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Reflections on Leadership by Patrick Dixon, author of Building a Better Business, and advisor to many multinational corporations on leadership, strategy and key industry trends.

“Leaders grow - they are not made“    Peter F. Drucker

Everyone is capable of leadership. We know this from child psychology.  If you study families you will find almost without exception, an older child will naturally lead the younger, into safety or into danger, in play and in exploration - the natural “pecking order”.  If age and strength differentials are great enough, they usually override factors such as force of personality.

Anyone can provide leadership in crisis. Imagine a cinema attendant who discovers a fire, presses a fire alarm, runs into the auditorium to shout a warning and direct people to the exit.  Inside that place may be some of the most powerful and influential leaders in the world but they will follow her leadership.

Why?  She has a clear vision of the future, which matters to everyone in the cinema, she communicates with passion and conviction, has a clear and compelling strategy which inspires confidence, and out they will all go.

“I am a leader by default, only because nature does not allow a vacuum” Bishop Desmond Tutu

You could say she is leading by proxy and her authority comes from her uniform or her role, but that is untrue.  Any member of the public doing the same thing would also create leadership.

However, you can no more train an ordinary person to be a great leader than train someone to be a world-class musician.  Both depend on a special quality, a presence, a charisma, a performance, an almost mystical ability to connect to large numbers of people.

You can enhance someone’s natural leadership. You can help them lead more effectively, but only by working with the spark of leadership that is already there.

The one exception is as I say, leadership by proxy.  There are many examples in history and in business life where people have been able to lead in unexpected ways because they were in a serving role to someone else who was providing strong, primary leadership.

In some institutions or situations the mantle of vested authority is so powerful that the person in post acquires huge authority and respect, able to command attention and make things happen. 

VICTOR leaders

V ision          - great purpose and sense of mission
I initiative    - get up and go
C larity          - practical strategy, route map
T rust            - truthful, reliable, upright, sincere, tough
O penness     - accountable, teachable, humble
R ole-model  - example worth following

You cannot train people to have a vision, nor train “get up and go” into them.  You can help them develop clear strategy and with some aspects of communication.  But you cannot train trust, nor humility, nor someone to be a worthy example.  These are all things that come from within.

Humility and willingness to serve are central. Other leadership styles may succeed for a while, based on aggressive domineering and arrogance, but such leadership tends to self-destruct for a very important and obvious reason.

Leaders get the teams they deserve, and conceited bullies usually alienate other quality leaders, who tend to push off or refuse to work with the individual in the first place.  As Jim Collins describes in his research Built to Last, such leadership may shine for a while, but succession is always a challenge since the talent base around the mega-star is usually so depleted.  

“Bad men live that they may eat and drink, good men eat and drink that they may live”  Socrates

The second and even more serious risk in the shorter term is that the autocratic and bullying leader quickly becomes surrounded by those unwilling or unable to bring alternative points of view, so that leadership becomes blinded to changes inside and outside the organisation, with huge risks to the future of the business.

Nelson Mandela has described in his own writings how a true leader is a shepherd, staying behind the flock, leading from behind.  The most nimble sheep go on ahead and others follow, not realising they are being directed from behind.

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ called himself “the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep,” and he also emphasises in the words  “Whoever among you wished to be great must be a servant”, that to lead is to serve.

Trust, the T in VICTOR, is a make or break factor for all leaders, especially today in an age of scandals and poor judgments.  And trust is something that very often eludes aggressive and arrogant bullies. Their intense efforts to regain trust may simply raise more questions about their true character.

Such a person may be able to rebuild trust using a different approach, with openness, frankness, (probably) apology and careful listening, followed by genuine efforts to be more inclusive and respectful of others.

Adapted from Patrick Dixon's book Building a Better Business.


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