ON THE WAY UP - Winston Fletcher - The great and the merely good. There are really just two kinds of business leader - conformist and eccentric. The trick is to decide which you would want to be, and which you can be.
Are leaders born or made? Do certain people inherit special DNA that gives them extra power over other human beings? Or can leadership be learned by even the humblest? ('Leadership, like life, can only be learned as you go along,' said the legendary American tycoon Harold Green.)
The issue is of paramount importance to every manager. To succeed in your career, you must be able to get other people to do what you want, willingly and enthusiastically: you must be able to exercise leadership. In Victorian times, businesses were run like old-fashioned armies. The boss gave the orders, the workers obeyed. Fear was the paramount motivation and persuasion was hardly relevant. Today, we know that 'workers' from messenger to managing director will perform far, far better if they are encouraged, motivated, and convinced that the things they have been asked to do are right and in their own interests. They need to be cajoled rather than hectored. Yes, brutal bosses still exist and, yes, they get their own way. But they don't maximise the output of their subordinates, nor do their staff go that extra mile.
In today's complex management structures, we aren't just talking about senior-to-subordinate relationships. Equally important - and much more difficult to control - are inter-departmental, cross-disciplinary relationships. Those are the everyday situations where none of the managers working on a project is hierarchically superior to the others. All of them need to get their ideas accepted by the rest of the team. Textbooks will tell you that, with care and analysis, the best ideas can be identified from the start. Regrettably, life is rarely that simple. The reality is that the most persuasive managers get their ideas advanced more often, and faster, than their less convincing colleagues. They lead; the others follow, even if sometimes unwillingly.
The power of leadership has been important since mankind first began chipping stones. (Different cavemen doubtless had different ideas about the best way to chip flint and tried to persuade the others in their cave to do it their way.) In consequence, writers and thinkers, not to mention psychologists and sociologists, have been propounding theories about leadership since the dawn of time. As almost everyone now accepts, analysing how leadership works is often very complex.
Many of the complexities derive from the rarely acknowledged fact that leadership is not a single, easily identifiable characteristic. The most common extremes, which between them illuminate most of the principles of leadership, I shall dub 'conformist' leaders and 'eccentric' leaders.
Conformists are much like everyone else and do the same things as everyone else but somehow do them better.
Eccentric leaders are, well, eccentric. It is because theories about leadership fail to distinguish between these two distinct types that theorists so often get their knickers in a twist.
Perhaps the archetypal conformist leader is Tony Blair. In almost all respects, he is Mr Average-but-a-bit-better. He does not, as far as we know, drink too much or engage in sexual naughtiness. Nobody thinks he is a great orator, a great intellectual or a great wit. He dresses averagely, smiles pleasantly and works hard, but not fanatically hard (as Thatcher did).
He is the living contradiction of most popular theories about leadership. It is hard to think of any way in which he is unique, yet he is one of the most popular leaders in British history and achieved that stupendous landslide victory in 1997.
At the other end of the scale is Sir Winston Churchill. Again, as far as is known, he didn't misbehave sexually, but that's about the only thing he didn't do. He drank like a fish - like a shoal of sharks, actually - and smoked like a chimney. He was volatile and imperious, he dressed oddly and switched his political allegiances. ('I have often had to eat my words,' he said, 'and I must confess I have always found it a wholesome diet.') He exasperated his war colleagues by sleeping during the day and working at night but he was an amazing orator, a fine writer and a wonderful wit. And he was, undisputedly, a great leader.
Some would claim Churchill could only have been a great leader in times of war, and Blair at a time of peace and affluence. I disagree. But, in any event, the dichotomy is irrelevant to executives working in modern corporations. Corporations today exist in a permanent tension between war and peace. Competition is fierce and battlefield analogies are frequently used to describe business life, but bureaucracy makes it impossible for a manager to make decisions and see them carried out with the speed and efficiency that are customary in wartime.
So the first crucial question executives wishing to show leadership qualities must ask themselves is - what kind of leader should I aspire to be: conformist or eccentric; Blair or Churchill? More to the point, which kind of leader could I be, given my own personality and the nature of my company?