Third, people are most effective when they 'bring themselves' to lead. In other words, when they draw on their humanity, intelligence and emotions.

The book is peppered with incisive observations on redefining leadership in terms of the realities and choices that 'ordinary mortals' in organisations face. Each chapter offers unembellished accounts of how different leaders coped with various constraints and challenges.

Annoyingly, their rhetoric has the tendency to encapsulate the hollowness of cheap pop psychology. Sentences that left me baffled included 'Caring for yourself is a work in progress. You never arrive. What matters is the quality of the search', and 'We want to encourage a return to authority rooted in the human life cycle'.

I was also mystified by the concluding chapter, in which the authors link society's current cult of heroic leaders to that of Stalin's Russia and Mussolini's Italy. They contend that this is 'reminiscent of the dictatorships of the first half of the 20th century when people put all their power at the disposal of charismatic leaders'. These historical allusions seem misguided and exaggerated.

In addition, some sections could have benefited from further elaboration, such as coaching, and additional tips on making senior appointments from the outside.

And nowhere does Living Leadership recognise some of the more important characteristics that groom a leader, such as seeking continuous learning and possessing boundless curiosity; an ability to inspire confidence in your customers; an optimistic outlook on life; and a belief in the best.

Ultimately, this book is not about leaping beyond effectiveness towards true personal greatness. Instead, there are some excellent practical lessons of good leadership, which will be helpful to managers and executives looking for long-term effectiveness.

Living Leadership: A Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes George Binney et al; FT Prentice Hall £19.99; To order, visit

Rod Aldridge is executive chairman of the Capita Group, the UK's leading provider of integrated professional support service solutions.

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