One of the concerns I hear frequently is: "What makes a leader?"
A few years ago, Fortune Magazine in the USA, made the following claim: "Great business leaders ought to reveal all the traits of a great lover - passion, commitment, ferocity. Nothing less will do". At about the same time, Professor Roger Collins from the Australian Graduate School of Management said: "it is difficult for CEOs, particularly for males, to disclose to a subordinate any stress or ambiguity, as it is seen in the minds of some as a sign of weakness, particularly by pretenders to the throne."
How and why has the situation arisen in which some form of procrustean bed is the determinant of business leadership and who is or isn't a "good" leader. Are the (primarily financial) measures of performance so loved by today's boards and shareholder pressure groups still the most appropriate means of assessment or are they indicative of a society in which the, purportedly now discredited, "greed is good" mentality still flourishes?
Value systems in societies are in constant evolution and development. It's not so very long since concern for environmental issues was a core value for only those on the fringes of society. Today it is far more central as evidenced by the fact of the Copenhagen Conference even taking place. We are recognising the degradation of our oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, and soil. We are increasingly cognisant of the need to protect scarce resources. We are becoming concerned that the world we bequeath to our children might be a poisoned chalice rather than the great opportunity that was our own inheritance. Should our response to the environment be a critical part of assessing who is a leader?
Is it possible that our business values have regressed rather than developed? Is it possible that too many of us have compartmentalised our lives to the point where we believe one set of values applies in the work-place, another in society at large, and yet another in our personal and family situation? In a world which is becoming more interdependent and connected, are we suffering from increased personal isolation and psychological fragmentation?
Ask people today to define "leadership" and there is a high probability you will get as many different concepts as the people questioned. Yet we all "know" what it is. Ask people today to nominate "good leaders" and you will get no commonality of response. Yet we all "know" the real leaders in society.
Leadership and value systems are integrally intertwined. We will assess the leadership we experience and the leaders we admire by the extent to which we see demonstrated behaviour that is compatible with our personal values. Our personal circumstances heavily impact on our perceptions.
I suggest that one problem with our concept of "appropriate" (good?) leadership versus inappropriate (bad?) leadership is that, far too often, we round up the usual suspects to ask the traditional questions. So, as in the Fortune example, the survey group comprises executives, directors, investors, shareholder activists, and researchers. Dare one suggest that perhaps the findings were predictable? It seems largely true that a similar scenario applies when we approach "the elite" (specialist journalists, commentators, and academics) to comment on political or business leadership; or various social pressure or lobby groups to comment on societal leadership. All too often the perception is dependent upon the point at which one stands.
For more than 20 years I have been researching leadership by asking "ordinary" people about their views. What I find is a bit different from what we read in many magazines and leadership books. The message I get is that a leader is "someone who I can trust and respect and who enables me to get things done and who, in that process, inspires me to do my best and to achieve results."
If you fit that description, then I suggest you are a leader. In a later article I will explore this further and look at how we can become even better leaders than we are right now.