A professor from one of the world’s leading business schools recently introduced the subject of leadership with the statistic that a Google search on ‘leadership’ resulted in approximately 200,000 references and, on Amazon, over 35,000 books. At the end of the talk, one of the audience asked: “If we accept the evidence of Amazon and Google that more has been written on leadership than ever before in history, and that more money is being invested in teaching and developing leadership in business schools and via talent management programmes in organisations, are we developing better leaders?” The professor had no answer.
When I posed the same question to a number of business executives no one immediately thought that the investment being made was delivering results and was worth it, but neither did they think the investment should be stopped. So what is leadership and what is a leader? This debate has accelerated over the past few decades, powered by countless academic and pragmatic conflicting views. Here is a classic:
Field Marshal Sir William Slim, address at West Point, circa 1950:
“If I were asked to define leadership, I should say it is the projection of personality. It is the most intensely personal thing in the world because it is just plain you. The qualities that distinguish a leader from other men are courage, willpower, initiative, and knowledge. If you have not got those qualities you will not make a leader; if you have them, you will.”
Can good leadership be learned?
Does this statement therefore suggest that in the nature versus nurture debate on leadership the answer is that it's all about nature? Not quite, but Slim offers a valuable insight into what I think is an answer. When people are asked to name great leaders many instinctively recall the likes of Moses, Alexander the Great, Mandela, Napoleon, Wellington, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Thatcher, Roosevelt, de Gaulle, Washington, Gandhi, Henry V – in other words, statesmen and military leaders.
The phrase ‘business leader’ takes one to another realm of names. In the book In Their Time, The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Harvard Business School Press 2005), Anthony J. Mayo and Nitin Nohria list the top seven as: Samuel M. Walton, Walter E. Disney, William H. Gates III, Henry Ford, John P. Morgan, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. and John (Jack) F. Welch Jr. The names originated from a survey whose geographic focus is clear in that not a single Japanese or European business leader is mentioned - the famous ‘World Series’ comes to mind. Nor does the book mention the Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs whose presence will have such an effect in the 21st century.
Some may ask: are there eternal characteristics of great leaders that are shared by military, political and business leaders? Napoleon may not have been able to invent the Model T Ford, but could he have brought a commercially successful revolution to the Ford company once it had been set in motion? Would the people of Israel ever have crossed the Red Sea if Gordon Brown had been in charge? Context is critical in combination with inherent talent.
An even more relevant question is whether any of the greatest leaders in business, politics or war became so because of the fine training and education they received or whether it was down to having been born into the profession of leadership. Although the MBA is now ubiquitous, we have yet to see the development of an MBL - ‘Masters of Business Leadership’.
Do leaders have a 'sell by' date?
When someone is found to be a great leader do they always remain so? The answer appears to be that leaders have a sell-by date. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, after an extraordinarily long time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, his first few months were lauded as proof - a year later, he was written off by some as yesterday’s man.
Business leaders also have sell-by dates - the average tenure of CEOs has become notoriously short, such that Enoch Powell’s famous phrase that “all political careers end in failure” could be thought to be equally applicable to business. The current credit crisis has claimed many big names - Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch and Chuck Prince of Citigroup to name two. Like salespeople judged on the quality of their last sale, business leaders can often find their legacy tarnished by their last set of financial results. Employees, shareholders, voters and the media have tended to become ever more impatient, leaving little time for leaders to implement longer term strategies and demonstrate success.
The heading of the second chapter of the book Living Leadership, a Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes, written by George Binney, Gerhard Wilke and Colin Williams, is, The End of Superman, ‘Don’t be a Hero’. One of the leaders in their research asked them what they thought of charisma and whether it was essential for an effective leader. The authors state that their book’s bold message is that, “in the last 20 years the business and organizational world has overdosed on the idea of leaders as transformational heroes.” They argue that the transformational model of leadership, “doesn’t work, has many damaging consequences and is now crumbling”.
Most of the heroes, they go on to say, have fallen - they provide as examples Jack Welch, Percy Barnevik, Kenneth Lay and George Simpson. Yet, they tell us with surprise, people in the business and organisational world continue to look for heroic figures. “Living Leadership is saying that it is time to ring the death knell for the heroic leader and the age of permanent and ever faster change,” write the authors. “Both imploded when the e-commerce bubble burst and Enron was exposed for what it is”. Time to reach for the fundamentals then, and ask what really makes great leaders.
11 characteristics of a great leader
There are 11 eternal characteristics of great leaders, whatever their variety:
- Integrity and trust - people do not like following leaders who display a lack of integrity or cannot be trusted
- Vision - people like to be inspired. Show me someone who looks for uninspiring leaders
- Focus - leaders need to be focused on the job they have been appointed to do, not constantly changing tack with each new whim or fad
- The will to dominate (not in the domineering sense) - leaders have to be able to take charge even if they devolve power
- Charisma - that magic element that draws people to some leaders. Charisma doesn’t have to be loud
- Loyalty and consistency - leaders need to give loyalty even more than they request it from others. They also need to be consistent. A tough leader can be tolerated if people see that they are equally tough to all, especially themselves
- Emotional intelligence - read the books
- Knowledge of their subject - who is going to follow a bank head who doesn’t know about finance? Experience brings practical and marketplace understanding
- Legacy orientated - leaders with an eye to their future legacy are far more likely to be wiser, more responsible and more dedicated to ensuring that they have talent developed, deployed or available to cover future succession needs
- Energy - a sloth will be unlikely to win many races in business, politics or war. A tired worn-out leader is unlikely to inspire confidence
- Courage - without this no challenge can be effectively overcome or visionary objective reached.
You cannot teach leadership
Sharp readers will notice that only one of these characteristics has a clear connection with academic learning - knowledge. Can all the others be learned, or are they just there? My belief is that leadership cannot be taught per se. Neither do I believe that leaders are born. The critical factor is that the raw ingredients have to exist in order for anyone to be able to develop as a leader.
Culture is also very important and will come much more to the fore as we experience the continuing historical shift of power and influence from west to east. Like beauty, leadership is in the cultural eye of the beholder. The greatest leader in one part of the world may not be viewed as such by another. Leadership characteristics that are valued will be different in each culture, but there will still be some commonalities.
Leaders are nothing without their teams
The story of champion racehorse Seabiscuit points us to another interesting fact - top talent may not emerge from the obvious candidates and may never reach the heights without the right team around them. To get champion racehorses you have to be prepared to breed and invest in a lot of stock, the majority of which will never win a race, let alone run in one - leadership training and development must be the same. Without any investment in development or exposure to experience, most leadership potential will never see the light of day.
Leaders must provide the necessary environment and opportunity for future leaders to develop and emerge. The words of Sir Phillip Sidney - “A brave captain is as a root, out of which, as branches, the courage of his soldiers doth spring” - may well be amended for today’s world to: “A wise leader is as a root, out of which, as branches, the talents of his men and women doth spring”.
Investing in leaders of the future
To return to the original question - is the level of leadership development and training worth the investment?
As much well-focused and intelligently thought-through investment as possible should definitely be made in leadership, whether at business schools, through talent and leadership initiatives or via the use of mentoring and coaching. The raw ingredients that are appropriate for each situation, organisation and culture need to be present, but without the right nurture, management and experiences to add, the talent will never achieve its promise.