Now look, I'm in charge. Aren't I?

The caring, sharing enabler has superseded the bossy leader, writes Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
Many recruiters ask for leadership qualities in their candidates. Leadership training has been described by the Industrial Society as the "over-riding development priority for today's manager". In a survey carried out by the society, and reported in Managing Best Practice, 400 human resource managers were asked what they thought the core areas of their management development programmes were. Almost 90 per cent said leadership.

Perhaps this is just as well: Britain is not producing enough leaders to meet the challenges of the future, according to John Adair, who is probably the world's first professor of leadership studies. "Any leaders Britain does have are a result of accident, not design. We wait until we're on the beaches at Dunkirk before looking for our Winston Churchills," he told the Institute of Personnel and Development's annual training conference.

But what is meant by leadership qualities? Are they inherent traits, or can they be developed? And if they can be developed, how?

Some people hold to the "great man" theory of leadership. Thomas Carlyle, who coined the phrase "captains of industry", believed that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men". This view is taken from military models - the charismatic commander leading his troops to victory by means of strategy and force of personality.

But we have seen a shift from hierarchical organisations to flatter structures, devolved authority, and team-based systems. Today's managers are not so much command-and-control leaders as "enablers", who help staff cope with change and champion innovative ideas. As authority is devolved down the line, a growing proportion of junior staff are involved in planning, the management of resources, problem- solving and decision-taking.

With team-based systems, where multi-disciplinary project teams are formed for the duration of a project and then dissolved, members are chosen for their relevant expertise. The leadership may pass from one member to another as the project progresses. Today people are likely to move in and out of leadership roles.

Carol Goodman, in a report for the Association of Graduate Recruiters, Roles for Graduates in the Twenty-First Century, said: "One company chairman compared the new structures to playing in a jazz band, rather than a symphony orchestra. No longer are people permanently assigned to sections where they play someone else's score under the watchful eye of a maestro. The group is smaller, more interdependent, more improvisational ... Everyone has to be highly skilled - and very good listeners."

The authoritarian manager expecting to issue orders to "the lower ranks" and have them obeyed without question cannot survive. Today's managers must lead their teams from within, not from above.

Nor is it a particular combination of personality traits which creates a leader. The battlefields of history are strewn with the corpses of people led by charismatic leaders lacking strategic skills and technical knowhow. Even so, personality is important if one is to persuade, enthuse, reward, threaten, encourage and motivate. There are many styles of leadership, each of which is effective in some situations, but not in others. Context is everything.

A recent study on Changing Roles for Senior Management by the Institute for Employment Studies said employers were reviewing their definition of the role and skills of senior managers to meet changing business needs. Now they are typically expected to perform across four broad domains.

Managers need the organisational skills and technical know-how to manage operations, monitor performance and develop the business. They need to think strategically, analyse information, solve problems, and make decisions. They need people skills, as well as the ability to manage themselves.

A priority is an ability to build, develop and lead an effective team, says the IES. "Leadership emerged as the most common heading used [by interviewees)", either on its own or in "team leadership", or implicit in headings such as "building a best place to work" and "gaining commitment". The strategic leadership companies refer to relates to an ability to provide a sense of direction, and translate vision into clear goals.

People can be trained in organisational skills, technical know-how, how to monitor performance and analyse information, and how to communicate. They can be given career development roles where they can learn to solve problems, team-build and make decisions. But it is debatable whether training can develop those qualities that are more reliant on personality.

Aspiring leaders should heed the words of Lao-tzu, 2,500 years ago: "When the best leader's work is done, the people say: 'we did it ourselves'."

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