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One born every minute

While leadership across history has been an area where we can safely, if blithely, say that “it takes all sorts”, it might be more honest to admit that the leadership cadre has featured some sorts disproportionately. Dr Anton Franckeiss, MD of ASK Europe, explores.

Looking at some ‘greats’ of history, you can see why some highly talented, skilled and responsible people might find their appetite for elevation waning a little: it’s customary to reference Stalin and Hitler at this point, and to acknowledge that even Churchill would probably nowadays have a note on his HR file to say ‘Winston has issues’. Groucho Marx’s comments about clubs and not wanting to join them springs to mind too: the historically-overlooked sectors of society might, on reflection, feel partly grateful. We recently compiled a list of great leaders and leadership traits from a straw poll of its staff to include in an in-house book, its editorial and marketing team soon found themselves having a few ‘issues’ to contend with as it researched their backgrounds. One late Albanian lady became less saintly the more we read; one courageous and pioneering English king didn’t speak the language, rarely lived here and was (from a more than merely flippant Googling) vile on a pretty-much continuous basis to just about everyone, and other less than saintly examples of more recent timesare not hard to think of.

There are two underlying pedestal ‘issues’ here: not just our human tendency to put our leaders on one, but also the attraction of pedestals as symbols of power to those for whom a desire of glory and prestige might be among their more redeeming qualities. He was quick to acknowledge his own lack of immunity, but it was undeniably interesting that Lord Owen – not just former Foreign Secretary, Health Minister and SDP leader but also a former doctor who trained in psychiatry – authored an article for Brain journal, Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years, in which he commented: “Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadth of vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirations and bold self-confidence, these qualities are often associated with successful leadership. Yet there is another side to this profile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate. This can result in disastrous leadership and cause damage on a large scale.

Thankfully, there have been many leaders through the centuries who have served us without collecting criminal records or gathering indiscretions along the way. But there is no single recipe for success, nor any definitive list of ingredients for the recipe. Vision, authenticity, courage, humility, wisdom, creativity and dignity are just some of the qualities that ASK’s straw poll listed in attempting to define what ‘makes a leader’. While each attribute might suggest a number of shining examples (it is no defamation of Rosa Parks to say she was not the only humble woman who ever drew breath), the quality that made one person so well suited to one set of circumstances might easily have been irrelevant or even counter-productive in another. Gandhi might not have been a great leader of Apple; Steve Jobs might have connected millions of Indians, but has yet to inspire a national holiday.

Leadership is not just about the qualities, but about the situation and the ability of the leader to adapt and respond to it. King Cnut was another leader after all, and possibly the ultimate example of the limits of ‘command and control’. Yet popular history fails to record his words when the waves failed to respond to a direct commandment, even if Henry of Huntingdon’s Chronicle set them out quite clearly: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws”. What we recall as an act of monstrous arrogance might actually have been a rebuke to a coterie of flattering courtiers – and the problem of flattering coteries is another lesson from history that remains largely to be learned.

This lack of single recipe for greatness has other implications: if we don’t know what the definitive qualities or traits are, how do we identify them in those we might position for future greatness. Of the 12 figures that ASK eventually selected, their starts in life are hardly inspiring in terms of providing a template. Among them we have a drop-out physics, literature and poetry student (Steve Jobs), an illegitimate young girl raised in Argentinean poverty (Eva Peron), a teenage Geordie with no qualifications (Brian Clough), a young lawyer turned gun-toting resistance fighter (Nelson Mandela), and a bourgeois playwright (Vaclav Havel). It reads more like the line-up for a fairly desperate reality TV programme than a catalogue of human inspiration.

The reactions of Talent Managers to that list would be interesting to read. A track record is a good summary of the past, but not necessarily an indicator of the future. Consider the following two brief candidate profiles: Candidate A: Vigorous approach to mergers and acquisitions has rapidly expanded new markets, powerful and compelling orator with strong presentation skills. Tends to over-delegate and is very demanding of divisional leaders, but immediate colleagues view him with warmth. Hugely charismatic with ability to powerfully project a vision. Tends to over-delegate and is very demanding of divisional leaders, but immediate colleagues view him with warmth. Hugely charismatic with ability to powerfully project a vision. Some concerns about his commitment to equality and discrimination. Hugely ambitious, but can become very assertive and unpredictable under personal pressure. Candidate B: Two previous positions in high office have been terminated following perceived errors of judgment. Highly educated with a personal network that includes many influential figures. A pronounced tendency to micromanage. Strong sense of moral responsibility. A disregard for minor matters of etiquette that can cause minor social shocks. Openly emotional, can be both witty and abrasive on occasions.

Both candidates have already been name-checked in this article, and the profiles are based on their careers to the same calendar year. Neither, plainly, is a complete paragon, but if your Talent Management antennae are tweaked more by Candidate A, you may be disturbed to discover that you would have fast-streamed Adolf Hitler into your talent pool while marking Winston Churchill as ‘one to watch, but probably not promote’. Putting that possibly unpleasant shock to one side, the contrast also shows aspects of leadership that our expectation of immense skill, knowledge and wisdom overlooks: the importance of personal behaviours and of interpersonal relationships.

Leadership is not about the singular achievements of the leader so much as about the achievements that they inspire from others. Steve Jobs did not design or engineer your iPad2 any more than Eric Pickles will empty your dustbin. Brian Clough did not leave Marton Grove Secondary Modern School knowing how to turn Derby County into football league champions, during his first managerial season, the team actually finished one place lower than previously. Vaclav Havel never even set out to be a President. But the only one of the twelve leaders that were eventually selected for our list, who could be said to have been born to lead was Queen Elizabeth II, and a hereditary monarchy gives its eldest children very little choice about their future job title. Essentially, the choices are coronation or abdication. Even in her case, the fact that she would one day rule meant preparation for the task ahead: it beggars belief that Her Majesty would have attended her coronation unbriefed.

I’m aware that the last example potentially confuses job title with performance: there have been many CEOs of family empires and many monarchs of many nations whose people would have been better served had they spent their years on a more humble type of ‘throne’. Only a handful of us are born to inherit positions: the records of those that do, don’t lend any additional faith to the argument they were to born to possess the ability to fulfil them capably.

Being spared the conundrums of assessing talent potential is not a blessing if effort is not made to develop those assessed as ‘those most likely’. One of the most worrying statistics of recent times – an era of books such as Matthew Syed’s Bounce, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, all of which clearly argue that talent arises from opportunities for its development, from deliberative practice, and from feedback and coaching. One poll that asked: “Is truly authentic and effective leadership something CEOs are born with as opposed to something they can be taught?” Ninety-eight percent of respondents selected the ‘born with’ option. If only two percent of those polled, think leadership skills can be developed, that is surely scandalous. What hope is there for the rest of us? Isn’t the only question that springs to mind.

If only two percent of the element of our organisations, that is responsible for implementing performance management, learning and development, recruitment, succession planning and talent management think effective leadership is something other than an accident of birth, how exactly do they justify their own practices? Do 98 percent of these people really believe that leadership is a mere accident of birth, and that the rest of humanity should fatalistically sigh and accept their lot? If they’re right, why have we been wasting enormous quantities of time and money on HR functions, business schools, MBAs and development interventions for so long? If our CEOs have been born fully-fledged and authentically effective, why are they spending $40 billion a year on leadership and management development that they seem to be saying they don’t believe in? And shouldn’t we be questioning their argument as well as their wisdom?

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