If we are so dissatisfied with those up front, asks Simon Caulkin, is it time to re-examine the conventional model?
'Where have all the leaders gone?' It's the management lament of the age. If only, runs the refrain, we had someone with the guts to kick sense into those morons in accounts; if only the directors would hire a Titan to pierce the fog of complexity and lead us into battle against the competition ... In politics, the same nostalgia for a simpler past lurks beneath the newspapers' scorn for current holders of the highest office. 'The age of disposable leadership,' ran one recent headline. The Seven Dwarves, the Insignificant Seven, the Empty Suits are just some of the epithets with which presidents and heads of government are consigned to perdition. In this vein, 'Greed, timidity and lack of vision are rampant among the current crop of pseudoleaders,' writes US leadership guru Warren Bennis. 'All the leaders we once respected are dead ... Leaders today sometimes appear to be an endangered species, caught in the whirl of events and circumstances beyond rational control.' The yearning for heroic leadership which underlies this threnody has complex causes: partly an echo of childhood dependency on looked-up-to parents, partly a need to find meaning in a common cause embodied by a noble captain. In a corporate context it is a reflection of the desire for certainty in a commercial world which is immeasurably more complex than even 20 years ago. Notes Tom Peters: 'Management, as it has been systematized and professionalized, has developed many axioms over the past century. But in the past 20 years, the stable conditions (large-scale mass production) that led to the slow emergence of these universals have blown apart.' One comparison of a Hewlett-Packard plant manager's job in 1970 and 1985 found that as well as overseeing a more volatile product line with swifter-changing manufacturing technology to ever higher quality standards, the 1980s manager was spending fully half his/her time on setting direction, communicating the need for change and motivating employees - in other words, leading - not one of which was thought worthy of mention in 1970.
Leadership has long been the subject of speculation by historians and the military. But as business has become imbricated in Western cultures ('The business of America is business' - Calvin Coolidge), it has eagerly co-opted the idea of leadership as its own. Recently, a veritable leadership industry has sprung up to fill the void left by the toppling of other business gods. Leadership has become the Holy Grail of management, endlessly sought, endlessly elusive. Figures are lacking, but of books and courses on the making of leaders there is no end. Academics debate whether leadership is created by personal traits, situations, function, style, interactions between all of them, or pure chance. Earnest companies spend millions trying to identify, hire and develop leaders.
And, quick to exploit individual and corporate insecurities, a rich crop of cranks, snake-oil salesmen and instant experts has emerged with promises to fix the problem with their own miracle ingredient in a single weekend seminar.
And the sum total of all this activity? 'We know very little about it,' says Andrew Campbell, co-director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, cheerfully. 'All the research adds up to a profound recognition that leaders have followers, and where there are followers there are leaders. But since we can't tell which creates the other, it's very difficult to know which levers to pull.' If, indeed, the levers can be pulled at all. On the crucial question whether leaders are born or made, Peter Drucker, for one, has always been categorical that leadership, being innate, can't be taught or promoted. Most research has (reluctantly) concluded that heredity and early childhood experience are the most important factors in leadership ability. Since there is no agreement on how leadership is produced - and where it does occur a large element is to do with nature or the specific situation - it follows that formal efforts to inculcate it through training will have limited effect. Bennis, who has been researching the qualities that make leaders for 20 years, would quarrel with Campbell's dismissal of the entire academic endeavour, but he too is scornful of the 'microwave' approach to leadership (pop a manager in the oven for two days and hey presto! out comes a leader): 'I would argue that more leaders have been made by accident, circumstance, sheer grit, or will than have been made by all the leadership courses put together.' Besides unnecessary expense and intellectual scepticism, however, there's a severely practical reason for handling notions of leadership with extreme caution. In the wrong hands, leadership is just about the most dangerous quality on earth. Leaders, points out Campbell, can equally well be saints or complete bastards, simple and sane or rampant schizophrenics. The spectrum of leadership contains Gandhi at one end and Adolf Hitler at the other. Leaders aren't necessarily useful for anything else. One line of argument suggests that the best way of developing leaders is to put them in charge of something they know nothing about, since in that case all they have to fall back on is raw leadership. In fact, almost the only things that can be said with certainty about leadership are that it has absolutely zero inherent connection with good and that it works - sometimes with catastrophic results. Says Campbell: 'Most companies can't even get their employees to smile at the customer, so what are we to make of the processes at work at Waco, Texas, which takes followers to their deaths? Whatever it is, it's pretty potent stuff.' Unfortunately, it's too easy to shrug off Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Waco's David Koresh as mere exceptions - obvious rogue specimens who have taken leadership attributes to pathological extremes. The really disconcerting thing is that aberrant leaders abound at every level, from Robert Maxwell and Asil Nadir down to the thousands of petty tyrants lording it over sections, departments and companies, all implicitly or explicitly justifying their actions in the name of leadership. In his book, Leaders We Deserve, Alastair Mant unreassuringly remarks that most leaders are male authoritarians of stunted intellect. In business, another qualification appears to be abnormal greed. In short, a great many leaders are people to whom normal human beings would hesitate to give house room.
