Despite continuing differences of emphasis, there are some signs that approaches to leadership development are tending to converge. At Sundridge Park, where the course lasts five days and consists largely of syndicate work (groups of five or six people, allowing for a mix of personalities and problems), they have been introducing an "outward bound" element. "We believe that outdoor exercises provide immediacy," explains van Maurik. "Our outward bound elements do not include anything like abseiling or canoeing, which not everyone might be able to do. But through various exercises, which can be done by anyone, irrespective of age or fitness, we aim to get immediacy of decision, action and result, and help people recognise strengths and weaknesses within themselves."
But van Maurik insists that a course made up solely of outdoor exercises would be too limited. In the classroom, some delegates become very frustrated and impatient with others who they think are waffling and holding up progress. Yet van Maurik argues that it is sometimes useful for someone who is very aggressive and impatient to learn to slow down and take account of the pace at which others work. "Their people are never going to learn anything if they aren't allowed to try, and that may mean they take longer about reaching a conclusion than the leader would if handling the problem personally. An effective leader will have the patience to let subordinates do the job at their own speed." Many managers do not have that patience, van Maurik points out, but they can acquire it.
"You get a mixture of personalities in a group, and subtle pressures tend to build up so that the powerful personalities, who look as if they are going to take over everyone else, do actually learn how to step back and listen, while the quieter ones learn how to be more assertive. The less powerful characters can be encouraged to lead the feedback to the powerful ones, so that they both learn from one another." A lot of non-assertive behaviour stems from a poor self-image. A trainer can show such people where their counterproductive behaviour comes from, and introduce them to strategies and blocking techniques for overcoming aggressive behaviour in others, along with exercises to try these out.
Leaders are by definition team members. There are a number of different roles which people play within teams. There are the ones who come up with ideas. There are the pushers who want to drive things through. There is the natural chairman who likes order and structure in everything that he does; the evaluator (who should sometimes be constructive); the good teamworker who likes being a part of a group. If a leader is sensitive to the make-up and chemistry of the team, he can make use of people's natural inclinations - and achieve much more as a result.
One of the most important lessons which any leader can learn is that there are different styles of leadership and the one he has traditionally adopted is unlikely to be the best for all circumstances. There are always alternatives. Delegates from a course should come away with some new tools in their armoury, and some definite ideas on how they are going to use them. This means concrete action plans which they have committed to paper. They need to have worked out their objectives and how they are going to achieve them: which could be anything from becoming more aware of subordinates' development needs to a decision to introduce weekly progress meetings. One of van Maurik's favourite quotes is: "Education is what you remember when you have forgotten what you were taught. It is very important that our courses help people to change their behaviour and use new skills."
But the whole question of leadership development is regarded with suspicion in Britain, where many share Warren Bennis's beliefs. Adair bemoans our lack of any recognised centre for the study of leadership issues. "The Americans have the Centre for Creative Leadership in North Carolina, and there are two professors at Harvard studying the question. They have a lot of forward-thinking people focusing on the subject. I have been working on a leadership project with Exxon in the US, and all the big American companies are doing it. Ford is doing it in Europe, but British companies investing in leadership training are few and far between. We need to grow and develop the potential in people, and we are not doing it."
(Andrew Crofts is a business writer.)