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Trumpeting the leadership cause


ElephantsPaul Kearns is controversial as ever as he unveils several elephants in the leadership room.

Do we have more or better leaders today than we did 50 years ago? We certainly seem to talk about it more and there has been a huge amount of money pumped into the leadership industry but is there any evidence that it has made any difference? The very fact that we don't know should tell us something about the way conventional leadership programmes have been run for many years. Perhaps it is time to re-visit the whole notion of leadership development - maybe some very simple lessons can be learned from understanding and addressing the inherent problems associated with leadership development.

"Most mis-leaders refer to their top management team as the leadership team, just in case nobody had noticed."

Paul Kearns, director of human capital consultancy, PWL

Elephant 1: Academics can only tell us what makes good leaders with the benefit of hindsight. I asked a respected leadership academic at a forum recently whether he considered Gordon Brown to be a great leader, he replied that it was "too early to say". One wonders what use his opinion will be when he finally makes his mind up?

Solution: Identify predictive indicators of leadership. Will Hillary Clinton make a great president? Who knows, but if we wait until she is voted in (or not) it will already be too late. It is better to have some indicators than none and these should be made plain to the person being developed.

Elephant 2: There is no single definition of leadership – so which model do we use?

Solution: Don't bother trying to define leadership too specifically; it is, after all, a very broad, catch-all term. There are as many different types and style of leadership as there are books on the subject – Genghis Khan and Gandhi were both great leaders but polar opposites. Great leaders emerge over a considerable period of time so development can only be a slow, incremental process.

Elephant 3: We need to distinguish between real leaders (those who demonstrate leadership) and 'mis-leaders' (people who win top management jobs but don't have an ounce of leadership capability). Most mis-leaders refer to their top management team as the leadership team, just in case nobody had noticed.

"Whether leaders are 'born, not made' or not, there is no point trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

Solution: Only those who readily acknowledge the difference between management and leadership should be provided with development and they should earn it as a great privilege, not an entitlement. Whether leaders are 'born, not made' or not, there is no point trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Elephant 4: Leaders have to lead. Leadership ability can only be truly assessed in real-time, live situations, not in the classroom or on the assault course. Leadership is not like learning to be a pilot, there is no simulator.

Solution: Make sure all prospective leaders are developed through a lengthy series of increasingly challenging, real life situations - backed up, of course, with full support.

Elephant 5: Leadership and accountability are synonymous. The buck stops with the leader.

Solution: Leadership development interventions have to be tied to specific outcomes. Leaders in education, the NHS, or the police have to accept that leadership means better education, better patient outcomes, and lower crime figures. Industry leaders have to show value leadership.

Elephant 6: Leadership is not a one-way street. Good leadership is great, bad leadership is a disaster.

Solution: Leadership development brings with it huge risks - empowering senior people to make life and death decisions. Lack of safety leadership on the railways has had disastrous consequences. Leadership development has to include an equal emphasis on risk management.

The search for better leadership will always be a valid and worthwhile endeavour but if we keep over-complicating it and putting more emphasis on the theory than the evidence we are likely to be no nearer to answering my initial question in another 50 years time than we are today.

Paul Kearns is director of human capital consultancy PWL and author of 'The Value Motive – The Only alternative to the profit motive'. (Wiley, 2007). Visit Paul also writes a regular Opinion column for


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