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Nobody in charge – Essays on the future of leadership – review


Title: Nobody in charge – Essays on the future of leadership
Author: Harlan Cleveland
Publisher: John Wiley and Sons, 2002
ISBN: 0787961531
Price: £20.95

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As I was a bit pushed for time I asked my old mate and business philosopher Peter F. Drucker what he thought of ‘Nobody in Charge’. He resisted the temptation to take the easy option and just tell me - he went the extra mile, pulled a few publishing strings and had his reply added to the comments section on the back jacket: “Most books on leadership are written by people who themselves haven’t led anything. This book is written by one of the most effective executives who, from a very early age, has for a half-century provided outstanding leadership in American government, higher education, and business.”

So there! And if that’s not enough what’s written is pertinent, interesting, challenging and - even though the collection of fourteen essays spans half a century - relevant and new. This is in some contrast to the less than startling insight highlighted in an article I skimmed in yesterday’s (Oct 24) Times where it was observed that “managing eating habits and taking more exercise may be key steps in dealing with the symptoms of obesity”. I’ve commented in other reviews on the parallels between the training and development and diet industries and this sort of thing absolutely confirms it. Publish the obvious as if it deserved to be on tablets of stone and leave the fundamental but complicated issue of how to do it completely undisturbed (Inspire others! Build trust and commitment! Create a winning team! Be a coach and mentor! Facilitate learning! Have a compelling vision!).

Getting back to the book, Cleveland provides many, many steers to help us mortals convert his concept of leadership into practical, everyday reality, or at least to pose some of the challenges that need to be met in order to develop leaders that are fit for the future. And fit for the future seems like an appropriate gauge against which to assess our art and craft. A mini-handful of highlights and opportunities for exploration:

- His definition of leadership as ‘bringing people together to make something different happen’ reinforces my notion that if you are in the learning and development trade you might as well assume that you are in a leadership role. So these days the ability to catalyse learning and change could be seen as a more relevant core skill than structuring and delivering content.

- In terms of qualities and style he talks of the intellectual strength leaders need to cope with “all of the chess board at once” and ”meeting a series of unforeseeable obstacles on the road to an objective that can be clearly specified only when they are close to reaching it”. To my mind this grates somewhat with the cosy view that all you need to succeed in leadership is emotional intelligence. Have we let the cognitive side of the leadership coin slip I wonder? Especially when no conflict, negotiation, settlement or bargain is merely two sided – in one week of studying state department issues he calculated the average number of “sides” to an issue as 5.3. That needs a lot of juggling and plate spinning ability.

- In the essay ‘Safe for diversity’, he quotes Magda Cordell McHale’s question: “How can we be different together?” If leadership is about bringing people together to make a difference this question is vital, whatever our perspective: global, national, cultural, organisational, functional, personal.

There is much, much more. The fragrance is essence of experience and wisdom - his definition of consensus has released me from years of careful manoeuvring around the word in case someone asked me what it meant. For him, and now me, consensus is: the acquiescence of those who care, supported by the apathy of those who don’t. If you care about the future this book will make you think... or at least thwim.

Jon Kendall
[email protected]


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