UK: IM Sounding Board - Looking for tomorrow's leaders.

UK: IM Sounding Board - Looking for tomorrow's leaders. - Colin Sharman - UK senior partner, KPMG Peat Marwick, and companion of the IM.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Colin Sharman - UK senior partner, KPMG Peat Marwick, and companion of the IM.

Field Marshal Bill Slim drew an interesting distinction between managers and leaders: 'The leader and those who follow him represent one of the oldest, most natural and most effective of human relationships ...

Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision; its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accounts calculation, of statistics, of methods, timetables and routine: its practice is a science. Managers are necessary, leaders are essential. A good system will produce efficient managers, but more than that is needed. We must find managers who are not only skilled organisers, but who are also inspired and inspiring leaders.'

Slim may have died in 1970 after a long and distinguished career in the army and as governor general of Australia, but his words have an enduring relevance. In today's business environment, we must not only find these leaders, we must also develop them. We need leadership skills at all levels, and the key challenge for today's leaders is to ensure that organisations are capable of developing leaders for tomorrow.

The French concept of formation describes the blend of education, training and experience which provides the foundation for a career. It takes individuals to the point where they are quite literally formed - fully equipped with the skills required to step into a leadership role. Traditional formation in the UK is different: it means specialisation in a professional or technical discipline. This can start as early as school or university, and is usually followed by further training and qualifications gained at work. The assumption is that if we create a good engineer, accountant, or marketeer, then we automatically create a good leader.

This model survived in a relatively stable, structured world where the best part of a career was spent with just one organisation. Now times have changed. Organisations are operating in an environment where barriers are dissolving as global trading blocs establish and strengthen, supply chains draw producers, suppliers and customers ever closer, and competitors form alliances and joint ventures. Even the best products and services can be replicated, and quality, once a key source of competitive advantage, is an imperative.

Within organisations, structures are flatter, staff are more mobile, and power and authority are vested in the person, not in the position.

In the words of US management guru Stephen Covey, 'It is a white water world', and it is the job of leaders to navigate the inevitable turbulence and change. In today's world, business is driven by knowledge, networks and relationships. A professional and technical training may still be a necessary foundation but it is no longer sufficient on its own.

In this modern environment of internal and external change, a new set of leadership skills have come to the fore. I believe that three skills and attributes in particular are now critical: learning, openness and teamwork.

Leaders must be learners. Gaining qualifications is just the start: the pace of change means that learning has to be a lifelong activity. Individuals need to keep abreast of developments in their own field but they also need to understand other business disciplines and trends in the business world. Learning is a personal responsibility and an attitude of mind.

Those who learn effectively actively seek out development opportunities and experience. Learning gives breadth of perspective and understanding, and this ability to see the bigger picture and the opportunities it presents is the prerequisite for leadership vision.

Closely related to learning is the attribute of openness. Openness to challenge and be challenged, to ask questions and to receive feedback, is essential to learning, progress and change. Young children continually ask 'why?' Asking why opens and raises the level of debate, and it's an effective way to learn and understand. Our education system encourages us to question, yet as our careers progress, we are expected to know everything: asking a question is often seen as an admission of ignorance rather than a desire to learn. Too many meetings consist of people reluctant to ask - or be asked - questions. Yet I know of major customer/supplier relationships which have been saved because the supplier simply asked, 'How are we doing?' Asking for feedback at a corporate, team and individual level is essential to maintaining and improving performance.

By definition, leaders have followers, and great leadership has always been dependent on great teamwork. A new type of team is emerging that is more fluid and flexible than in the past. The composition of this team is less likely to be permanent. It is more likely to be a multi-disciplinary group, drawn together for a period to achieve a particular goal. It might also include outsiders: advisers, customers or suppliers. The best person to lead the team might not always be the most senior. The success of the team will depend on the contribution of each member, and it is the task of the leader to ensure that the output of the group is greater than the sum of its parts. This means much more than carving up a set of tasks: it means real, effective, proactive teamwork, which enables every member of the team to contribute to their full potential. It also means reviewing the way the team is working, and addressing the difficult issues rather than putting the lid on them.

So what do today's leaders need to do to form the leaders of tomorrow?

We cannot expect our people to learn, to be open and to work as teams if we, as leaders, do not demonstrate these skills. So the first real step towards forming tomorrow's leaders is to ensure that we ourselves seek to learn from our colleagues, our people and our customers; that we are open to challenge and change; and that we work as senior teams in the way in which we would wish to see our people work. This is how we can establish an environment and a culture where these new skills can flourish.

For me, this concept and style of leadership is perhaps best encapsulated in the anonymous quote: 'The goal of many leaders is to get people to think more highly of the leader. The goal of a great leader is to get people to think more highly of themselves.'.

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