Neville Bain, group chief executive of Coats Viyella, pins down that sometimes intangible quality that makes a brilliant manager in today's fast-changing world.
Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership By Howard Gardner HarperCollins; 400pp; £18.
Good management is not, on its own, sufficient in a fast-changing world. Much more is needed, and most of this can broadly be put down to aspects of leadership. In looking for effective managers, we must look for strategic thinking, for enthusiasm, the ability to motivate people, thirst for knowledge, insistence on continuous improvement and on setting demanding goals. We must look for vision, and for other equally intangible qualities. Leadership is increasingly recognised as the factor most crucial to success in general management, yet it is notoriously difficult to define. It is even more difficult to identify leadership potential in advance, and with any reasonable degree of certainty.
Many managers recognise the importance of leadership, but they have difficulty in knowing how to apply it effectively. The business schools' success at developing leadership skills has been patchy, perhaps because the well-proven case study method seldom provides much in the way of deep insights into the nature of leadership. A lot of published work that touches on the subject describes elements of it, and provides illustrations that offer partial insights.
By way of example, in my own book Successful Management, I listed 10 characteristics which, according to both research and the literature, are most commonly found in successful business leaders. These are: flexibility, a capacity to inspire others, enthusiasm, the ability to build relationships, to inspire trust, to communicate, to delegate, a willingness to experiment, plus frankness and integrity. I also noted that today's rapid flow of information and wider span of control demand of leaders the intellectual capacity to deal with complex, and often conflicting, problems.
But leadership, of course, is not simply a prerequisite of business management. As Howard Gardner observes at the outset of his scholarly work, leadership is crucial to institutions of all kinds, most of which are in a similarly constant state of flux. To illustrate the diversity of leadership, and examine its essence, Gardner explores in detail the lives of 11 20th-century exemplars. They include heroic figures that instantly bring to mind the word 'leader': the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But not all Gardner's leaders are anything like as charismatic. Alfred Sloan of General Motors is a solitary representative of business. Others who come under his microscope are the social anthropologist Margaret Mead, Pope John XXXIII and Margaret Thatcher.
Gardner, a leading academic psychologist at Harvard, believes that our understanding of the nature and processes of leadership is most likely to be enhanced if we examine closely the arenas in which leadership operates. Hence the 11 examples. These studies (and others) lead him to conclude that leadership has six constants. First, a leader must have a central message which is clear and readily embraced by his followers. Second, as goes without saying, a leader will have followers, although - avoiding any inference that a leader should also possess a strong messianic streak - Gardner prefers to describe those who are led as the 'audience'. Third, enduring leadership needs an institutional base in order that its power should be sustained. Fourth, leaders convey their central messages by means of their actions as well as their words. Leadership may be direct, as when the leader addresses himself straight to the audience; on the other hand it may be indirect, as when the leader works by educating future political movers or other successors. Lastly, there will, in almost every field, be important items of knowledge that the leader needs to digest, and share - in some sense - with the audience.
All experienced managers will recognise the truth of Gardner's observations on communication. Real leaders think about the audience they are trying to persuade to their cause. There can be no doubt that, when the environment is fast-changing, when facts are becoming increasingly complex and variables more numerous, and when organisations are taking on different shapes, that constant, clear and simple communication is essential if the leader is to remain in touch with his audience. The need for managers in the future to be thoroughly expert in communication suggests a widespread requirement for training, beginning today.
Yet a lot of managers have obviously grasped the right end of the leadership stick. In my own book I drew attention to a study of 15,000 people around the world, conducted by two American researchers James Kouzes and Barry Posner, which aimed to reveal how those on the receiving end of leadership felt about their leaders' actions. The 10 key words which occurred most frequently in their responses were: valued, motivated, enthusiastic, challenged, inspired, capable, supported, powerful, respected and proud. Evidently, somebody is doing something right.
I like to think of the best managers as being curious - as constantly searching for new knowledge and better ways of doing things. Managers today should be outward-looking, aware of what is happening in the environment around them, and receptive to new ideas and of the implications of these for themselves and their enterprises. Curious managers will find Leading Minds well worth reading. It may even stimulate some deeper thinking on practical aspects of leadership in a business setting.
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