Leadership appears to have a lot to answer for. Yet the cult of the leader as business superman - a charismatic, driven, Olympian authority - remains an obsession. In this demented logic, if the search proves elusive, redouble the effort! The desperate search for leadership is understandable. The world is complicated, and leadership in the right hands is undeniably a powerful amplifier of organisational energy. But, by definition, exceptional leaders are rare and unpredictable - not every institution can have one, using the conventional model.
Fortunately, there is an alternative approach. Suppose that the obvious is true, that there is something wrong with the conventional model. Suppose too - for which there is also evidence - that the direct pursuit of leadership, like the direct pursuit of happiness or the ideal economy, is futile, since it is a by-product of something else. In that case, we can start at the opposite end of the scale, with followers and the organisation, and build a different model of leadership from the ground up instead of top down.
There is a threefold justification for this. In the first place, other concepts of leadership do in fact exist. Japanese companies by and large do not feel the need for Nietzschean leaders, and (sure enough) their model of followership is different, too. They do not appear to suffer unduly for it.
In the second place, the problem with the present unsatisfactory breed of business leaders, mercenary and morally unprepossessing, is precisely that they are products of the system that their qualities mirror. Far from transcending it, they are (particularly in the ineffable form thrown up by the greed-is-good 1980s) the purest expression of the traditional management certainties - functional mass production and 19th century liberal economics. The only trouble, as Tom Peters noted, is that these certainties no longer exist.
Even Bennis, hardly anti-capitalist, accepts that a bottom-line-driven view of leadership is an insidious culprit. Business, he argues, has become the principal cultural influence in contemporary America (read: much of the West) - but, 'in an odd irony, by zealously practising what it preaches, (it has) sandbagged itself. Having captured the heart and mind of the nation with its siren songs of instant gratification, it has locked itself into obsolete practices. American business has never been more popular and less successful, and captains of industry have never been more celebrated and less effective.' His conclusion: 'The current climate is self perpetuating, because it has created an entire generation of managers in its own image. When the very model of a modern manager becomes CEO he does not become a leader, he becomes a boss, and it is the bosses who have gotten America into its current fix. Ironically, they are as much products of the context as the trade deficit and merger mania are ... driven, driving, but going nowhere.' The third and most important reason for starting at the other end is that followers are at least as important as leaders - and becoming more so as organisations flatten and layers of management are removed. The time has long gone when a company could have a single leader to do the thinking while followers did the heavy lifting: all a firm's brain (and heart) power needs to be engaged to make sense of a swirling, contradictory environment.
