A couple of weeks ago I had cause to review some leadership literature. From the array of books and journal articles it seems to me that people tend to write about leadership in one of three broad categories:
- The ‘Great Man’ – With stories of Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Nelson and the like. More often these are stories of men, with very few accounts of women. These tend to document the lives of people in extra-ordinary situations and associated with an enormous amount of human suffering. The other characteristic is that they are ‘out-right’ winners whose efforts have heralded a sea-change in society or the world.
- The ‘Account’ –Like the portly retired general , standing with his back to an open fire with a generous glass of brandy in one hand and cigar in the other; these are tales of how battles were won in situations that are now irrelevant to us. But these are tales from the perspective of success and looking back as if experience followed a logical line of one success after another with just the odd hic-up or two to give some spice to the story.
- The ‘System’ – Here accounts of people are largely absent, other than a boxed in case study or two. In this case leadership, and the development of leaders, can be side stepped with the implementation of an all-encompassing system of controls and levers.
Of course, I am over simplifying the subject and a lot of good work has been done to understand what it is that enables people to successfully lead others and to deliver the results they have been tasked with. It is a difficult subject and one that is made harder by the heroes one chooses and their fallibility, one only needs to look at Fred Goodwin – from Knight to Blight!
For me there are a couple of points worth making. Firstly, to recognise that leadership (and any activity where people are involved) will always be a contested subject. Secondly, that more attention should be paid to what ordinary people (including leaders) do in their day-to-day activities. For example: how they make sense and react to everyday problems; how they deal with relationships and conflicts at work; how they learn from these experiences and improve their practice. It might be helpful if there were a few more books and articles written by practising leaders as they face practical problems that they encounter before the grey mist of hindsight drifts in. But of course, there is the day job to be done!