Leadership is back in fashion. Of course, it never truly disappears from the front line of management. But when the Harvard Business Review devotes a whole issue to the subject, it’s clear that leadership has passed into the conspicuous phase of its attention cycle. That isn’t surprising. The horrendous cases such as Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Ahold, Hollinger, Parmalat and the Wall Street investment bank scandals that have burst into the headlines plainly share a common factor: either lack of leadership or much too much of the wrong kind.

Identifying wrongness is easier than identifying what constitutes the good in leadership. Creating a rotten, pervasive climate of amoral greed (Enron) is wrong: so is the equally greedy pursuit of headlong, heedless growth by acquisition (WorldCom): so is sustaining unreal growth by tricky accountancy (Ahold): so are common thievery (Parmalat) and its close relative, financing a private lifestyle with public company millions (Tyco and Hollinger). As for the Wall Street financiers who aided, abetted and co-authored the frauds, their leadership was apparently confined to counting its own individual and collective loot.

The obvious negatives do help to establish some of the positives. A good leader, for example, lays down and maintains the basic values of honesty and truthfulness which are vital for good management. But how does the latter differ from good leadership? Everybody knows that good businessmen and women may be bad managers - hence the failures of entrepreneurial businesses that introduce effective management either too late or not at all. But whether a good manager can truly be bad at leading is quite another matter.


I once asked a revered Japanese CEO, Ryuzaburo Kaku of Canon, how it was that he, having spent his whole career in financial functions, had achieved such a spectacular success at leading the company onwards and upwards to world eminence. He was surprised by the question: he wasn’t a finance man, he explained politely - he was a businessman. He showed me (as he showed every visitor, I suspect) an old piece of paper which made his point. As a young finance executive, he had plotted Canon’s profits against its new product introductions.

Every time the latter rose, so did profits, after a suitable interval - and vice versa.

On achieving power, Kaku promptly followed the logic of his observation, demanding and getting more new products, and reaping the anticipated golden harvest. His leadership was both good business and excellent management. Astute business people know the key importance of keeping the product or service offer fresh and vibrant. A good manager understands that excellent analysis will tell you where to direct organisational effort in order to obtain the best returns.

Whether you approach from the business or the managerial side, the next stage is the same. Action must follow. Decision without action is no better than indecision - indeed, in one way a whole lot worse, since it involves expending and wasting so much energy. I have previously mentioned a dearly loved editor of whom it was said, ‘The editor’s indecision is final’: the consequences could be measured, not in wasted energy, but in missed opportunities.

He was unquestionably a leader. His spirit animated the newspaper and he exerted a real personal dominance. But his lack of either managerial intelligence or entrepreneurial push led directly to the company’s relative decline and eventual loss of independence. Leadership qualities, in other words, can’t exist in a vacuum. They are useless unless or until they are applied to real purposes.


The application can’t be single-handed, either. The basic definition of leadership involves acting in and through a group, a community. Without followers, there can be no leader. So the role and quality of ‘followership’ are vital to the nature and success of leadership. It used to be enough for the leader to order and the followers to obey. But not any more. Leaders need understanding of themselves, of their followers, and of the reaction between leader and led in circumstances which are bound to be changeable.

The interrelationships are the essence of real leadership. Thus, the Harvard Business Review talks of ‘dissonance between an executive’s inside and outside’ and why ‘it’s absolutely essential to keep the two aligned’. A key phrase is ‘emotional intelligence’. A group of ‘business leaders, scholars and other experts...describe how to cultivate and manage’ the latter, while the man who made the concept famous, Daniel Goleman, reports as follows: ‘Organisations often implicitly discourage their people from cultivating emotional intelligence. Its chief components - self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills - can be learned, but it’s not easy’.

Try this paragraph on your boss - or yourself, if you hold that august position. Is he or she…

• fully aware of their own abilities, character and limitations?
• in full control of their behaviour – including behaviour towards others?
• highly motivated towards achieving constructive purposes?
• aware of, and considerate towards, the feelings and thoughts of others?
• a good mixer, highly effective in groups?
• able and willing to correct their faults, especially on the five counts above?

The troubles with Goleman’s thesis are that these qualities are as valuable in the led as in the leader: and that many highly successful leaders, far from being paragons of emotional intelligence, are monsters of self-indulgence - they are ‘grandiose, actively self-promoting and genuinely narcissistic…emotionally isolated and highly distrustful…usually poor listeners…who lack empathy’. They are also prone to rage. Yet they have ‘a great ability to attract and inspire followers’.


The quotation comes from author Michael Maccoby, whose HBR piece first appeared in2000, but was reprinted this January because of the swelling and bursting of the superstar CEO bubble in the intervening four years. As the article points out, the narcissistic personality is ideally suited to thrusting upwards into power and to maintaining that dominance once the narcissist has arrived at the top. The drive and vision can achieve genuine success, but can equally destroy both the company and the leader.