Moreover, as James Kouzes and Barry Posner put it in The Leadership Challenge, it is in any case followers that make leaders powerful - without an army, Napoleon was just a man with grandiose ambitions. 'We have chosen to ignore that the vast bulk of potential value in an organisation is simply not accessible to directive management,' points out Michael Black, vice president of consultancy CSC Index in London, noting the illusoriness of the power of the CEO who can only get things done through other people. 'Leadership may be a charism, a gift, but it is a gift which requires recognition of the severe limitations of one's own power as a leader.' In a personal sense, too, the quality of leadership is not coterminous with top management status. To be a leader, you have to be recognised - by followers. In Kouzes' and Posner's memorable phrase, 'Leadership is in the eye of the follower.' Philosophically, as Edgar Singer has elegantly shown in slightly different words, mastery (leadership) is actually indivisible from service (followership), since all mastery involves service, and all service involves mastery. The reality is that there are more followers than leaders, and even leaders are followers some of the time. Sums up Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon University, 'Followership dominates our lives and our organizations, but not our thinking, because our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and importance of the follower.' It's accepted that to survive in turbulent times, the modern company needs to have very different attributes from those that were thought to bring success in the past. Instead of stability it should prize willingness to change. Instead of avoiding risk it should court failure by constant experiment ('It is not enough to fail, it is not enough to fail fast. You must fail big!' - Tom Peters). The traditional pyramid structure should be turned upside down, so that instead of the foot-soldiers supporting the high ups, the top brass is there to enable the front line. Instead of differentiating by concentrating on price or quality, survivors must compete on price and quality and range and flexibility - like the Japanese firms that take a customer's measurements electronically and deliver a bespoke bike or pair of shoes the next day.
The point is that crucial to the whole continuum of the new techniques and philosophies - quality, continuous improvement, time-based management, the business re-engineered along process lines - is the 'empowered' employee: the worker who takes charge of his/her own destiny and is entrusted with the destiny of the company. The new organisation is impossible without the new employee.
And what does this model follower look like? According to Kelley, effective followers are well-balanced and responsible adults who can succeed without strong leadership; they think for themselves, are energetic and assertive. They are committed, focus their energies, and are courageous, honest and credible. 'Because they are risk-takers, self-starters and independent problem solvers, they get consistently high ratings from peers and many superiors.' Such people, of course, have many of the qualities that leaders need. But this is no surprise, since we have already seen that leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin. It is also unsurprising that enabled followers of this kind require - and tolerate - different leadership from sheep or yes-people. Contrary to myth, it is not strong people who need, and attract, domineering leadership, but sheep, since they supply none of the motivation or energy themselves. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter aptly puts it, 'Powerlessness corrupts. Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.' Effective followers on the other hand require a light touch. Leaders in an organisation of effective followers are facilitators of change, conductors of the orchestra, in Drucker's description, rather than the square-jawed decision-makers of the past. They treat followers as co-equals except in strict line terms. In turn, that fits followers for one of their most important (although usually unstated) functions: to keep leadership on the straight and narrow.
The powerless are unable to provide such checks and balances - this is part of their corruption. It's hard to believe that empowered employees would have allowed Robert Maxwell to get away with what he did; or that independent, critically-minded managers would have failed to signal to BA's top management the disastrous course it was running with the dirty tricks campaign against Virgin. Part of the power of leaders is that they deal in values. 'Values turn followers on,' affirms Campbell. 'If followers feel more fulfilled by association with someone who asks them to behave in ways and for reasons that make them feel proud of themselves, that's leadership.' Leaders, says John Gardner, a former US health secretary, 'can serve as symbols of the moral unity of the society. They can express the values that hold the society together. Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts.' Unfortunately, most often they don't do that. Much of the time values are unarticulated and a lot less lofty: the metric of the bottom line, for instance, is usually unspoken, but no less powerful as embodied by the traditional hard-nosed, hard-driving leader. But 'neither the quantity of output nor the "bottom line" is by itself an adequate measure of the performance of management and enterprise,' cautions Drucker, whose recent writings betray inklings of unease with the management creature - half Dr Jekyll, half Mr Hyde - that he above all has chronicled and helped bring into being. He is right to be worried. The crisis of leadership is only partly the quality of the leaders themselves, much more the crude, market-driven model by which we are reduced to judging them. And don't look to leaders on their own to fix this problem. 'Expectations create leaders, not vice versa,' says Michael Black. Leaders are them, but they are also us.
Present bearers of the leadership mantle in politics, business, a union, and the army accepted Management Today's invitation to define what they think about it and state the qualities they consider make for success.
