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Modern leaders: Time to look again


In the first of new series dissecting modern leadership, Mark Loftus turns his attention to our current political failings.
On a recent BBC Today programme Major Richard Streatfeild, in his Afghan frontline diary, mourned the loss of a 19-year-old Rifleman in his Company: “He was a future leader. He held no fear of rank; admirably direct; an appetite for adventure; a quick tongue; an easy laugh and broad shoulders. On operations he carried the fight to the enemy but was mature enough to understand the requirements for restraint. Trusted by his superiors and his peers in situations where only those with his qualities can be trusted.”

The previous day, Stefan Stern, reporting from the World Economic Forum in Davos for the Financial Times wrote about our desire for our leaders to excel in the “time-honoured, civilised modes of human behaviour”, but observed that “converting abstract virtues into action is not so easy.” As Barrack Obama put it before he was elected: “It’s the timidity - the smallness - of our politics that’s holding us back right now.”

"Leadership has been sliced and diced, made accessible and measurable."
In business, as in government, the picture of leadership that has emerged is of self-serving, small-minded individuals, more concerned about their bonuses and incentive plans than about the pressing issues facing us – as our current banking, economic and environmental crises bear abundant testimony to.
How can it be that the actions of a 19-year-old soldier can so clearly be underpinned by timeless virtues, yet our current business and political leaders so evidently struggle to work from these same character strengths?
This article and those that follow over the coming months seek to stimulate a debate about leadership. Have we misunderstood leadership? Misunderstood what leaders do? Misunderstood how to develop it? Misunderstood whose role it is to develop it?  It’s time to look again at leadership and leadership development. Is there a problem with competencies?
A first proposition is that the developmental target we have worked with is wrong or incomplete. That our understanding of what leadership is, what leaders are like, what they do, is somehow inaccurate. Hence, what we have been seeking to develop has missed the mark.
The last two decades have seen the world of humans within organisations turned into a set of competencies. Leadership has been sliced and diced, made accessible and measurable. At first glance it can be hard to argue with such an obvious starting point as that of compiling a comprehensive list of what leaders do, and then setting out to teach people to do it. But in taking this approach we have risked losing something fundamental about human reality.

People follow people

Attempts to compile a definitive list of the personal attributes of leaders have always seemed doomed to failure. Try listing the personal attributes of Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher, Steve Jobs and Sir Terry Leahy and you will be more struck by the differences than by the similarities. Add in Gordon Brown, Vivienne Westwood and Quentin Tarentino and the picture gets fuzzier. Leaders are so diverse because people are diverse. But in abandoning the attempt to identify a differentiated list of leadership attributes we need to be careful not to throw the baby out at the same time.

"In business, as in government, the picture of leadership is of self-serving, small-minded individuals, more concerned about their bonuses and incentive plans than about us."
 Leadership is an exercise that comes from the core of who we are as people. For sure, we want our leaders to be competent, but we do not follow them because of a set of competencies. We follow them because of who they are and how they embody the ‘time-honoured virtues’ Stefan Stern refers to. And it is becoming easier to map these virtues due to research by Chris Peterson and his colleagues at the Values in Action institute. They started with the great books of human history, such as Homer, the Bible, the Vedas, the Qur'an, and worked through them to understand the character traits across history and across cultures that have been universally valued. You can see there classification and complete their self-score questionnaire here.
If these are the virtues that have been celebrated across the history of mankind, surely they can provide a foundation for understanding why we allow ourselves to follow some people and not others? We may not need the whole of their classification (in our work we use a sub-set that appear to be particularly relevant to organisational life), but they can give a lasting insight into why we may have found it easier to follow Rifleman Peter Aldridge than the CEO of our own enterprise. In turn, if we wish to develop leadership, focusing on these strengths of character might provide a rich seam to explore.
The full content of the Afghan frontline diary can be viewed online at the BBC news website.

Mark Loftus, is the director of The Thinking Partnership. He has 20 years of experience as an organisational consultant and is a recognised authority on emotional intelligence and the art of assessing senior leaders. He is a chartered clinical psychologist with an MPhil from London's Institute of Psychiatry and a degree in Philosophy and Psychology from Oxford University.

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