Yet you’re better off with a narcissus, says Maccoby, than you are with the humane ‘erotic’ personality types, warm-hearted people who ‘need too much approval’: and while the third main personality types, the ‘obsessives’ who are driven by efficiency, make better leaders, they do so as operational managers, where they may excel, but prove to be too ‘critical and cautious’ for entrepreneurial success. This conflict between the human needs of the group and the inhumane powerhouse qualities of the narcissus is at the root of the leadership paradox.

By their very nature, the narcissi tend to win the power and the glory. Maccoby believes that you just have to grin and bear it. His article argues that the pressures of the day increase the need for totalitarian management.

Narcissi may well say they want teamwork, when in practice they want only yes-men - and so on. But more and more large corporations are ‘getting into bed’ with the narcissists, because they’re indispensable in a time when innovation holds the key to growth, profit and survival. Grinning and bearing means that you must…

• Always empathise with your boss’s feelings, but without expecting any empathy in return.
• Give your boss ideas, but always let him or her take the credit for the brainwaves that work.
• Learn how to manage your time efficiently to cope with the narcissist’s excessive requests, some of which will make no sense.


Ignore the latter, advises Maccoby cheerfully – just forget them: so will the boss. Frankly, this reads like a toady’s charter. You stop short of being a shameless sycophant, but you butter up his self-image, take his paranoid views seriously, even make sure that your free time coincides with the master’s. How does this subservience to a dominant, untrammelled overlord square with the idea that the future of management lies with collective, collegiate, bottom-up organisations, which are headed by leaders of leaders - non-bossy bosses who support and facilitate intelligent leadership throughout?

As you would expect, Tom Peters, the leading pundit of the new management, also calls for ‘New Leadership…The Ultimate New Mandate’. For him, one or two ideas are far too few to combat the fact that leaders and led alike ‘don’t have a clue’ about what’s afoot. In a new book, Re-imagine!, Peters offers no less than 50 ideas, ranging from Leaders Say ‘I Don’t Know’ via Leaders Honour Rebels and Hang Out with Freaks to Leaders Know When to Leave (which notoriously many don’t, in business as in politics).

That all sounds fairly revolutionary. But many of the Nifty Fifty would suit a super-boss perfectly - indeed, Peters projects an overall conviction that the Leader is the driving force behind (or rather ahead of ) almost everything. His Leaders not only convey the Grand Design, but they attend to the Logistical Details; they Break Down Barriers, Push Their Organisations into the Value-Added Stratosphere, Create New Markets.

The image of the business, moreover, is their identity - they are not just the boss, but ‘the Brand’.

Disarmingly, Peters concludes that ‘all “leadership literature” stinks - including much of the stuff I’ve written’. That has a simple explanation. The writers all generalise about an activity that has as many facets as there are leaders. The result is conflict and confusion.

How can a practising manager/leader make sense out of the Nifty Fifty? How can you reconcile Maccoby’s admiration for the indispensable narcissus with Goleman’s praise for the emotionally intelligent? These are not egotists. They combine a self-deprecating sense of humour with openness to change, expertise in both building and retaining talent, and persuasiveness.


The 50th Peters Idea contains a powerful hint at the answer: ‘Leaders Do Stuff that Matters’. Leadership hinges round groups and tasks. The leader has to work with the groups, either directly or through delegation, to achieve the overall task and the subordinate tasks that are essential to the whole. The task is to achieve the purpose, and the groups are the combinations of people that are best suited and best organised for the overall and individual purposes. The good leader will concentrate on defining and refining the tasks and optimising the groups - that’s the ‘Stuff that Matters’.

What holds all this together is not any one particular leadership or style, certainly not a narcissistic superego, but feedback. You need a constant flow of accurate information from the field. That flow will govern the equally constant adaptation of the organisation to ensure that the Five Ps of Leadership are working well - Purpose, Plan, Progress and People, all bound together by the essential insistence on Performance.

Sure, the Three Is are enormously important, too - Imagination, Innovation and Inspiration. They may well appear to be the monopoly of a sole leader. But that’s often an irrational illusion: and who is to know that equal visionary powers within the organisation are not being suppressed by the dominance of the autocrat? ‘The sleep of reason’, wrote the artist Goya, ‘begets monsters’. Look at those damned companies listed earlier and you’ll see the monstrous results that follow when exercise of leadership is left to the leader - and not shared fully by the community of the led.

Source: Thinkingmanagers.com, author Robert Heller

Author's Bio: 

Robert Heller is Britain's best-known and best-selling author and business speaker on business management. His first title, The Naked Manager, passed into the language with its iconoclastic attack on false scientific management.


This definition is part of a series that covers the topic of Management Skills. The Official Guide to Management Skills is Meryl Runion. Meryl Runion, CSP, is a Certified Speaking Professional and the author of four books on communication. Her books have sold over 250,000 copies worldwide. She is the author of a weekly email newsletter called A PowerPhrase a Week, which boast thousands of subscribers. Her clients include IBM, who find her to be systematic, the IRS who particularly love her in April, and the FBI, who find her to be a person of interest.

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