JOHN MAJOR MP, PRIME MINISTER
Great leadership comes in many different forms. From the steely determination and emotional appeal of a Winston Churchill to the gentler consensual style of a Stanley Baldwin. Both gave strong leadership. But they were leaders for different times and different circumstances. The British people needed a Churchill in War years, but looked elsewhere when peace returned. As Carlyle observed, great leaders both lead and reflect the age in which they live.
It's the same in business. At one end of the scale is the colourful visionary with little taste for detail. And at the other, the brilliant accountant, head full of figures, always looking at the costs and the fine print.Both have their place and their time.
But in my mind there are two qualifications above all which I consider to be vital to good leadership. First, good leaders have the courage of their principles and clear, long-term objectives and goals. Second, good leaders never forget the people who work for them. The difference between passive obedience and active loyalty can make the difference between success and failure. From manager to messenger - they are all individuals with their own hopes, their own self-esteem and their own interests. A good leader remembers that and behaves accordingly.
JOHN SMITH MP, LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY AND LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION.
Unless you can motivate by force of character and example it is not possible to provide good leadership. At the same time it is important that the difficult decisions required of leaders are taken after careful consideration and reasoned discussion.
People are much more likely to support an outcome if they know and understand the arguments that have led to it. Once a decision has been taken it is equally important to hold your nerve and stick to your resolve. This is greatly helped by a deeply held set of values and a clear sense of direction. Without these, the consistency which effective leadership requires will inevitably be missing. This is not a blueprint for success but a guide to the essential qualities required.
Indeed there is no blueprint for success in politics. But without deeply held values, a pragmatic, determined approach, and an ability to communicate clearly, no political leader can hope to succeed.
BILL MORRIS, GENERAL SECRETARY, TRANSPORT AND GENERAL WORKERS' UNION.
Leadership means having a clear vision of where you want to get to, but also having the courage to change direction when necessary and knowing that the leader does not always have to be in front.
PADDY ASHDOWN MP, LEADER OF THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS.
The key quality of leadership is courage. Without this, any other attributes or skills vanish to nothing when the leader is placed under pressure. I cannot think of a single leader who has not been prepared at times to take decisions which are contrary to all the advice they receive. I do not refer to courage purely as a physical asset (although sometimes that is required too in certain professions). Intellectual courage is in my judgement much more important.
Secondly, a leader has to be able to mobilise and enthuse those he or she leads. Unless a leader can engender enthusiasm for the cause, then no active leadership can be brought to a successful conclusion.Thirdly, a leader must have a clear vision. There must be a clear sense of policies and objectives which people understand and feel able to support. Lastly, a leader will need communication skills of a high order to be able to generate what D H Lawrence called 'the irrational tenth', a sense of commitment and a set of ideas which goes beyond the purely mundane and prosaic.
LORD HANSON, CHAIRMAN, HANSON PLC.
We must look to the young for 'great leadership'. It begins when you are young. However, more than educational qualifications are needed to become a leader and to succeed in any sphere. You need enterprise, with a combination of ambition, enthusiasm and determination. Individuality on which the future depends. 'It can be done' are the four most important words for any would-be leader.
All problems can be solved; all questions can be answered. All that is needed is the will to complete the task. But you must want to succeed. Above all you need persistence and the ability to control your own future rather than letting it control you.
SIR GRAHAM DAY, EX-CHAIRMAN, POWERGEN PLC.
I am very attracted by the words of Professor Abraham Zaleznik: 'Leadership is made of substance, humanity and morality and we are painfully short of all three qualities in our collective lives'.
There's the John Wayne, gung ho, follow-me attitude - but if there is no perceived reality or no human touch then it is unlikely to touch the constituents you want to lead. And without morality you may as well be Adolf Hitler. Leadership is the ability to change compelled performers into willing participants.
If you only have a mandatory leadership, you have the three negatives: pressure without motivation; process without substance; organisation without improvement. True leadership addresses those negatives. The attributes which ultimately matter most are the abilities to communicate and inspire.
A world-class firm, regardless of its size, will have a world-class leader. The CEO's ability and confidence in communicating his or her vision to all levels of the corporate hierarchy, and also to the community, will set him or her apart as an exceptional leader.
GENERAL SIR PETER INGE, CHIEF OF THE GENERAL STAFF.
The definition of a leader makes leadership sound simple: 'A person or thing that leads or a person followed by others'. In fact, the more one exercises leadership or is led, the more one realises that the fundamental nature of leadership is very personal and is not susceptible to clear scientific analysis. A study of great leaders shows an enormous diversity in their style of leadership, personalities and in their ethos. This variety of personality, character and style leads me to believe that leadership is an art and not a science.
We, of course, have to recognise that leadership is not always inherently good and, indeed, many evil men have been very effective leaders. I will concentrate on good leadership in a democracy and, in particular, leadership within armed forces.
In this context, good leadership is perhaps best described as getting others to do often difficult and sometimes dangerous tasks willingly. However, leadership is required in all walks of life and, although the way that leadership is exercised and the emphasis given to particular qualities may vary, I believe many of the essentials are similar. It was Field Marshal The Viscount Slim who said, 'When talking about leadership one always comes back to the same basic principles'. I have to declare my hand and admit that he is one of my military heroes and his analysis of leadership and the way he exercised it are second to none. I lean on him very heavily in the points which follow.
Before turning to some specific qualities in a successful leader I would like to make one general point. I believe that it is fundamentally important for a leader to have a credo or belief in what he stands for and in the organisation, formation or body in which he is a leader.
I suspect everyone has his own list of the essential qualities necessary in a leader. Here are mine: Personality and Character. Great leaders, have the strength of character and personality to inspire confidence and to gain the trust of others. Clearly this is a personal thing but it can be developed by experience and training. I would emphasise that leaders do not have to be roaring extroverts to be successful. Some very charismatic leaders have been just quietly confident, although they had the ability to communicate.
Courage. Field Marshal Slim said, 'Courage is the greatest of all virtues for without it there are no other virtues'. Although he was talking about both physical and moral courage, it was moral courage on which he laid the greatest emphasis. Indeed, I believe that moral courage is the single most important quality for a successful leader.
It is the courage to do what you believe to be right without bothering about the consequences for yourself. The funny thing is that the more you use your moral courage on small issues the easier it becomes to use it on big things, but the reverse is equally true. The less you use it on small things the more difficult it becomes to use it on big issues. Physical courage is, of course, the reverse and is more like a bank account. The more you use it the more likely it is to become overdrawn.
Willpower. A leader has to learn to dominate events and never allow these events to get the better of him and this determination or willpower concerns not only rival organisations or, in the case of armed forces, the enemy, but equally colleagues and allies.
Knowledge. This means knowledge not only of your profession but equally knowledge of the men under your command. Knowing them well and being known to them is vital if you are to gain their confidence As a newly-joined platoon commander, after every one of my first few muster parades, the company sergeant major always asked me about a particular soldier. I was never able to answer him satisfactorily. Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask him what he meant and why he was always asking me these questions. He said, 'I watch you on muster parade, Sir, and you inspect the men very thoroughly, their belts, their boots and their weapons but you don't look them in the eye. Every morning you must look your soldiers in the eye and that will tell you how they feel and if they have a problem.' It was outstanding advice and done in a way that made me never forget it. Quite a psychologist.
Initiative. This is, of course, a fundamentally important quality in any walk of life but nowhere more so than on the battlefield. I can do no better in this context than to quote Field Marshal Slim: 'Here one comes up against a conflict between determination, fixity of purpose and flexibility. There is always the danger that determination becomes plain obstinacy and flexibility, mere vacillation. If you can hold within yourself the balance between these two - strength of will and flexibility of mind - you will be well on the road to becoming a leader in a big way.' In conclusion I would add two final qualities. They are unselfishness and showing that you enjoy being a leader. In summary, to quote General Sir John Hackett: 'Successful military leadership is impossible without the leader's total engagement in the task in hand and to the group committed to his care for its discharge'. For all I know, this may be so not only in the military but in other spheres as well.