Books: The uphill path to learning

Adversity and failure contribute to practical wisdom, the hallmark of excellence in leadership, says John Adair. But this book exalts emotion at the expense of reason.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Leadership will always remain something of a mystery, although in recent years the concept has come into sharper focus. Yet what is still unclear is how leaders acquire leadership. How do leaders grow? And what can organisations do to help this process?

The authors, three American management consultants and executive coaches, offer thought-provoking answers. They believe leaders grow by successfully navigating the 13 generic 'leadership passages' they will face in life.

How can organisations help?

Well, there are nods in the direction of 'emotional intelligence' training and a warmer commendation for 'action-learning leadership development programmes', which, it so happens, their company provides. But the real hero is the executive coach.

You may detect the faintest hint of cynicism on my part. Frankly, many management consultancy firms produce similar books as part of their marketing strategy. But this book is more than that: it draws our attention to the paradox that both failure and adversity can be steps uphill on the path of leadership, and argues that it is in the mix of success and failure that a leader grows.

The authors see their 13 generic situations as turning points. During these transitions, they say, the individual should embrace change in order to grow. These transitional episodes are classified into four groups: diverse/work experiences include joining a company or moving into a leadership role; a diverse/ life passage would be establishing a satisfactory work/life balance; the adverse/career group includes dealing with significant failure for which you are responsible, losing your job or being passed over for promotion; adverse/life events include divorce, illness and bereavement.

While professional coaches and counsellors can sometimes help us to cope better with such transitions, this should not be confused with the art of one-to-one leadership development. Our role model is Socrates. We learn, Socrates taught us, when truth in the form of principles interacts with and informs belief and practice. This results in experience, which here implies superior understanding, as well as considerable practice.

It's difficult to see how this superior understanding can ensue without first thinking through and identifying one's own principles. What truth in the form of principles does this book offer? Alas, the cupboard is bare. 'Leaders who do not succeed tend to be people who lack self-awareness,' say the authors. These are characterised as those who do not engage in self-reflection, especially when they fail. High-performing leaders, by contrast, are 'highly conscious of their feelings as they move through life'.

This sounds simplistic and reflective of the Romantic theory of leadership, which exalts emotion at the expense of reason. Managers converted to Romantic leadership speak of their inner feelings, doubts and uncertainties. They are wrapped up in introspection, often with life coaches paid by their organisations. For, as the authors tell us, 'your feelings are a catalyst to make you a better leader'.

But it is what the Greeks called phronesis, practical wisdom, that is the hallmark of excellence in leadership. It is a compound of intelligence, experience and goodness. How do people become practically wise? The lives of great leaders seem to reveal a pattern. It is not easy to refuse to sink beneath the burdens of disability (Roosevelt), a severely handicapped daughter (de Gaulle), the tragically early loss of a wife (Montgomery) and long imprisonment (Mandela) - to name a few.

Incidentally, none of these leaders appears in Leadership Passages. The only non-American featured is the inevitable Richard Branson. Perhaps the authors have not experienced the transition they call 'living in a different country or culture'. Given today's growing global consensus on the nature of good leadership, that simply won't do.

This book underlines the fact that life is best understood as a learning journey, and that what comes to us in the guise of failure and adversity are all grist to the mill. Certainly, humility is one product of that mill, an openness to learn, accompanied by a lack of arrogance. Humility, I suppose, is that fourth and most elusive quadrant of any person, distinguishable from mind, body and heart.

Leadership isn't really about feelings or emotions; it is about the spirit.

Paradoxically, it is in others that we glimpse ourselves as through a frosted window. Leaders are servants of that vision of greatness they see in others. For, as John Buchan said: 'The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.'

Leadership Passages David Dotlich, James Noel & Norman Walker

Jossey-Bass £16.99 MT price £14.99

To order, visit

- John Adair's next two books, How To Grow Leaders (Kogan Page) and Effective Leadership Development (CIPD), will be published in May.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

When spying on your staff backfires

As Barclays' recently-scrapped tracking software shows, snooping on your colleagues is never a good idea....

A CEO’s guide to smart decision-making

You spend enough time doing it, but have you ever thought about how you do...

What Tinder can teach you about recruitment

How to make sure top talent swipes right on your business.

An Orwellian nightmare for mice: Pest control in the digital age

Case study: Rentokil’s smart mouse traps use real-time surveillance, transforming the company’s service offer.

Public failure can be the best thing that happens to you

But too often businesses stigmatise it.

Andrew Strauss: Leadership lessons from an international cricket captain

"It's more important to make the decision right than make the right decision."