UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - THE SHAPE OF LEADERS TO COME. - What will make a successful business leader of the 21st century? Sir Peter Parker pins down the elusive qualities needed to wear the mantle.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What will make a successful business leader of the 21st century? Sir Peter Parker pins down the elusive qualities needed to wear the mantle.

Nothing in business circles brings such a rush of cliches to the head as leadership, one of those humpty-dumpty words which, as Alice said, mean whatever we want them to mean. There is probably something therapeutic in the way we go on about it, therapeutic - and dangerous.

Therapeutic because it is a relief to be reminded of the sheer humanity of management. The professional manager has to spend so much of his or her life measuring and controlling, and that is what the business schools teach us, quite properly; but experience goes on to teach us that what we cannot measure and control can prove to be as important as what we can. Leadership is one of those elusive priorities, an area in which there is no absolute, no guaranteed model. So it turns out to be not only vital but also fun to talk about what makes a leader. Is it education, or lack of it? Is it the sheer will to succeed? Sheer competence? Luck? Greed - wanting money very, very much? Sheer personality? Branson or Hanson, Roddick or Rothschild, take your pick - what have they in common except, perhaps, that none of them went to business school.

Fascinatingly, last year a valuable study of 300 successful senior managers was published by Dr Rob Irving of the Whitehead Mann Group. On verbal and numerical reasoning tests the scores of the 300 were not distinguished, only about that of average managers. The differentials between the leaders and the rest lay in the force of their personalities. According to Michael Dixon of the Financial Times: 'They shared a voracious need to have power over other people, for instance. They were also marked by a lust for personal achievement, being fiercely competitive in pursuing the extremely high aims they had set for themselves to the extent of being ruthless with anyone seen as standing in their way.' If this is all that leadership amounts to, it leaves us with only characteristics shared with any leading bandit, Machiavelli's Prince, or even a Hitler. In fact, for decades after Hitler's war, the word 'leader' was handled with tweezers by the West. Victorious democracies were shy about the Fuhrer principle in politics: 'Pity the land that needs a hero,' was Brecht's sour summing-up. Now, however, leadership is completely deodorised on the management scene. There are training courses for it, we have visions and leadership forums, something of a paradox to those who believe that leadership is embodied in rugged individuals. (Togetherness between rugged individuals would seem as unlikely as a chorus of Maria Callases.) But leadership is a complicated, combustible issue. What is its authority, its legitimacy?

Loose talk about leadership can be dangerous. It is not a subject to sell short by oversimplification. We need to try to be more specific about the mystery of leadership, measuring what we can. In doing so I resist adamantly the idea of separating management from leadership. Managers should not be taken in by this false dichotomy. Managing means leading, making things happen through people: for me, that is relevant to all levels of management, not just the top management on which I am concentrating.

So, what are some of the elements that will be going into the magic-mix of leadership as we turn the century? How the elements mix will depend on circumstances. There are good attacking generals and good retreating generals but generals with a two-way stretch - Field Marshall Alexander from world war two for instance - are exceptional. But whatever the circumstances, I see that the star of any managerial leader rising in the future will be five-pointed. He or she will be: - a risk-taking professional, recognisable perhaps by a business degree, certainly by experience; - an educator and a team builder, an exponent of 'the learning organisation'; - an internationalist in the global markets. A man or woman of the world; - a political animal - interested in the efficiency of government, as any efficient government of a high-tech society should be interested in business; - a citizen, sharing with other citizens at work the concerns of the community as a whole - the social priorities of the environment and unemployment.

Only a paragon could manage to juggle all these priorities. With luck and good humour, some might manage not to drop all the balls at once, and if they all fall, at least see where they land.

Of course, I have never met this ideal manager but I have known leading managers with ideals as well as success.

Too complicated? Doesn't it all boil down to what happens on the bottom line? Unquestionably, the bottom line is there. But so is a top line for top management. In the 21st century shareholder values will not be the only priority. Already the great international corporations worldwide are having to define their social values clearly, in terms of the environment, quality of life, and a sense of fairness of opportunity. The life of a leader is not a simple one any more.

Perhaps the simplest guide for the leader is to see the challenge from the point of view of the employee. Remember Byron's line: 'And when we think we lead, we are most led.' The employee asks the fundamental, simple questions: what is expected of me; how am I doing; what do I do to get ahead; where, if things go wrong, is justice; who really cares; is what I do worthwhile; am I meaningful?

A leader better listen.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime