Despots soon find that their best talent goes to the opposition. Getting people to do it your way is a skill and the British are still curiously shy about acquiring it, writes Andrew Crofts.
Throughout history leaders have tended to emerge, often when they were most needed. In the past they often led by force, but that pattern is becoming less common. The gradual spread of democracy around much of the world is allowing fewer opportunities for despots to get their way for long. In the highly regulated westernised world of work it is increasingly difficult for a senior executive to get results out of subordinates by means that might have seemed quite unexceptionable to Frederick the Great. The laws of the marketplace usually dictate that anyone who behaves like a despot soon finds his more talented subordinates working for the competition. Exception has to be made here for some newspaper magnates; also for a few visionary leaders. Lee Iacocca was able to carry people with him at Chrysler because of his vision and charisma, even though he tended to be ruthless with low achievers. But most leaders today have a different set of skills.
Elective leadership is all about influence, persuasion and motivation - about making people want to do things your way. This is what the Nelson touch is all about. It is an attribute which few individuals are born with - there are never many people cast in the Nelson mould, nor in that of Montgomery, whose skills were subtly different. Yet certain of the skills of leadership can be learned by most people. For this reason, the subject has naturally attracted the attention of management theorists. Gurus on both sides of the Atlantic have been advancing theories on what leadership is and how best to acquire it, and there are now a number of courses which set out to teach it.
But while it is easy enough to recognise, leadership is difficult to grasp hold of, and the provision for its teaching fails to satisfy certain of the experts. "There are not many people truly teaching the skills of leadership," says John Adair, former professional fellow at Surrey University and probably Britain's best known authority. "A lot of them call their courses leadership, when actually they are management. The Americans are about 10 years ahead of us with leadership studies."
Some of the most eminent authorities in the United States, however, remain extremely sceptical about the usefulness of their own leadership courses. "Leaders invent themselves," writes Warren Bennis in "On Becoming a Leader" (Business Books, 1990). "They are not made in a single weekend seminar. Many major corporations offer leadership development courses. 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. Leadership courses can only teach skills. They can't teach character or vision - and indeed they don't even try. Developing character and vision is the way leaders invent themselves.
"One of the problems with standard leadership courses is that they focus exclusively on skills and produce managers rather than leaders. Managerial skills can, of course, be taught. And they are useful skills for leaders to have. The ingredients of leadership cannot be taught, however. They must be learned. At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It's precisely that simple, and it's also that difficult."
One of the schools which attempts to teach leadership is Sundridge Park Management Centre at Bromley, Kent. Sundridge Park runs courses in a number of related skills, such as communications and assertiveness, but it has also designed programmes specifically to develop leadership potential. The "widespread belief" that leaders are born, not made, makes a lot of people decide that - since they have not been born to it - there is no point in trying, believes programme director John van Maurik. So they give up. "Although the great historical, charismatic leaders may have been born with their talents, a good degree of confidence can be developed in anyone, allowing them to lead others at whatever level they choose," argues van Maurik.
"People have different needs and different levels of experience and management training. Very often managers get a bit of training in each of the various skills which constitute management, such as interviewing techniques and how to give a presentation. We, however, wanted to address the broader and more intangible issue of leadership within management."