“Life isn’t easy, and leadership is harder still.”
Bard College Professor Walter Russell Mead

Author: Chatham House; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Chatham House; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I can remember a time when the term “leader” was used to describe the most senior person in any human run entity, such as the CEO of a large company, a President or Prime Minister of a country that actually had a seat at the United Nations, or even the head of any religious organisation that needed more than one minibus to take all its adherents to the annual sausage sizzle. (See “Management or Leadership” posted March 7, 2011).

This does not seem to be the case today, when we appear willing to accord a leadership title to all.

It is as though words like “specialist”, supervisor” and even “manager” have all been discarded from our business lexicon.

Project Managers have been replaced by Project Leads and Team Leaders, even if the entire team consists of 2-3 people, Senior Maths Teachers in schools are now The Maths Leader, and Shift Leader has replaced Shift Supervisor even in small factories.

My first promotion in 1968 was from the position of Computer Programmer to the role of being in charge of a 6-man programming team, which carried the exalted title of Senior Programmer. Today that title is more likely to be Leader Software Development, just as the person who is responsible for looking after the elevator staff at Harrods Department Store in London will no doubt be carrying the title of Leader Vertical Displacement Services.

Even my next promotion carried the title of Supervisor, and it took me another two years to actually get to a position that carried the word “Manager” in the title. We had a leader … he was the CEO.

via Wikimedia Commons; {{PD-US}}

via Wikimedia Commons; {{PD-US}}

I find that it is very rare these days that anyone even talks about management training, as people who are seen as being of management potential are now sent on Leadership Development Programmes rather than management training, despite the fact that statistics tell us that most will never get beyond a first level management position. Even Primary school teachers today go on leadership development courses even if most don’t/won’t/can’t become a school principal, and just want to be able to teach young children, and to do it well.

Is it just a question of time before we replace the increasingly more humbly titled MBA with the more importantly sounding MLA (Mater of Leadership Attainment), as business schools finally come to the realisation that this is a whole new gravy train?

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-TEXT license

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-TEXT license

I was recently asked to come and talk about leadership at an annual company event that brings together all staff that are in any “people responsible” roles (to be somewhat cautious in my use of language) for a 2-day talk fest to kick off the new business year. In discussing the remit with my host, I innocently asked whether, as my session would be on the topic of Leadership, I could assume that I would be addressing the senior executive team. It turned out that I would actually be presenting to everyone except their “Top-100” senior managers, being the 1000 or so first and middle level management.

When I asked whether, based on the audience, discussing “management rather than leadership” would not be more appropriate, I was told that the company had decided to run a programme that was planned to make everyone “a leader in their role”, and that this was all part of the key messaging of this year’s kick-off meeting. My suggestion that what he was describing was surely more about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way” rather than being about “leadership” almost lost me the assignment.

However, as it was an existing client, and it was a good fee, I titled my session, as they had suggested, “We are all leaders” and spoke about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way”.

I do wonder however, whether we have come to a point where the word “leadership” has become so overused that it is losing its true meaning, just like the word “cloud” is today in the tech industry where everything is now labelled as being cloud, when much of it is really just smoke.

Are we trying to give everyone the title of leader as this then removes the need for senior management to actually do something about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way” ? By making everyone a leader does that just conveniently shift this responsibility from the top of the pyramid down to the individual ? Despite the changes in titles I have not seen the commensurate increases in authority and levels of freedom that one would normally associate with someone in a leadership role.

I salute the whole idea of giving people more freedom, fewer barriers, more responsibility, the right to manage themselves and how they do their job, as I have long believed that when we remove the shackles from people, many will take the opportunity to soar rather than just make do.

I am also not questioning that people can take up a temporary leadership role dependant on the situation being faced at the time, like one team member being quiet during a team discussion on technology, but leading the discussion when the topic switches to sales and marketing.

But I don’t think that this makes them a leader. It can, however, make them a liberated employee who is committed to making a serious contribution to the company in areas where they have subject matter expertise, and as such we should treat them with respect, hear what they have to say, and make sure that we nurture them as one day, in the right environment, they may actually become a true leader.

If we really want to build leaders, we need to give people the culture and the freedom to act, to learn and to grow, rather than to just give them a title with the word “leader” embedded in it.

Author: Arquivo/ABr; CC BY 3.0 BR license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Arquivo/ABr; CC BY 3.0 BR license; via Wikimedia Commons

“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work and time. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal.” American Football Coach Vince Lombardi (1913-1970).



“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism.

Author: Page 72 of Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner's Myths and Legends of China on Project Gutenberg; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Page 72 of Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner’s Myths and Legends of China on Project Gutenberg; via Wikimedia Commons

I generally try to keep out of the academics’ desire to differentiate between leadership and management (see “Management or Leadership” posted March 7, 2011), as I believe that the two have become mostly inseparable in real life, both being areas of skill needed by everyone in an executive role.

However, I am increasingly asked to give my definition of what constitutes good leadership, so with the caveat that I still believe that great management skills are an integral part of successful leadership and vice versa, I do believe that there are some measurable key elements that when taken together constitute skilled leadership.

