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Can you teach leadership or are you born with it?

July 6, 2015
Borderless Leadership

The study of leadership goes back as far as Plato – and still it continues to intrigue psychologists, but what makes a good leader?

Around me were bosses from around the world – from Nigeria to the United Arab Emirates.

We were all attending the leadership development programme at the London Management Centre and grappling with the question – are leaders born or made?

The leadership business is a massive money-spinner – a multi-million pound industry.

But I had arrived for my course with a healthy dose of scepticism. “Don’t some of the attendees just go along for a jolly?” I asked our trainer.

Executive coach Kyle Jaggers brushed my scepticism aside. The feedback is very positive, he assured me, although some psychologists I spoke to questioned whether there was enough scientific evidence that leadership courses really work.

Mr Jaggers asked me to nominate my own personal leadership hero and imagine how he or she would handle a situation.

I told him many would regard Churchill as a great leader – the right man at the right time – so he told me how a manager could adopt Churchillian traits of optimism and inspiration.

If they are sacking, say, 40% of their staff, then 60% of staff have got to stay and be motivated to lift the organisation to make sure that it delivers.

“What you are doing is not becoming Churchill,” he said, “but you are borrowing Churchill’s values, beliefs, drive, passion. Then you deliver what you would have normally delivered in a very different way, but you will be delivering it with integrity, passion in your voice. You have become a different person in the way that you deliver.”

The top job

But imagining something at management school is not the same as putting it into practice in the real world, particularly in the biggest leadership role in the country, prime minister.

Deborah Mattinson was Gordon Brown’s pollster, and saw close up how he failed to make a successful transition from chancellor to PM.

“When Gordon got the leadership he seemed to not know what he wanted to do with it and, if he did know, he failed to communicate it to people.

“So he looked like someone being buffeted rather than in control of events and as such was not successful as leader.”

She credits Mr Brown with huge intellect and political skills but says being a good leader is not just about being clever but about setting out the direction you want to go in and persuading people to come with you.

“Running the country is like running one big business,” says Deborah Meaden, the entrepreneur, businesswoman and Dragons’ Den investor.

Enthusiastic, successful and inspiring, the Dragons Den investor says the essential qualities of a good leader are the same, whatever the field.

It is not just about being a good people manager but it is about being a person who has the vision and can share it. She believes a good leader can bring people with them in a way that is not all about saying: “Like me. I want to be your friend.”

It is more about being able to say: “Trust me. I have got good judgement and, when I make my decision, I am using the right information and doing it for the right reasons for the good of the country or for the good of the company.”

Subconscious bias

Ms Meaden will not even countenance any suggestion that gender matters.

Science journalist and author Anjana Ahuja, who has studied the evolutionary basis of leadership, disagrees.

When it comes to choosing leaders, she says, we still harbour subconscious biases about their physical appearance.

“The great challenge out on the savannah was survival so your physical stature mattered,” says Ahuja.

Height, weight, health and fitness all matter. So does a strong jaw line apparently.

“If you ask children to look at candidates in an electoral contest, very often they will pick out the same winner as the electorate.”

Psychology professor Michelle Ryan has studied female appointments to the boards of FTSE 100 companies. She says the “glass ceiling” for women in leadership has become what she calls a “glass cliff”.

“The leadership positions that woman take on tend to be rather risky and rather precarious in that they have a greater chance of failing or getting criticised than their male counterparts.”

She points to Margaret Thatcher’s early political career, in which she struggled for selection as a Conservative candidate, having to fight two safe Labour seats before finally getting the chance to stand in Finchley.

Once at the top you need “thick skin” says former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell. “Luck,” says Michael, now Lord, Howard, the ex-Tory leader.

And when is it time to go?

The end is often a brutal experience, rarely voluntary. Thatcher, Churchill and many political leaders and prime ministers found it difficult to stand down and let someone else take up the reins.

It is important to focus on the greater good, says Alex Haslam, professor of psychology at Exeter University.

“If you’ve had your day in the sun with your group, the group is there to go on to better things. If you can recognise that, you will be in a position to have made history and to have taken things forward.”

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