In recent times we’ve heard plenty about leadership in the public arena. Depending on who is seeking our attention, we will have heard that good leaders are resolutely fixated on the national interest. We are also frequently reminded that those who want to lead us must be worthy of our trust and be people of character.
National leaders seeking our vote are keen to assure us that those qualities of leadership are embodied in themselves, their colleagues and their party.
In the world of business, leadership is accorded an equally prominent place. When AHRI seeks the views of senior HR practitioners about the issues that matter in their organisations, leadership is always mentioned. Another one is attracting and keeping talented people. And a defining characteristic of a talented recruit is one who displays the qualities of a future leader. So the idea runs full circle. Through good leadership, an organisation seeks to attract more good leaders.
With the singular exception of board members who rely on shareholder endorsement, corporate executive leaders don’t require a vote to establish their legitimacy. However, those who appoint executives usually require them to display sufficient leadership qualities to enable an investment of confidence.
Appointed leaders are expected to do what they say they will do, and to live up to their promise to lead the organisation in accordance with its vision.
Being confident that the leader will fulfil the promise is critical because, on appointment, the leader is given authority and power. “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power,” said Abraham Lincoln.
Two recent articles in Harvard Business Review touch on the issue of leadership and power. One is by Anita Elberse on the remarkably successful manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson puts a priority on maintaining power: “You can never lose control – not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires”, he says. He places equal store on responding quickly if his authority is challenged so that situations do not get out of hand. Ferguson led his club to 13 English Premier League titles, so he did something right.
The other is an article in the August HBR by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of psychology at University College London, who proposes that “leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders”, but adds immediately that those qualities are inversely related to leadership talent. Leadership talent, he says, includes an ability to build high-performing teams and inspire others to set aside selfish agendas for the common good, and leaders who can do that, tend to be humble and are strong on emotional intelligence.
He adds that it’s those qualities in a leader that can best elicit respect from their followers, empower subordinates and solve problems creatively. Yet he proposes two worrying paradoxes. One is that “most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others about their talent for management,” an observation that is especially true for women. The second is “the same psychological characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well.”
In case I might be suspected of advancing a self-serving gender proposition here, let me say I am an admirer of Alex Ferguson: a firm leader, a success story and a man.
Lyn Goodear is the chief executive officer of the Australian Human Resources Institute.