Archives for the month of: March, 2015


Sadly, John F Kennedy never had the chance to utter this memorable quote from the speech he was due to deliver in Dallas on November 22nd 1963. Nevertheless, its truth is replicated endlessly in the plethora of articles, books and academic reports published on leadership every year – although the implications for leaders and leadership is less commonly explored.

Leadership Development is an industry in itself. An industry I am proud to be part of. In this industry a great deal of time and effort is spent identifying potential leaders and feeding them with knowledge, insight and a host of experiences designed to inculcate a set of skills and qualities deemed necessary to be successful leaders in current and future business contexts. A good deal of this effort is worthwhile and received positively by the participants and their staff. But is it always an efficient use of time, money and effort?

I have seen some leadership competency frameworks that demand managers develop and demonstrate literally dozens of leadership qualities and skills. It’s no wonder stress is rising among middle managers.

What’s interesting is that when subordinates are asked what they value most about their managers they say the best managers do two things. First, they listen well, take a real interest in their challenges and – crucially –  ask how they can help their subordinate do a better job. Second – and even more crucially – they actually do something about the feedback they are given. Some of this is not rocket science!

So, how would it be in our organisations if we taught people how to learn to be better managers and leaders? How would it be if we framed leadership as a ‘learning mindset’ that everyone can step into in the right circumstances?

A first step on this learning journey would be to reflect on how well we listen to people’s concerns and issues about getting a job done, really work on what it means to ask great questions that help one another get to the heart of a business or organisational issue and then take responsibility for our own bit of the solution.

Tom Peter’s is one of the giants of leadership thinking – and he makes this same point beautifully in one of his ‘Little Big Things’ videos. Check it out if you have any resonance with these ideas. I use this clip all the time…

It’s important to stress here that we are talking about learning that is active. Not the passive type of learning many of us experienced in our school or college careers! Now I have to come clean here. I was once a Primary school teacher, still lecture at University – and a purveyor of some passive learning on occasion 🙂 However, my experience screams to me that we can do a much better and more efficient job of equipping people to be leaders in our businesses, public services and communities if we help them to understand how people learn (including themselves as developing leaders).

It’s not uncommon to find models such as David Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning cited in leadership development provision. Kolb’s theory, by the way, says little about ‘listening’ as a tool for experiencing ‘the concrete’ and precious little about the importance of interaction with others in the learning process. Some of you may be familiar with De Bono’s Thinking Hats, or Chris Argyris’ Double Loop Learning which are perhaps more useful learning tools. But my proposition here, is that these models and theories are usually used as conceptual tools to explain the process of development rather than as tools for much deeper and extensive engagement with the practice learning for leadership.

There is a wealth of other material that can guide our efforts to become better learners of leadership skills and help us to build stronger collective leadership capacity in our organisations and communities. For example, the work of Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton – New Kinds of Smart; Tim Harford – Adapt; Noreen Hertz – Eyes Wide Open; and Robert J Thomas’ Crucibles of Leadership to name only a few of my own favourite texts.

For now, we might simply challenge ourselves to become more aware of how well we listen to others and reflect on how often we lead conversations with questions before we start telling people what we think they should be doing!

Perhaps ask some friends, family or colleagues how well you listen to their concerns and interests!

Why not watch Tom Peters’ video and then answer this poll…?

John Kotter wrote a fabulous book about leading change. The central character was a penguin called Fred!

John Kotter wrote a fabulous book about leading change. The central character was a penguin called Fred!

What is leadership?  As Crainer and Dearlove (2008) say “ask 100 executives and you will get 100 different answers. Ask the experts, the academics and journalists who spend their lives researching leadership, and you will still be searching for a definite answer”. The literature on leadership is voluminous. Millions of words and hundreds of books are written on the subject every year. One colleague, with more patience than me, counted 237 separate definitions of leadership as part of a review of leadership literature.

I agree with Michael Fullan and Alan Boyle (2011) who argue that “the advice to leaders is getting too voluminous … [and] doubt current effective leaders became successful by studying the research literature. It is not that the research literature is unhelpful, but rather that it needs to be put into perspective so that individual change leaders can learn to become more effective in practical, meaningful ways” (p.2).

So what do the experts agree about?

There are three established schools of leadership thinking;

  • the first focuses on leader traits, dispositions and personality;
  • the second looks at leader roles, behaviours and actions,
  • the third explores the different styles of leadership required in different situations and contexts.

There is also a more recent school of thought that frames leadership as a shared or interactive phenomena. This school of thought reflects the idea that to succeed in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts of contemporary business and public service organisations people at all ‘levels’ need to take leadership roles as and when the situation demands. It views leadership as a function of our organisations, social groups and communities that helps us make a difference to causes of common interest; getting things done and making a positive impact on other people’s lives.

So, not only are we becoming alive to the importance of leadership for business, public service and the great causes of our time; sustainability, equality and freedom – we are beginning to recognise the importance of smaller scale acts of leadership in our work groups, communities and families; the common acts of leadership that bring people together to build a community hall, fight off an unwarranted supermarket development or help teenagers get involved in productive leisure and community activities.

