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Stephen Walker

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What we need from leadership training


Stephen Walker reviews ways in which leadership skills can be learnt. Some of these skills are 'tools and techniques' and eminently learnable, so trainable, by the usual methods. Other leadership skills are of a more personal nature and require the Leader to grow his or her own skills. In some cases this can be greatly assisted by a training simulation.

A simple Google search for leadership reveals only one sixth of the hits that a management search gives. Perhaps that is because management is easier to write about, to understand, and to gain information about? Whatever the reason, it is clear that leadership is different from management. It seems clear that leadership requires a set of tools and techniques, possibly overlapping, but clearly distinct from the management set. Leadership can be thought of as 'beyond the everyday', some essence which moves people to extraordinary behaviour: an essence which inspires achievement. Even this 'above and beyond' definition lacks something. Leadership produces amazing results, well beyond expectations.

The tools and techniques of leadership

Leadership for me is about the long term success of the endeavour. A good leader is an able strategic thinker, comfortable working with the uncertainties of the future. He or she is able to make decisions based on that strategic view: decisions that create or deny opportunities in that distant future. Opportunities that, those of us lacking that long term view, will appear fortuitous when they drop into the lap of the well prepared organisation. The good leader does not have these thoughts to keep in their head. The effective leader ensures the thoughts are communicated, resources marshalled and people inspired ready to act, when the opportunity arises. All of these tools and techniques combine to create the aura of wisdom: far thinking, decisive and enabling.

Strategic thinking

Imagining the future. Even ten or twenty years ahead is difficult. The Times, no less, in a forecast made in 1894 said that in fifty years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of horse manure. The risk in long-term thinking is that there is an innovation, a change, which disrupts the steady progress of the situation you are extrapolating. Futurologists have a great ability of building a future based on the seeds of innovation found in our present time. Most significant innovations do not happen overnight, even though the rate of change is increasing. That ability to build a model of the future based on a range of options, scenario planning, is essential if a good choice of strategic plan is to be made. A good strategic thinker needs to be a visionary. To be able to see what might be, what is unlikely and what is probable. The intellect needed, to weld all these strands into a few scenarios from which a single strategy emerges, is rare. All these skills can be taught though!

Decision making

The output of the strategic thinking activity are strategic goals: what is needed to place the organisation in the best possible fit to the future. Those goals need to be developed logically from the scenarios and be coherent with each other. While futurology and scenario setting involve some wild and adventurous thinking, decision making is a clear and logical process, albeit one that involves a lot of factors, not all well enumerated. The output of the decision making yields a set of actions that must be reviewed and risk balanced.

People skills

Emotional intelligence is the subject of training courses the world over. The ability to see through another’s eyes, to walk a mile in their shoes, all these metaphors mean the emotionally intelligent person is capable of effectively communicating with others because they understand the same emotional language. The ability to communicate is everything. The best idea badly communicated is nothing, while there isn’t a bad idea that a committed group of people won’t take a very long way toward success. Communicating the idea in the other person’s emotional framework is inspirational. I did a presentation on leadership with an actor delivering Shakespeare’s Henry V speech at Harfleur with us delivering a management-speak version in contrast.

The opening lines 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead...' always make the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. Effective communication delivered in the recipients’ terms inspires achievement and is a key factor in leadership.


To make wise decisions on the balance of probabilities and to keep enough options open to avoid catastrophic outcomes requires an ability to cope with uncertainty. While people’s inherent abilities will vary, this capability can be developed with the appropriate training. Taking wise decisions on risk is part technical (accurate guesstimating) and part emotional (dare I think this?). The farsighted leader needs to consider the possibility of failure – not so easy when the consequences are fatal for an organisation or a person. Wisdom is an emergent property of being able to take all these factors, all this uncertainty and build a balanced view that yields the best outcome for the range of future conditions. Perhaps the truly wise are able to include a reasonable outcome for the 'I didn’t think of that' scenario too.

Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. He is a published author of articles and now a book “The Manager's Guide to Conducting Interviews”. He speaks at Conferences and is a Keynote speaker on organizational performance and the managerial behaviour needed for success. It is all about “upgrading organization performance by improving the manager-employee relationship” he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog


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