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Leadership has traditional sources of learning, reflection, role modelling and a ‘body of knowledge’. There are four that dominate. This is my humble classification: The military, Corporations, Civic and Religious models, and Sports.

Where do organizations borrow from for leadership models? The military source is mostly about language (as opposed to individuals). The language of war is well embedded in organizational and business thinking: killing the competition, price wars, winning and loosing markets etc. Occasionally there is reference to true military strategy and leadership, but not too frequently.  Civic and religious leadership is also referred to, but here instead, only with the accent on individuals. ‘I have a dream’ and Luther King must be the most admired example. Business organizations love sports analogies which, in my opinion, are over-rated and oversized.

There is a point here, however. There are multiple sources from which to learn, mirror, copy, study, draw conclusions about Leadership.  Multiple models and examples. It was in this context that some time ago, I was taken aback when invited to participate in a round table on the topic at a prestigious global business school. The Head of Research presented their five year research data on the future of leadership. It consisted of in depth interviews with most of the chairmen and CEOs of top FTSE 500 companies and from this he claimed that they now knew what the future of leadership looked like. That was it!

I put it to them that they had completely missed the point and the views of the chairman of Coca Cola, for example, (with all due respect to the Chairman of Coca Cola) were hardly relevant to day to day leadership in organizations. There is a myriad – I pointed out – of small or not so small enterprises that are full of people ‘leading’ from day to day, navigating through life, with different degrees of resilience, and most of them without a golden parachute should they screw up. ‘Where was that data?’ I inquired.

I didn’t like the way he looked at me and I realised I was turning into a Martian for them. I am sure that ‘the research team’ enjoyed a pleasant travel budget and found the research rewarding, but to call this the latest on the leadership of the future was slightly insulting to say the least.

Every day we miss the reality that is there in front of our eyes, in favour of the big names and big label position papers and reports. For leadership, it’s easy: look around. Don’t look up at The Big Names. Or don’t look at them only. Try schools, neighbourhoods, community leaders, small companies, medium and big, churches, public servants, good CEOs even if not those on the front page of the newspapers. We are rich in examples of good leadership. As rich as we are poor in so called ‘research’.

Sorry, it’s not about what the CEOs of the FTSE 500 think. Leadership, good or bad, is all around us, because it’s a praxis. If we are serious about research in leadership, we need to come down to earth and do a whole lot better than interviewing the usual suspects.

Update: I keep waiting for an invitation to another of their roundtables – but they haven’t called me.


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  1. Scott Fahlman


    Interesting article. I think that the business about interviewing corporate leaders teaches (at least) three lessons:

    (1) Leadership is fractal (as we nerds like to say). That is, it looks more or less the same at large scales or small scales. There may well be as much to learn from watching a good leader in the mail room as from watching the anointed CEO of a large corporation. The CEO leads more people, with more resources, and his decisions are probably more momentous for the organization, but the way it works (or doesn’t work) is the same in many ways. And the mail-room guy may have to lead without the advantage of a formal title and the ability to fire people.

    (2) Leadership is best taught and understood by example. Real-life stories and parables work better than lists of “The 7 Principles of Effective Leadership” or by tallying up what leaders say on a silly survey. (Why do surveys ALWAYS ask the wrong questions?)

    (3) There is not a strong correlation between effective leaders and those who can understand and explain what’s going on. Many great leaders “just do it”, but are not very good at explaining what “it” is. And I’ve known some well-regarded academic experts on leadership who I wouldn’t follow into a supermarket, let alone into battle.

    Here’s one of my favorite stories about leadership. It’s a story told by a prominent neuroscientist (informally, at a party), but it may well be apocryphal. That doesn’t matter.

    If you study the behavior of schooling fish, you find that their motion is governed by two strong instincts. First, they keep some minimal distance from one another — maybe just a few inches for small fish. And second, each fish wants to be in the center of the school, surrounded on all sides by the others. It’s obvious how that leads to a compact school, and also obvious why this evolved: if a shark comes by looking for a snack, it’s the fish on the outside of the school who get eaten first.

    But you can do fairly simple brain surgery on one of these fish (according to my friend) that destroys the “stay in the center” instinct without doing too much other damage. If you put that fish back into the school, he’s automatically the leader — he’s the only one swimming around wherever he wants to go and not maneuvering for the safest position. And the rules above dictate that the whole school will usually follow this one independent fish.

    I think that there are two lessons here, or maybe two ways to view the same lesson: First, leadership is a form of brain-damage. The leader is the one who is taking chances, and is the one most likely to be eaten — or fired, or (in the U.S.) shot. And, second, the leader is simply the one who leads. For whatever reason — brain damage, nurture, or some later learning — the leader is the one for whom some other goal is more important that the relative safety of the middle of the pack.

    Of course, that is just an over-simplified explanation for how leadership may emerge spontaneously, and perhaps unconsciously. It doesn’t imply that the leader-fish is going to take the group in a good direction (however you might define “good”). And, people being more complex than fish (or so we like to believe), it doesn’t tell us about what other qualities this leader should have in order to persuade the other fish to follow him. But I still think it’s a good story.

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