The best general and concise dictionary definition of leadership I have found is that it represents “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”

Here are my three elements of leadership that I feel are needed, and that I would use to expand this definition:

Inspiration … Many people tend to equate the ability to inspire people mainly with charisma, verbal skills and extroversion, and while I agree that these can help, I do not believe that they are necessarily the only criteria. There is no question that a good leader needs to be able to paint a compelling vision that people want to be a part of, and thus want to contribute to, its attainment. However, this may in many circumstances need visible expertise in the key individual elements of the “dream”, such as product (Apple) or go to market (eBay), even more than the unbridled enthusiasm and oratorical skills of someone like a Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. Steve Ballmer going crazy on stage when he starts his presentation to the Microsoft developers may, to many of us, look like a man who has lost the plot, but would have been seen as inspirational and enthusiastic to his audience of software developers. (see video). Compare this with the quite confidence of Lee Kwan Yew, founding father of Singapore, who I consider to be one of the great inspirational leaders of our time (see Lee Kwan Yew’s National Day Rally speech 1984). Style may vary, and will depend on the leader as well as the makeup of the team, as inspiring a group of sales people will require a different approach than inspiring a team of techies. However there are some common elements in good inspirational leadership such as setting stretch goals, growing and developing team members, encouraging innovation and creativity, being even-handed with people and creating a culture of high integrity and honesty.

Author: Microsoft Sweden Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/46411239@N05; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Microsoft Sweden Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/46411239@N05; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Collaboration … Successful leadership is never about going it alone, as by definition, it requires people who are keen to follow. Getting team buy-in and commitment is critical, and the starting point needs to be the right of the key team members to be an integral part in the development of the vision, direction and actions needed to achieve the goal. Successful collaboration requires skilled “social intelligence” in the leader, being the ability to have a basic understanding of people and having the skills needed to interact with them. This has been defined as having the 5 key dimensions of presence (external image or sense of self as perceived by others), clarity (using language effectively while persuading with ideas), awareness (ability to read situations), authenticity (behaviour that shows honesty and integrity) and empathy (ability to connect with others which encourages co-operation). Ultimately every leader must be able to lead by example.

Author: Berdea (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Berdea (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Concentration … Good leaders have the ability to focus their time and energy on what is critical, and have the discipline to be able to either disregard or delegate everything else. Being a “control freak” that gets involved in every decision in every piece of the business will generally only work for a short time, a small group or a simple task. The 26th President of the USA, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had it right when he said “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Those in Leadership roles today are under growing pressures of speed, complexity, changing markets and competition, financial pressures and the need to do more with less. It is critical for success not only of the individual executive, but of the entire organisation that those in leadership positions have an ability to focus on what is critically needed for success. By this definition (and I believe few others, see “Are Fanatics or Fools the problem ?” posted April 23, 2012) Steve Jobs was exactly the leader needed to bring Apple back from the brink of disaster by focussing on “gadgets” based on his own skill-set, and on his belief and understanding that the market was ready for this. Focus involves taking “calculated risks”, and this is a key element of successful leadership at all times, as it is of any successful business. Ultimately the ability to focus on driving the execution of a widely committed strategy is an integral part of success.

I am sure there are many others elements needed in a good leader, but I do see these three to be common in successful leaders, whether in sports, business or politics, remembering that “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organised in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings”. Peter Drucker (1909-2005), management guru.

Author: Jeff McNeill; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jeff McNeill; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Most people when considering the subject of leadership tend to look to the examples of some CEOs such as Steve Jobs of Apple or Jack Welch of GE, or great national leaders such as Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, who built one of the wealthiest nations in the world on a small rock just south of the Malaysian mainland, or Winston Churchill who lead Britain during the Second World War.

Author: Hamilton83; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Hamilton83; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have long believed that Steve Jobs was a great gadget designer who took on mythical leadership status on his death, but who had always really been an erratic, despotic and egomaniacal CEO. (see “Are Fanatics or Fools the problem” posted April 23, 2012), and that Jack Welch had great success at GE, but gained fame more as a published celebrity than as a great leader.

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Lee Kwan Yew had a dream about what Singapore could become and was able to get the people of Singapore to believe in that dream as being their own, but drove his people through edicts, and control of every element of the people’s lives, including at one point dictating the allowable length of their hair, and Winston Churchill had circumstances dictate his situation when Germany declared war in 1939.

Whilst I do admire many elements of what all these men achieved, when it comes to defining true leadership, I prefer the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French Pilot and writer (1900-1944) who said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.

That is why I believe that to find true leadership, one has to look beyond most CEOs and Presidents, to people who because of their vision, commitment and courage, even in the face of death, were able to build a following who were also prepared to risk everything to achieve the dream that their leader had presented.

Here is my nomination for the “Great Leadership Award” during my own lifetime.

Malala Yousafzai … A leader at 14 years old

At the age of 11 Malala started writing a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley, and about her dream and vision for promoting education for all girls in Pakistan. As she rose to prominence, she began giving press and television interviews, with the NY Times filming a documentary on her life and her mission to ensure all girls had a right to be educated. In October 2012, when she was 14, Taliban gunmen tried to assassinate her while she was returning home on a school bus. She was shot in the head and neck, and after treatment locally, was airlifted to the UK for intensive surgery and rehabilitation. She has now been released from hospital and she has vowed to continue her fight despite the on-going Fatwahs being issued against her.

