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Donkin on Work - Leadership

November 2006 – Leadership is a question of belief

I have yet to find anything that can calculate the “carbon footprint” created by the business book publishing industry. Leadership books alone must account for swathes of forest every year. Just when you think that all the permutations of words and ideas around the practice of leadership have been exhausted, out pops another book and somewhere in Sarawak another giant acacia topples to the ground.

Some books continue to milk the exploits of long dead historical figures. I had to admire the way Leadership, Lessons from the Ancient World by Arthur Cotterell, Roger Lowe and Ian Shaw, managed to link various military campaigns in antiquity to the profit and loss accounts of modern corporations.

It takes real ingenuity to equate the military reforms of a Chinese warlord, born more than 300 years before Christ, with the management of a frozen food business, as the authors do here. In the same way I doubt that the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, in his wildest dreams, could have imagined that his skills in delegation would one day be compared with those of Ricardo Semler, head of SEMCO SA, the Brazilian industrial group.

There was Diocletian, in the late third century, faced with invading barbarian hordes on every frontier. Skip a few centuries and his strategic thinking would need to be employed in the making and selling of industrial refrigeration and air conditioning systems.

As the fortunes of Thermistocles, Pericles, even Ramesses II are artfully interwoven with those of Enron, General Electric and Carphone Warehouse it is tempting to review this work like a West End musical, and describe it as a “delicious romp” of a management book.

With a less breathtaking sweep of history, Alex Axelrod’s Eisenhower on Leadership, draws on incidents and writings during Dwight D Eisenhower’s wartime role as the allies’ supreme commander in Europe to illustrate a series of leadership lessons. It is left to the reader to decide whether Second World War military leadership has anything to offer the modern boardroom.

The “lessons from history” books, however, have been overtaken this year – in quantity if not always in quality - by those that have chosen to concentrate on a single leadership characteristic. Andrew Razeghi devotes 236 pages to Hope, a book that is saved by its subtitle, How Triumphant Leaders Create the Future.

This book introduces us to “belief management”, something that seemed to me a bit odd until the author explained how the ability of an individual to project ideas on to others can change people’s perceptions in a fundamental way.

Most of us will be familiar with the experiments if not the name of Solomon Asch, a scientist who, during the 1950s, ran a much repeated experiment in social conformity among a group of students. He drew a vertical line on a card, then drew three vertical lines on another card. Only one of the three lines was obviously the same length as the line on the single card.

All that each of the students needed to do was to tell him which lines were the same length. But each student was questioned separately among a group that was otherwise made up of actors who had been pre-programmed to give the wrong response. Before the genuine respondents had the time to give their answer the actors would all deliver the wrong answer with a sense of conviction. The result was that in 75 per cent of cases the students on at least one occasion agreed with the incorrect answers.

The temptation is to assume that this had much to do with the gullibility of students. Another popular assumption is that the students were merely responding to peer pressure and the desire to conform. But a later experiment using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyse brain activity found that people who reject the evidence of their eyes are not making a conscious decision to go along with the group.

Such a decision would have shown up in the frontal lobes of the brain whereas, in fact, mental activity was registered in the rear of the brain that deals with spatial perception and vision. They actually saw what their group told them to believe, quite the opposite to the familiar observation that “seeing is believing.”

The brain scans also showed that those who went against the group experienced real difficulty in sticking with their initial perception. Anyone seeking an explanation for the decisions that led the US and UK in to Iraq need read no further. It certainly explains how triumphant leaders created the future. But what kind of future?

Fortunately this last question is something that company bosses are being urged to consider in two other new leadership books, A Leader’s Legacy, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, and (spot the difference) Your Leadership Legacy, by Robert Galford and Regina Maruca. The idea of leadership legacy is popular just now as we’re told that this is an overriding concern for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But neither book tells you what to do if the legacy you leave is a mess. Sir Clive Thompson, feted by other business leaders during the 1990s when chief executive of Rentokil, now finds himself under heavy criticism as chairman of European Home Retail, owner of Farepak, the Christmas hamper company that was forced to call in the receivers last month. When the book finally closes on Sir Clive’s career, how will he be remembered?

Mr Galford and Ms Maruca, argue that company bosses should think about such things much earlier in their careers. But would it make any difference? Did Mr Blair or Sir Clive go in to their respective roles with the intention of presiding over a calamity? Careers, companies, governments are shaped by people. But they are misshapen by events.

The Kouzes and Posner book, easily the best of the bunch, is written with a strong sense of realism. As a chapter heading points out “failure is always an option”. But most of that chapter is about learning from mistakes. What if your failure is cumulative, where disastrous consequences of earlier decisions only begin to emerge towards the end of your career? What then for your leadership legacy?

One of the real distinguishing features of those who choose to lead is their resilience. As Charles Kettering, the founder of Delco put it, “It doesn’t matter if you try and try and try again, and fail. It does matter if you try and fail, and fail to try again.” That’s all very well but if you’re playing on a world stage sometimes it’s best to know when to quit.

Leadership Lessons from the Ancient World by Arthur Cotterell, Roger Lowe, Ian Shaw

Hope: How Triumphant Leaders Create the Future by Andrew Razeghi

A Leader's Legacy by James M. Kouzes, Barry Z. Posner

Your Leadership Legacy by Robert M Galford, Maruca Regina Fazio

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved