If there is one area of management that is not short of advice from all quarters, it is leadership skills. About 18 months ago, when we first began researching our own project on leadership, just out of interest we punched ‘leadership skills’ into Google. The result was over a quarter of a million hits. Thousands of new books on the subject are published every year and there is still appetite for more. Why is this? And why, if people read so much about leadership and how to do it, are there still so many poor leaders out there?
The world of business, and the wider world in general, has a deep-rooted fascination with leadership. If you pick up a newspaper on any given day you can pick out any number of stories about outstanding or poor leadership in sport, politics, education, the military and many other situations. Leaders are singled out for praise when things go right and vilified when things go wrong. It is hardly surprising, then, that we have developed an obsession with what it takes to be a successful leader.
A quick rifle through a selection of leadership literature will throw up a long list of skills and personal characteristics that are deemed essential for an effective leader. Inevitably this will include ‘passion’, ‘commitment’, ‘vision’ and that most elusive trait of all, ‘charisma’. Some management literature – particularly the more academic publications – attempts to form theoretical models for successful leadership behaviour.
This all adds up to creating an air of mystery around leadership. It also led us to wonder why. Is good leadership such an elusive concept to pin down? After all, people demonstrate leadership skills every day, in many walks of life. So why not take a selection of leaders from different fields and examine what they did every day? How many of them would match up to the academic idea? Did any of them take the slightest notice of leadership theory?
The result is What Do Leaders Really Do? In researching the book we spoke to 17 leaders from sport, business and the armed forces, who generously gave their time to analyse their own individual approach to leadership and the techniques and skills that they felt worked most effectively.
Over the next few months we will look closely at how these leaders approach communication, team-building, motivation, change management, organisational culture and many other aspects of leadership. Our research resulted in some striking messages; in spite of leading very different organisations and teams, for example, in many situations these leaders adopted remarkably similar techniques. All of them, without exception, understood that they could not be a leader without followers and so made enormous efforts to ensure that their employees or team-members felt appreciated, consulted and nurtured.
Even so, the 17 leaders we consulted were remarkably different personalities, with varying strengths and weaknesses. But each had learned, often through trial and error, how to get the best out of their people and their organisation. Often, their actions were instinctive and some even found it difficult to describe what they did on a daily basis as leadership. ‘I never, ever think of myself as a leader,’ Sebastian Coe told us of his role as chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. ‘I just do what I do.’
Dame Stella Rimington, who was director-general of MI5 between 1992 and 1996, echoed this view ‘There are actually very few things, if you analyse them and put them all into boxes, that a leader does,’ she said. ‘But from the leader flows everything. He or she dictates the culture of the organisation and its direction. Leadership means looking ahead to see where the next challenge is coming from. And that, actually, is all you have to do.’
Early on in our research, Professor Brian Morgan, director of the Creative Leadership and Enterprise Centre at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff warned us that ‘despite the ease with which the characteristics of leadership are listed in textbooks, in practice things are not quite that simple. There is no consistent list of descriptors that can help us identify outstanding leaders.’ This point was born out to a large degree with our discussions with the leaders in our book. Rather than meeting some elusive ideal of how a leader should behave, each had capitalised on their strengths, worked on their weaknesses and above all, created a leadership style that was suitable to their own personality. This is an important point since it was abundantly clear from our discussions with the leaders that it is impossible to appear to be something you are not – people can spot a phoney from a mile away.
Some of the leaders we spoke to – such as for former BBC Director General Greg Dyke, Kevin Roberts, the worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, and Major General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the Desert Rats during the first Gulf War - clearly had a gift for inspiring confidence and even affection among their followers. Even so, their natural affability was supported by a premeditated set of behaviour that ensured that their people always felt close to them.
Others, such as Martin Johnson, captain of the World-Cup winning England rugby team, and Nasser Hussain, past captain of the country’s cricket team, were less outgoing characters but inspired dedication from their team-mates through their own commitment and loyalty. ‘You can’t demand respect, you earn it through the quality of your actions,’ the former England coach Sir Clive Woodward told us. ‘There is no shortcut. Leadership is about respect and it comes from the quality of what you do and how you conduct yourself.’
The overarching message was that there is no right or wrong way to lead, just a way that is right for you. Part of the secret of good leadership is to find this path, and have the courage to follow it. What works for one leader will not necessarily work for another. Martin Glenn, the former President of PepsiCo UK and now CEO of Birdseye Iglo Group, put this point very clearly. ‘When I first got into management I used to think about the right way to behave and I think that came from a lack of self-confidence,’ he told us. ‘The conclusion I’ve come to over the years is not that anything goes, but that there are a vast variety of effective leadership styles. There is no cookie cutter for leadership.’ As we will see, the best leaders are themselves, only better.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016