A leading question on role models

After the year we've had, can it really be true that business people are still Britain's top role models?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

According to a survey by leadership development group Common Purpose, 45% of the 750 respondents named business people as their top leadership role models. That made them a more popular choice than politicians, historical figures, religious leaders, teachers and (less surprisingly) sporting figures. ‘The current economic situation has not dented the inspirational appeal of business leaders,’ concludes Common Purpose sagely.

Not everyone laid claim to a role model, of course. But of those that did, business leaders featured prominently. High-profile bigwigs cited included M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose, Birmingham City CEO Karren Brady and Virgin chief Richard Branson – although others plumped for lower-profile family members involved in the business world instead. ‘It is great that our belief in business leaders has not been dented’, says Common Purpose chief exec Julia Middleton. ‘It will be them that accelerate us out of recession.’

Now a few years ago, this finding might have seemed more plausible. Back then, UK plc’s high fliers – particularly the City’s masters of the universe – could seemingly do no wrong, churning out profits to their hearts’ content. But after a year in which the reputation of many of these exalted leaders (including Rose, and virtually everyone connected to the City) has taken a bit of a battering, it seems a bit odd that their leadership reputations appear to have survived completely intact.

So we took a closer look – and discovered that the survey was carried out on ‘a wide sample of people in full-time employment, holding management and decision-making roles’. In other words, they asked a load of business people to tell them who their leadership role models were, and – believe it or not – lots of them opted for business people. Which, we’d argue, isn’t that surprising. If you asked a load of footballers to name their role models, we’d imagine that sporting figures would come a bit higher up the list (though to be fair, that’s partly because most of the respondents wouldn’t be able to name any business leaders, politicians or historical figures).

Of course, we’re not denying that there are lots of excellent leaders in the business world. But the biggest test of their skills may be yet to come. By this time next year, a few reputations are likely to have been made – or broken.

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