Author: Carlos Latuff; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Carlos Latuff; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

She has been nominated for the International Children’s Peace prize, the National Youth Peace prize, Game-changers 2012, Time Magazine’s person of the year and is the youngest person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. Schools have been named after her. Former First Lady Laura Bush, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a legion of celebrities such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Tina Brown have launched and endorsed a campaign to raise money to provide education for all girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On 15 October 2012, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, launched a petition to the Government of Pakistan in Malala’s name, the main demand being that there be no children left out of school by 2015.

The petition contains three demands:

-We call on Pakistan to agree to a plan to deliver education for every child.
-We call on all countries to outlaw discrimination against girls.
-We call on international organizations to ensure the world’s 61 million out-of-school children are in education by the end of 2015.

John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

I believe that by any definition, Malala Yousafzai has exhibited all the true characteristics of leadership that we too readily attribute to people who have been elected to public office (mostly with only a small majority), or those that have fought their way to the top of a corporation, generally measuring them by financial and share price growth.

The dictionary defines Leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. The leader may or may not have any formal authority, but traits include situational interaction, function, behavior, power, vision and values, charisma, courage and determination and intelligence, among others.”

I believe that a leader not only has to have a clear vision, but must be able to share that vision with others in a way that will make them willingly follow, and that a leader is someone who steps up in a time of crisis, or to right a human wrong, without any regard for personal safety or personal gain.

In this respect, I believe that Malala Yousafzai has the right to step up beside the likes of National leaders such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi, and definitely has as much right as those CEOs that some tend to elevate to Leadership status such as Steve Jobs and Jack Welch.

As was summed up by one of Malala’s classmates “Every girl in Swat is now Malala. We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can’t defeat us.”

For me, that’s a real sign of true leadership.


I am often asked about what is my personal differentiation between management and leadership, and while I believe that a lot of this current discussion on this topic is something to keep academics and consultants busy, I do believe that there is a difference.

Some time ago someone said to me that the difference was that “We lead people and manage things”, and whilst this is simple to say, it is only because it is for simple minds, as I believe that it is wrong.

I believe that in reality we both lead and manage people.

Peter Drucker comes closer when he says “Leadership is doing the right thing, management is doing things right”, but whilst I am a rabid devotee of Drucker, I believe that this too is not enough.

Leadership being doing the right thing involves setting a direction for the future, ensuring that the resources and the culture (behaviours) are aligned with the needed end goals, identifying what has to be changed and how do we go about driving this change.

Once this is done management, being doing things right, then has the role of making this happen against the objectives that have been set and are cascaded through the organisation.

The issue is that I do not believe that this can be as clearly defined or delineated as much discussion, particularly over the last 10 years, tends to imply. Both capabilities are critical for a successful executive and trying to suggest that the CEO needs to be a leader and his direct reports need to be managers, misses the point that they all need to be both at different times.

Too many people confuse being a wonderful, fluent, charismatic and inspiring speaker with being a great leader. I believe that this is the main reason that electorates become quickly disillusioned with elected representatives, whether this is as President of the US or as Lord Mayor of North Sydney. We tend to be attracted to elect people that have the ability to “sing to our hearts” through words and presentation, or just animal charisma and image, with little ability to test whether they actually have the skills to run a national cabinet of ministers or a group of city councillors. Arnold Schwarzenegger won public support for his run for Governor of California because people wanted to believe that his on screen tough-guy persona was the reality of the man needed to slay the state’s budget deficit dragon of the past decade … after all he had done tougher things as “Conan the Barbarian” . The “Governator” recently had to step down with an increased budget deficit of around $ 20 billion that he had had little success in denting, let alone banishing it forever to Cimmeria.

by Photographer Mate 3rd Class Stefanie Broughton; via Wikimedia Commons

The problem is that the skills needed to win elections are not necessarily those that are needed to run a business enterprise whether this is a country, a city council or a corporation. The needed skills are a blend of great leadership and great management.

Source: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, 1964; via Wikipedia

Being able to build a compelling, well articulated vision without an ability to execute, is actually worse than having a lesser strategy that can be well executed, though you have to be careful that you are not like the 2 blind men hurrying down the street with absolutely no idea of where they are going, but content in the belief that they are making good time.

Source: Lee McLaughlin, Author: Lee McLaughlin, Date=1973-07-03, Permission=© Lee Mclaughlin

Good leaders with little management skills are hoping that the management capability of those below them will ensure successful execution, whilst great managers with little leadership skills create an organisation with good logistics and little excitement. I worked for one CEO who believed that everything in business could be encapsulated in mathematical formulae, and he built his strategies on this premise. He would then not cascade the strategy too much as he had an inherent fear that if his competitors discovered his magic equations they could outmanoeuvre him.

Great leaders need to also be great managers and vice versa, and seeking to separate them for the sake of academic discussion does them both a disservice.