“I attended a conference on leadership in Stockholm at the weekend,” my colleague announced and “Gary Young, the leadership guru gave a presentation.”
I immediately pricked up my ears. I had always been interested in what made great leaders ever since I had been asked at a civil service interview board about Napoleon. “Today, they had said,” is the 150th anniversary of Napoleon’s death. Was Napoleon a great man and how would you define greatness?”
“That is a good question,” I instantly replied. As a young man of just 19, I managed to waffle my way through the question.
Coming back to my colleague and the present, however.
I looked at him sceptically and said somewhat sourly, “Well I suppose he was paid a big fat fee, but were you told anything that you did not know before?”
“Well nothing new but I was inspired in a way,” he replied. I came away from the conference feeling that I am capable of changing myself to become a better leader.”
“Interesting,” I thought, “He was inspired!” Gary Young was worth his fee after all.
Great leaders have to be capable of inspiring others. Either by offering an exciting vision of the future, even if it turns out to be the dark and perverted vision offered by Hitler, and by that token a dull speaker like Bill Gates can inspire people with his vision of the future. Or by appealing to people’s idealism and desire to do good as Jack Kennedy did when he asked America’s young generation to ask themselves “not what you can do for yourselves but what you can do for your country,” or by reaching out to people to reassure and offer solidarity as he did when he proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner”.
I thought about my colleague once more. He was a well liked leader, not inspiring perhaps, but respected. He was calm and predictable in the way he behaved, not prone to fits of anger. Good qualities in a leader in times of crisis – an anchor to hang onto. His behaviour was also fair and scrupulously objective in his treatment of other people and their ideas. Not prone to making preconceived judgements – he listened sympathetically and respectfully to others and his people were happy to bring him their suggestions.
Most importantly of all he was not so interested in power so he could take decisions for the common good. I pondered on this.
Mankind had for thousands of generations picked out their leaders from among small bands of hunter gatherers. They had been successful in doing this, for their genes survived while the genes of their less successful brethren died out
The world, however, is full of poor and erratic leaders in spite of this. Is it because they are swayed by the lure of power in making their decisions? And how do they get to be bosses in the first place. Is it because they are successful in ingratiating themselves with the people that do have power?
Perhaps part of the problem is that decisions regarding who becomes a leader in an organization is normally governed by an up-down process of selection while the million-year-old evolutionary process of selecting leaders through a down-up process rarely happens.
Given this strategy what can we do to implement it? How do we cultivate home grown talent from among our staff, and how do we identify this talent? How do we involve the shop floor in the selection process? And how do we canvass the people there, and engage them in a dialogue to find the leaders of quality?
In this connection great leaders do not always make themselves but rather they reluctantly have greatness thrust upon them by their peers such as happened at the American continental congress which threw up men like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and other extraordinary men. Would these men have become great leaders in their society in normal times? And in answer to that question put to me all those years ago I would now say that great men or women are people who can turn the tide of history for the good of everyone while ordinary mortals like me and you are simply carried along by it.
In that light Napoleon could have been a greater man but his unsated lust for power undid him in the end.
He was in this sense a failed leader, and not the first, nor the last.
In a forthcoming article I will turn to the related question of managing and leading, and whether the two terms are mutually exclusive.