Reading this tome leads me to the bin

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The Independent Culture

Leadership and management are often interchangeable in everyday speech; in reality, they are profoundly different.

Leadership and management are often interchangeable in everyday speech; in reality, they are profoundly different.

Management arguably qualifies as a science. There is a large and growing body of knowledge, it has models that can be postulated, a mathematical analytical base and frameworks that can be fortified (Sir Karl Popper would approve).

As a discipline it enjoys the benefit of clarity in the use of words and concepts. Aside from making a case for management as an academic discipline, it also has an interesting practical day-to-day benefit. Effective management makes things work better.

Words used to describe management tell their own story - analysis, logical processes, systems, planning, problem solving, rationality, detail.

A Master of Business Administration qualification (MBA) plus a quality practical training in one or more large organisations is nowadays the backbone for a management career.

Leadership is more problematic. To argue that it is an art is simplistic. Mysticism or religious ecstasy might be a more appropriate parallel.

Leadership is a much-sought quality in our world, in business, art, politics, the public sector. One of the more illuminating writers on leadership, Warren Bennis, says: "To an extent, leadership is like beauty - it is hard to define, but you know it when you see it."

Unlike management, leadership is centred around personality. We are told characteristics central to leadership are often forged in early life; the order in the family, whether one or more parents died before the child reached teenage. But evidence is nebulous.

Words describing leadership again speak for themselves - charisma, vision, strategies, motivation of people, dreams, personality centred, drive, originality, and so on.

Working with individuals who have considerable gifts of leadership is often a unique and transforming experience. Whether someone loaded with the leadership characteristics will have an opportunity to use these talents is nearly always determined by events (Tony Blair succeeding John Smith after Mr Smith's untimely death is a case in point). The leader's vision may be positive or negative. Could a Napoleon enliven the sceptical British or could Churchill have led the French? Admiring the leadership characteristics in other cultures is one thing. To be led directly by them is another.

If we accept a general thirst for vibrant, full-blooded leadership - and a perceived drought of talent - why are there so few books of any quality on the subject and why does the subject itself seem so impenetrable? Maybe the two are connected. To read many books on leadership is a harrowing experience. Those written principally by academics voyage into impenetrable darkness. Biography and occasionally autobiography seem to draw closer to the central issues than most other written material.

One broad distinction that can be drawn from the canon on leadership is a degree to which only a few of us or nearly all of us have significant leadership potential. If only the circumstance is right and we were developed properly.

Some writers - rightly in my view - glory in the major acts of leadership of a Mandela, Gandhi, de Gaulle or Thatcher.

But many books encourage us to believe we can importantly improve our quota of leadership rather like the self-improvement books which abound in most subjects. There is even an increasing interest in followers rather than leaders.

In my judgement, books on leadership fall into three broad terrifying categories:

* Leaders writing on their life experience of leadership;

* Academic tomes - unreadable and rarely understandable (Warren Bennis and Abraham Zaleznik are exceptions);

* A disjointed group of other authors compelled to write about a subject they feel closely connected to.

Hilarie Owen falls into this third category. She has been through various transforming experiences in her life - and clearly there are more to come. Ms Owen now wants to share these with us by setting up the Institute of Leadership, as she says, to further the understanding of leadership in the world.

A large part of this book is taken up with quotes on leadership and lists of leadership qualities. Most of these are not put into context or moulded to make any clear or cogent points or to develop any tangible themes.

This is a highly personal tract. The quality of writing is poor, and the book desperately needs editing and, probably, rewriting. At present, it would be better sold as an audiotapethan a book.

It is a meandering dissertation. Having read it, I find it hard remembering what the book was about - what are the aims of these volumes - it seems to me that this book adds nothing to help clarify and develop the concepts and ideas about leadership. On the contrary, it adds further to the general fog.

Ms Owen's frustration is also linked to Longfellow's memorable phrase. We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done. This gulf in Ms Owen's case is unusually large.

We are informed by Hilarie Owen that the ideas presented in this 107-page book took over 15 years to mature and present. More ominously, Ms Owen informs us this is the first of two volumes on leadership.

"Here we focus on you the individual and people everywhere," Ms Owen intones. The second book will show what organisations will need to do to enable people to practise their leadership. Both are needed, insists Ms Owen. My gentle hope based upon my experience of the first volume is that the second takes as long to write and publish as the first.

The reviewer is chairman for Europe of Heidrick & Struggles International, the executive search firm. and author of 'Drive, Leadership in Business and Beyond'

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