Don’t step in the leadership

This is the title of one of Scott Adams’s Dilbert books, and it clearly shows what he thinks of the current emphasis on leadership! We’ve always had leaders and leadership itself has always been important, but the topic has been receiving more and more attention in recent years, as if it were something new. But then management thinking always has been prone to following fashions and fads and promoting people to guru status in the process. I’m not convinced that this is helpful, as it means that the ideas that get publicised are those that are seen as being ‘of the moment’, rather than the ones that are important, relevant or helpful. It also means that we lose out to a certain extent on the development and consolidation of ideas. Today’s ideas will be replaced by tomorrow’s fashion, and so much of what is of value in today’s thinking will be lost or at least dissipated. Similarly, important learning from the past gets labelled ‘dated’, and is discarded to a large extent, even if it has been of value in helping us to make sense of the complexities of organisational life.

In my view, though, leadership is a topic that justifies close attention. This is not only because it is an important issue (or set of issues), but also because it is surrounded by confusion, oversimplification and misunderstanding. In particular, the following common, but misleading, assumptions need to be challenged:

Leaders are born not made This ‘biological determinism’ is as inappropriate in relation to leadership as it is to any other aspect of social life. It is a gross oversimplification to think that the influences of culture, upbringing, previous experiences of learning and so on have no bearing on the development of leadership. If leaders are simply born that way, what is the point of leadership development training? Leadership involves knowledge, skills and values, like any other area of practice, and these can be taught, nurtured and developed.

Men make better leaders After reading much of the literature on leadership you could be forgiven for thinking that leadership is a male domain. There is much reference there to military leadership and traditional masculine qualities of endurance, fortitude and courage, and often the style of language used is not exactly gender sensitive. While there may be few if any people who are brave or foolish enough to say explicitly that leadership is ‘a man thing’, that is still the message that comes across from much of the literature on this topic. Clearly this needs to change if we are to have an adequate understanding of leadership and provide a platform for leadership development that is consistent with principles of equality and diversity.

Leadership is a management issue Some of the best leaders are basic-grade staff who are committed to good practice and high standards, and therefore use their skills to influence others in that direction. And, of course, we should not make the mistake of assuming that a manager is a leader – the two roles can overlap extensively, but they are not necessarily the same thing. What we need, then, is a more sophisticated approach to leadership than that which many people currently adopt – one that avoids the misleading assumptions outlined here and others like them. Leadership development is not (or should not be) a bandwagon to be jumped on – it is too important for that. We need to build on the more in-depth understandings of leadership that are being developed in some quarters currently and make sure that training and development activities in this area do justice to the complexity of the issues. We also need to make sure that our learning in this important area continues to develop and be consolidated rather than fall by the wayside when the next fashion or fad comes along. We need to make sure that leadership is not allowed to be consigned at some point in the future to the status of ‘yesterday’s thing’. And that in itself is, of course, a leadership challenge.

 Dr Neil Thompson                 

Neil’s website and blog are at