VITAL SIGNS: Lost leaders

VITAL SIGNS: Lost leaders - I don't think I've ever seen such a glut of management and leadership books on the market as there are at the moment. Whatever management malaise ails you, there's almost certainly a solution - probably written by an American g

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU, e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I don't think I've ever seen such a glut of management and leadership books on the market as there are at the moment. Whatever management malaise ails you, there's almost certainly a solution - probably written by an American guru and with a super-efficient, no messing title - The Fast Thinking Manager's Manual, How to be an Even Better Manager, Management Secrets of the Rich and Famous.

What a lovely future, for example, is promised by The Fifth Discipline, one of those management books that says competitive advantage will be all about becoming a learning organisation. Published in 1990, it's been hugely influential; a little New Age all by itself. The Leadership Challenge by James M Kouzes and Barry Z Posner in 1995 - positioned just right for the boom, with a foreword by Tom Peters and a dynamic middle Z - was even more inspirational. It quoted a large chunk of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech and offered a communication analysis showing how business leaders could become as compelling as King himself.

There's a raft of management styles waiting there for you to bone up on. Just in case you've been distracted from reading management books for a wee while, by, say pressure of work, the '90s consensus was that leadership was about learning, transparency, empowerment. Emotional Intelligence in the workplace was the way forward, along with harnessing the innate wonderfulness of everyone in the organisation. A complete change from the archaic 'command and control' leadership styles of pre-history.

Meanwhile, I've just read the summary of an Institute of Management survey that says that only 1% of the junior managers it polled felt confidence in their leadership.

Some mistake here, surely. If leaders are buying these enriching style primers by the thousand, then we should be in for an altogether more inspirational time. At the very least, managers should have developed identifiable management styles - rather like the leadership personality types identified in so many of these books. One could stick Post-it notes on their ever-open office doors: Charismatic/ Inspirational; Learning/ Empowering; Archaic Autocrat. But what do you call the slash-and-burn cost-cutters of the early '90s, or the indecisive control freaks who hang on self-constructed empires long after they're viable? Or the manager who spends so much time sharing your burden you're thoroughly confused.

Why don't managers and their styles match up to the books? Well, there are a few intervening realities. While these books, mainly written by academics, provide a golden treasury of rhetoric for HR and Corporate Communications people - speech writers in particular - most leaders don't have time to read them. They're too busy. They're on a three-year contract to change the world. And most workforces don't have time to take positive leadership initiatives on board because they're too busy being sold, restructured or fired.

We recently had six current and recent FTSE CEOs to lunch in the office, so we asked them what on earth persuades business leaders to stay on, under intense scrutiny/constant criticism, when they could make just as much money in lower-responsibility jobs (working with private capital people, say).

They cited their own experience, which included long-term commitment - up to 20 years in one business - the innate excitement of the core business and their relationships with long-serving key people.

But they saw the downside for new CEOs. The short timescales they performed to - an average CEO stint of three years - distorted the management styles of incoming CEOs no end. It meant they did too much - or too little. They took risks no long-haul CEO would have taken to get the share price right in year two, or they avoided the nettle-grasping, bullet-biting episode for the same reason. Either way, it was because they were outta there in three years. The only style they really develop is an elegant way of 'working the room' in the top-end headhunter market.

But I don't for one moment want to put you off every manager's legitimate birthright: a dynamic and modish management style and an oven-ready pack of big-picture rhetoric about the Ten Good Habits of Effectively Run Businesses. Go to any fine bookstore in any major American airport and it's all there for you. Just don't expect it from me.

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