There is much talk at the moment about the qualities of leadership required to run a business. Barely a day goes by without another feature article or seminar extolling the virtues of knowing how to inspire people.
Here is an excerpt from a recent Sunday Times article: “Most communication is rationally formulated and then rational messages are delivered… But what moves people is emotion. People are driven to change their behaviour by how they feel.”
There’s nothing there you could take exception to, though it is expressed in a less than charismatic way. If he’d said, to quote another rather too-oft quoted example that the famous Martin Luther speech included the phrase, “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan”, he would have got the point across more elegantly and succinctly (albeit without any originality).
The underlying assumption to all this is that great leaders do not have to be born so: they can be made. Indeed I was at a talk a few weeks back which went further, and conflated charisma with leadership.
Now if I have to be brutal about this (and those of you who read the guff I churn out monthly know I tend to err on that side), it is a reflection of the sad lack of either quality throughout most of the business community that the subject exercises so many people.
There can be fewer more depressing spectacles than a roomful of worthy business owner/managers nodding sagely, if a little ruefully, at the prognostications of someone telling them how to make themselves more interesting and exciting. More “follow-able”.
Twitter has a lot to answer for in this regard (there I go again): the fact that millions of dullards are somehow garnering a band of “followers” persuades them that they must have something interesting to say – perhaps, even, that they are some sort of leader.
I beg to differ.
Let’s take charisma first. I had a look in my Word Finder to check the word’s actual meaning: “The ability to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm; an attractive aura; great charm; a divinely conferred power or talent.”
Not much there I’d fancy trying to build a syllabus round. All of the various connotations being expressed confirmed me in the conclusion I’d already instinctively arrived at: you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
Leadership, on the other hand, may be different. That’s ‘may be’, not ‘is’. As anyone who has ever played a team sport will tell you, there are some who are born captains (leaders), and some who have captaincy thrust upon them and have to make the best of a difficult job. Frankly, give me the natural every time.
But do you have to be a leader of men (and women) to run a business or a large business department? Or do you have to be a good manager? Ah, but surely they’re the same, I hear someone exclaim (don’t I?) Well I’m not convinced they are.
A zillion years ago, when I spent time in corporate Britain, it would have been nice to have an inspirational manager, but perfectly satisfying to have one who was simply supportive, appreciative, helpful and approachable. None of the senior management in any of the places I worked were inspirational in the slightest, however fancy a salary they were on. They were, on the whole, pretty effective though.
You don’t have to be inspirational to be a good manager, and good management skills can undoubtedly be taught and acquired. Most of the techniques needed to manage effectively – such as good communication, or understanding that it is about more than just giving orders (you may laugh, but I’ve met a few who didn’t realise) – can be improved through training.
But leadership? In the same Sunday Times article (promoting a book about the subject, quelle surprise), business leaders were asked what they look for when hiring other leaders.
- Raw intellect and the ability to think clearly
- Ability to choose the right people and align them to a cause
- Ability to communicate with others and inspire them
How much of that is trainable? You might be able to improve poor communicators (how on earth have they got into positions of alleged leadership, if they can’t do that, you may ask); you may even help them understand the processes involved in assembling a balanced team. But ‘raw intellect’? Thinking clearly? Inspiring? These are human qualities, not skills to be honed. So you might be able to improve poor performers, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
All those who agree, follow me. Where’s everyone gone?
David Croydon: 01844 238692 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org