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We need leaders who can part the sea AND take the people across

Sep 10, 2012 Business Daily, Leadership

“There are three classic models of leadership: the first is “autocratic leadership” where the leader manages to get somewhere but doesn’t take people with them, for example Margaret Thatcher. Then there is “charismatic leadership” where the leader takes everyone with him but doesn’t actually get anywhere, Tony Blair being a good example. Finally there’s the “loss leader” where the leader doesn’t get anywhere and doesn’t take anybody with them, Gordon Brown being the finest example. Very rarely do you get a leader that gets somewhere and manages to take all the people with them, maybe Moses but after that I’m struggling.”

GUY BROWNING The Guardian (August 30, 2012)

As someone who runs leadership development programmes myself, I was tickled to see Guy Browning’s tongue-in-cheek observations recently (see excerpt).

Mr Browning’s categories ring true, do they not? We have all come across ‘autocratic’ leaders: those that lead from the front, make every decision, hold all power and brook no dissent. Occasionally, and in special circumstances, this type of leader can have a major impact: Winston Churchill in World War 2; Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; Muammar Gaddafi in the 1970s are all pertinent examples.

But do note, this kind of leadership rarely ends well. Churchill rallied his country at war-time, but was an abject failure once peace broke out. Thatcher may have knocked many of the cobwebs off her nation in her early phase, but was ultimately rejected and humiliated by her own party. As for Gaddafi…well, we all know how that ended.

The problem with autocratic leaders is this: they’re fine for as long as their judgement holds. They’re great in a crisis and in a turnaround situation. But shout-from-the-front leadership is not that useful when creative or subtle solutions are needed. And by never listening to their followers, autocratic leaders usually eventually lose all their political capital, and are unseated.

What about ‘charismatic’ leaders? These are the smooth-talking, cool-walking ones who crave popularity and the adoration of their peers. They will make all the right noises, will seem to build strong teams – but will lack the gumption to take a stand when needed. They don’t usually have an overwhelming goal, you see: a pleasant journey with much applause along the way is what they really want. As a result, the communal vehicle often ends up just going round in circles.

As for the final category, those who lack convictions as well as charisma: the less said the better.

As we laugh, let us note the key leadership lesson. Both strong principles and an ability to build consensus are very important in leadership. You must be able to lead the way, but also ensure you are taking your people with you. You must be able to stand at the front, but also move to the back when needed. You must not compromise your core principles, but you must also coach and guide others to grow and take responsibility.

Sadly, these qualities are rarely found together in the same person. The autocrat is most often a prickly, intolerant type who creates enemies everywhere and can’t generate goodwill in others. The consensus builder, on the other hand, is often an empty suit – all smiles and smooth words, and no substance.

Throughout history, however, those able to combine the qualities have indeed appeared. Nelson Mandela had formidable spirit – but developed talent around him. Lee Kuan Yew was autocratic by nature, but saw the need to build institutions and uplift everyone to create ownership of national strategy, and retired with his reputation intact. Steve Jobs evolved from a brash and arrogant CEO to a more mellow one who built a great corporation, not just an ego-vehicle.

So look out for leaders who can part the sea AND take the people across. They are rare.

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