This article was first published in the July/August UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
That rough but beloved calculator of the importance of a subject – the Amazon book store – tells the enquirer there are 70,829 books in the category of leadership. Clearly, a lot of us either believe ourselves to be, or aspire to be, leaders.
We see leadership most clearly in exceptional role models. Through death and retirement respectively, Margaret Thatcher and Alex Ferguson have reopened the debate about the nature of leadership. Examples of leadership always offer hope that we can apply them to our own situation – even if the equally important, if slightly different, roles of prime minister and football manager may not be our next career move.
Attempts to define leadership in terms of a checklist are likely to end in tears. Successful leaders don’t look to formulas. Instead they possess some inner quality – of character and of vision – which drives them into a position where others follow.
However, there are clearly some attributes in common. Great leaders have an idea – a vision – they believe in with passion, and want to share with others. They focus on a key idea and refuse to be distracted by side issues. They also believe in those who work for them and delegate accordingly. This ensures they don’t try to do too much and in the process lose sight of what they were originally trying to do.
But while they can create great teams to help them achieve their goals, they will also create opposition. And to deal with that opposition successfully requires a mixture of conviction, courage and perseverance.
An effective leader doesn’t necessarily have to be long serving in the way Thatcher and Ferguson were. And while some are more willing to be leaders than others it is a task that the more reluctant can eventually learn to take on. History is littered with individuals who became successful leaders only after outright refusals, false starts and what could have been seen as career-limiting mistakes.
There is an element of moral blindness about leadership; espousing a cause well and with conviction does not make it good nor right. The Thatcher/Ferguson model summons up images of stridency, even aggression, but that is not inevitable. Leaders can manipulate their style according to circumstances; consensus and ‘slow management’ play their part, just as much as brash authority and rapid decision-making. Leaders may be born, but thinking and practising the art of leadership means that they can also be made.
While Thatcher and Ferguson could not have been more different in personality or belief, they both knew who they were and were secure in that identity. And it was that identity and self-belief that drove them on. Leaders can be seen as having a sense of destiny, of being chosen for a particular task, and to achieve that task they work within a particular community, which could be a football club or a country.
Leadership, formal or informal, recognised or hidden, takes place all the time and at every level in every community. Which rather begs the question: what leadership have you exercised today?
Peter Williams, accountant and journalist