Leadership is a subject that’s never far down the business agenda. As Hilarie Owen, chief executive of the newly-formed Institute of Leadership, puts it, “Everyone is talking about leadership.” But it seems that not everyone who is talking (and writing) about the subject is making much sense. A sign of this is that one of the more perceptive recent books on the subject is Alan Hooper and John Potter’s Intelligent Leadership*. Its title rather begs the question: intelligent leadership as opposed to what, unintelligent leadership?
With so much literature available, the problem is obviously not lack of advice, and we all know the basics of what business leaders should be doing: namely, driving through change and otherwise combating ever-increasing competition. Intelligent Leadership suggests the real difficulty is that – thanks perhaps to all those gurus and their references to sport and the military – leadership is often confused with having plenty of those highly-visible personalities who “get things done”.
Of course, these personalities can be important. Battles need to be won, as do sports fixtures. Manchester United captain Roy Keane, for example, is obviously great at firing up players and motivating them to win. But in the overall life of the club, his is but a small part. With all due respect to a highly influential player, he is not creating or executing the plans to make the club a sporting superpower. He is instead akin to a middle manager charged with pulling off a project that is seen as crucial to the strategic vision. Similarly, while generals might win battles, their victories are only parts of a campaign, or indeed a political vision.
This idea is not foreign to anybody who thinks about it for even a moment or two. And yet we persist with the idea that one person in the company makes all the difference. Indeed, such are the pressures that we place upon chief executives that they are typically given a very short period of time in which to make their mark (just two years in the US, three in the UK).
It is true that in politics, and elsewhere, there are periods when a business needs a powerful figurehead who can drive through change or shake things up. But the real challenge for leaders is making sure that improvements in performance, moves into new markets, and the rest, are sustained. Even more important in an era when not just change, but transformation, is a constant of business life, is the ability to be agile and responsive without losing sight of key goals.
Much has been made in recent years of the need for double-acts – with the finance director often partnering the chief executive – but this idea doesn’t really go far enough. After all, recent events have shown that those looking for scalps when the going gets tough are not necessarily prepared to accept just one.
The departure last December of the joint chief executives of Corus, as part of the restructuring at the merged Anglo-Dutch steel company, can be seen as a logical response to the apparent failure of John Bryant and Fokko van Duyne to grapple with the important issues facing the former British Steel and Hoogovens. A press statement said “the board considered that a change in leadership of the group was desirable”. And BT has been besieged by calls for its chief executive, Sir Peter Bonfield, and its chairman, Sir Iain Vallance, to quit.
So the message is that organisations need to think in terms of top teams. Having a broad range of skills among a group of near equals – although there will always need to be a first among them – will help ensure that the board is aware of all the factors likely to affect the success of the enterprise and is able to act on them. More importantly, the success of team management should be good evidence for the benefits of the much talked-about but probably little-realised notion of encouraging leadership in all ranks of the business.
Of course, there is a price to be paid for sharing out leadership responsibilities. If talented people of all levels are genuinely going to fulfil their leadership potential, chief executives will have to become less willing to claim to have been responsible for everything good that happens in their businesses. As Alan Hooper says, with reference to war-time generals who acquired fine reputations, “A lot of the best leaders didn’t promote themselves; people told good stories about them.”
Intelligent Leadership is published by Random House at £12.99.