Self role context graphic

This highlights the point that leadership exists in relation to the self-identity of individuals, their given (or assumed) role as leader and the relationship between themselves, their role and the needs of the immediate and wider context. Each of these is shifting and subject to alternate interpretations, depending on whose reference point is taken. This is why it is such a difficult subject to pin down. And such a difficult role to fulfill!

The literature on organisational leadership commonly refers to four further themes which occupy leaders’  attention. They are: clarity about the purpose and aims of the organisation or endeavour and how these will be achieved (strategy); the culture of human interaction in fulfilling these aims; the capacity of the organisation, its systems and structures to address its strategic aims and the relationship between the organisation (and its members/staff) and the wide range of stakeholders whose interests are represented by the endeavour. This will include customers, board of Directors, unions, governors, trustees and public interest.


When I ask managers what leadership means to them, they often talk about specific leaders – often national or international politicians past and present. People like John F. Kennedy, Gandhi or Martin Luther King. They are often men! And historically, leadership was the preserve of ‘great men’. Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi being rare female examples of internationally renowned national leaders. In more recent times, we have begun to view Directors and managers as people who lead organisations and businesses; and leadership as the act of inspiring successful change or innovation. People often talk about the inspirational leadership of people like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson in business (still men! Although more women are creeping into the dialogue. Women such Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Anita Roddick of Bodyshop – who was the first female pioneer of truly ethical business).

The conversation then turns to the qualities these leaders exhibit and how they achieve success – so people intuitively pay attention to the same issues found in schools of thought described above. Over and over again leaders in business and public service refer to a handful of core qualities that define effective leadership. In my experience, the labels may vary but people commonly refer to one or more of the following. Leaders demonstrate:

  • Vision, inspiration
  • Resolve, determination, grit, resilience
  • Creativity, innovation, adaptability, learning skills
  • Judgement, integrity, values
  • Enabling, engaging others
  • Self awareness, emotional intelligence, good listening, and ask great questions.

It’s a daunting list of qualities, and no wonder many leaders feel like ‘imposters’ as they step into new roles. It’s almost impossible to live up to ALL these qualities, all of the time. That’s one reason why leadership is best shared. It takes many individuals to provide our groups, teams or organisations with these leadership qualities consistently over time.


Crainer, S. & Dearlove, D., 2008. The Future of Leadership,

Fullan, M. & Boyle, A., 2011. Reflections on the change leadership landscape, Nottingham. NCSL.

People often ask me ‘what are the key qualities and skills of an effective leader’? My stock response begins by pointing out that there are hundreds of definitions of ‘leadership’ (yes hundreds!) and thousands of books and articles published every year that claim to provide definitive answers to that question. Anyone who works in leadership development will point to the importance of qualities like clear vision, a strong sense of purpose, resilience and a keen resolve to see things through, ‘good’ judgement,  the agility to innovate and move into new territory as well as the ability to charm and engage people in a common cause or initiative.

There are all sorts of leadership theories, frameworks and audit tools to help us develop and benchmark ourselves against a daunting array of competencies, but the qualities of a leader are myriad and nuanced and depend on the needs of the context and susceptible to the subtleties of timing and mood of key stakeholders. This is why 360 degree feedback – combined with a courageous choice of reviewers (ie choosing some people who may not provide glowing feedback) is commonly cited as one of the most powerful forms of leadership development. This is approach is, however, costly in terms of the time and commitment it requires from others.


Leadership is all about making a difference… to the people around you, to the service you provide, to the sales you make and the profit that ensues. So when people ask me about leadership qualities and how to develop it in their organisation, I ask them to think about which are the most successful, most efficient, most revered and more profitable departments or areas of the business – and to explore why these areas of the business are so successful. Sometimes it comes down to good fortune – a new product that hits the market at just the right time. Sometimes it is clearly about resolute or inspired leadership by an individual. But at other times it’s down to the energy of a close knit team that has developed over time or the exceptional relationships that a junior member of the team has built with key customers over many years. In other situations it can be down to the spark of ingenuity or willingness to break the rule book of one or two unsung heroes.

In terms of leadership development and capacity building, rather than relying on competency audits or IQ/EQ tests to identify potential leaders, we need to be alive to the whole range of talented people that are already making a difference to our enterprise. Ask yourself, do we already know who is making a real difference? If we do, how can we amplify their qualities and abilities? If we don’t know, what are we going to do about it?

One of my favourite definitions of leadership is from Peter Senge (author of the Fifth Discipline). He says leadership is

“The capacity of a human community to shape its future, to sustain significant change”.

This reflects a particular view of leadership – one that recognizes that the seat of leadership shifts, depending on the change or innovation at hand. So we need to identify, reward and amplify successful leadership – and help the people who get things done to take a strong role in helping others to achieve the things that matter. These people often take their skills and qualities for granted. These qualities are not always easy to teach. So what is important is helping the right people to ‘rub shoulders’ with the people who are ready to step up the task of making a difference beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It’s a quality of the whole community rather than of individuals. Sometimes being willing to step forward, take responsibility to get things done by inspiring and involving others – and sometimes being ready to follow, to get land a hand and get stuck into a cause or purpose we believe is the right thing to do.

How will you make a difference today?

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