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Going for a walk…?


Recently, along with some other local business owners, I had lunch with David Cameron, the leader of the UK’s main opposition party. I’ll make no comment about his politics as this isn’t the place for that debate but I was struck by how clearly he saw the job to be done by this country’s leader, whoever that may turn out to be. It got me thinking about a quote I read from Albert Eistein: “any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

There are hundreds and hundreds of books out there on the subject of leadership. They come at the subject from a variety of ideas and in a variety of different ways. They use different ideas or gimmicks or metaphors to deconstruct and explain the process of leadership, they will pick a variety of historical or sporting figures as models and ideals. Often the ideas and metaphors used are incredibly complex, thereby reflecting – or so the authors hope – the complexity of leadership and thereby justifying the size of the book they’ve written. (By coincidence, Lucy Kellaway of the FT posted a very entertaining blog on this subject, here.)

I have a lot of those books in my library – I’ve even read some of them! But the more I work with leaders, at a variety of different levels in a variety of different organisations – the more I wonder whether all these books are heading in the wrong direction.Perhaps we’ve been making leadership too complicated; perhaps it’s actually really simple.

When I ask groups what it is that makes a leader, they come up with a wealth of answers, ranging from charisma, to authority, to… well, pretty much anything you care to mention, really. But the one fundamental thing that makes a leader, the one thing that all leaders have in common, is that they all have followers. Someone one described it to me like this: “a leader without followers is just a bloke out for a walk”.

For people to follow you, you have to be going somewhere they want to go. Let’s think about that sentence for a moment. Firstly, it means you have to be going somewhere. How many “leaders” do you come across, every day, who don’t really seem to be going anywhere except, perhaps, round in ever-decreasing circles?Leaders need a direction, some sense that tomorrow will be better than today, that the grass actually will be greener on the other side.

Secondly, wherever they’re going, it has to be attractive and leaders have to be able to communicate that attraction. You can tell people where you want to go, you can show them how you’re going to get there but if people don’t want to go they won’t follow you. Leaders have to be able to sell the idea of where they’re going and why people should follow them.

Of course, we can dress those two things up with fancy words and techniques, we could add in lots of examples but leadership, fundamentally, comes down to those two things. If you’re a leader and you don’t have them… well, you’re just out for a walk, aren’t you?

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