We have had a major, and vigorous, discussion on Secondsightblog.net under the title of “Was Peter the right choice?” It induces me to write this week on the nature of leadership.
I start by distinguishing between leadership and management. They are not only not the same, they run in different channels altogether. The manager is concerned with the efficient working of established processes; he thinks about the now: the leader is concerned with the future; he thinks about the direction of travel. From this bare contrast one rightly infers that the manager works at a detailed level, and the leader is by nature a visionary. In many instances the leadership and management are found under the same hat, and they are uneasy companions. In large organisations they will usually be different people, and the leader may well be paid 10 times the manager’s salary. And, golly, he or she is worth it – because a leader is a rara avis and makes or breaks an enterprise. Whereas managers are, if not two a penny, certainly of a lower currency.
Leadership comes in different guises, so I cannot write confidently of a typical leader, but a quick view of Bernard Montgomery may help. This was a man who had vision, and no one in the Eighth Army had any doubts about it. And the vision was concrete: developed through a study of military tactics, backed by meticulous intelligence – right down to hanging a portrait of Rommel in his tent – and planned for the detailed disposition of men and matériel.
He had a ruthlessness which infuriated his superiors and inspired his men. He demanded from High Command the resources without which he would not go to war, and he infected his soldiers with his determination and confidence. He loved them – after all, a private soldier had given his life to tend his wounds in the Great War. He trusted his troops and they trusted him. It is interesting that the account of Julius Caesar given by Suetonius shows important characteristics in common.
A leader needs a good practical intelligence. It need not be an academic one; indeed, academics are often distracted by seeing too many sides to a question, while the leader needs to focus on the essential points. But, almost by definition, leadership intelligence requires the originality to grasp possibilities that more conventional minds might miss. He has what is often called “helicopter” vision; this enables him to review a wide range of information and a capacity to spot future trends and circumstances.
He must of course be prepared to take risks and he will do so when the probability and rewards of success look right. While being aware in the back of his mind that he is far from infallible he must be a confident optimist if his people are to be inspired by him. And, more often than not, he must be right. An unsuccessful leader has a limited future. Rewards are high but the chasms are deep.
His basic and most important function is to identify the few (and they are often not more than two or three) essential elements for the success of the enterprise. He does not have to blazon these in great mission statements, but he does have to live them out. For example, if he has identified customer satisfaction as a key factor he will communicate this not so much by empty statements as by visibly testing decisions and recommendations against this characteristic. His followers will cotton on very quickly.
In fact, much of his leadership is likely to be communicated in informal contact and conversations. Unless circumstances require radical change, he will work by shaping rather than by diktat. But to do this effectively he must have excellent communication skills both to impart his message and to listen to the messages he hears. He knows that his people will accept even unpopular change when they know that their difficulties have been understood. And he will know that people who have contributed, if only in a minor way, to the shaping of a decision will own it, and so make it work.
But he will not become “one of the boys” because he is not one of them, and that is why his salary is 10 times higher. He needs to preserve a definite level of difference if he is to capitalise on our evolved tendency to follow and defer to authority. If you want to know who is the real boss in a group of executives, identify the person that they all look at. Equivalently if you want to identify the alpha male in an animal pack, the one they watch will tell you.
Charisma is an overused word, but there is no doubt that the halo which surrounds a revered leader is significant. An interesting study, published this year, by Norman Levene of the University of Tennessee, suggests that the common qualities of leadership are attributes such as empathy, good listening skills, eye contact, enthusiasm, self-confidence and skilful speaking. And the general belief was that these characteristics were not necessarily native but could be learned. My own view is that it helps to start with good material and then to develop it.
What has this, if anything, to do with the Christian life? Professor Ronald Brech, one of the great management consultants of our time, told me that he would often start his lectures by slapping a New Testament on the table and saying: “All you need to know about leadership is written in that book.”
You might like to look at leadership as taught and exercised by Christ, and see to what extent the principles I have briefly listed match with him. And tell us what you think.