Working Life: Leading from the back

New research shows that the best bosses are pussycats, not tyrants, says Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
This week was the Industrial Society's Leadership Week. For anyone who secretly feels that they could do a far better job than their boss, this event offers a beacon of hope, as it does to those who are convinced they couldn't lead their way out of a paper bag. For one of the central principles of the society's latest teaching is that the notion of the "born leader", marked for greatness from infancy and hungry for power, is a false one.

So what does it take to be a leader? Charisma, grit, and a hard streak of ruthlessness? After all, the world's great leaders have never been known for their charm; from Ivan the Terrible through to the Iron Lady leaders have not set out to be lovable.

However, there is a wind of change blowing through the corridors of leadership. Gritty and ruthless are out: the new buzzwords are ones like "ethics" and "trust". The Industrial Society is at the forefront of this volte- face. A good leader, the society believes, is not one who rides rough- shod over his minions for profit and prestige, but one who encourages them to develop and contribute.

The essence of the Industrial Society's philosophy for the Nineties is encapsulated in Genesis, a course for senior managers that concentrates on "inner leadership". At last week's Genesis evening, Ray Noyes, who runs the course, explained to a group of potential leaders that this is the very opposite of the Outward Bound courses that encourage managers to bond over a swift yomp through the Brecon Beacons. His brand of training, he says, is "inward bound" and involves a high degree of self-knowledge.

"Leadership requires emotional intelligence," he explained. "You have to motivate and show by example. It is to do with the soul; it's genuine, not superficial. It concentrates on building an authentic presence; because people respond to this presence and not to your job title." A leader, he says, must have ethics and values that are reflected in how they feel about their work and how they behave - in short, they must believe in what they are doing. Businesses today, he believes, are too much like battlefields; they target their customers, attack their market and have executive officers. "Organisations are more like forests, with an eco- system. They don't need a general in charge."

This may sound suspiciously touchy-feely but it is based on some long- term research. An initial survey asked 1,000 people to think about good leaders they had known and explain the characteristics that made them so, explains Ian Lawson of the society's Campaign for Leadership. The most important factor turned out to be trust. "You need an alignment between the leader's ethics and those being led - something to buy into, if you like. And the leader's behaviour has to reflect those ethics." (President Clinton, take note.) A senior manager, for example, who says his workforce is one team, then nabs an executive parking space and gets a fat-cat payrise while everyone else is tightening their belts, does not fit the bill.

The Industrial Society then identified 38 different leadership characteristics, asked everyone who took their courses to evaluate themselves on each one - and then asked five of their colleagues to also comment (in the strictest confidence, of course). Of the 3,000 sets of details they have on file, says Ian Lawson, the top 100 all reinforce the theory. "They all score highly for characteristics like being good listeners, or not taking the credit for other people's work. The bottom 100 don't listen, don't comment, don't seek feedback, don't recognise stress in others - they are all task and ego-focused." However, getting these old-fashioned types to change their ways may be difficult. "The bottom 100 managers consistently overrated their own performance, even though their teams thought they were rubbish," says Ian Lawson. "The top 100 consistently underrated themselves - they showed a real humbleness and a willingness to learn."

It is to companies' advantage to take these new principles on board, says Ian Lawson. "The historical paradigm about leadership is that a leader is usually a man, often a military figure, very focused so that nothing will get in their way. This kind of white-charger leadership is very charismatic - they lead and everyone follows. But it's very personality-centred. When they leave or are brought down, which often happens - look at Mrs Thatcher - there is a vacuum. The role of a leader is not only success for the present but a legacy for the future."

Some research has begun to show that good human resources husbandry is good for a company's financial health. "If people are fully engaged they must be more use to the organisation they work for," says Ian Lawson. "If the most you have from your employees is compliance they won't do so well."

However, not everyone is won over. "The big bosses are going to take some convincing," sniffed one Financial Times columnist. "If you ask your typical Footsie chief exec what makes a good leader he'll tell you smugly that it is something that you either have or you haven't." A sea- change in thinking will not come overnight. "We just have to keep bashing away," says Ian Lawson. "Apart from the bottom line benefit, it is the right way to deal with people. That might sound corny. But these are human beings, not human doings."

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