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
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
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
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
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.
Lessons from the Ancient World by Arthur Cotterell,
Roger Lowe, Ian Shaw
How Triumphant Leaders Create the Future by Andrew Razeghi
Leader's Legacy by James M. Kouzes, Barry Z. Posner
Leadership Legacy by Robert M Galford, Maruca Regina