City & Business: Lions and donkeys

Leadership and managerial decision-making ability, while often confused, are not the same thing. Never was this more true than in war: the Earl of Cardigan must have had extremely good motivation and communications skills to lead his 600 troops in the Charge of the Light Brigade, but in retrospect it was a truly awful management decision.

For that matter, one can argue that the whole of the British empire stood on good leadership and fell on bad decision-making. How else can one explain the decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries when a few hundred British administrators ran vast tracts of the globe and, with a few notable exceptions, maintained peace, and then experienced such a rapid denouement in the last 70 years.

Now, it seems, the opposite is true. The majority of leaders in Britain today (both business and political) are by training financial managers or lawyers, and it is their natural inclinations to make cautious, more or less wise, decisions based on boardroom consensus and suitable references to market research, forecasts, and the views of the City.

Leaders they are not - at least not in the traditional mould. It should of course be noted that the lack of a Lord Cardigan atop a major FT-SE 100 company is probably a good thing. Leadership, however, and all it entails - motivating employees, communicating vision, and above all taking risks against the grain of conventional wisdom -- cannot be ignored or, worse, derived from a financial model or consultant's report. Anyone who has seen a vision statement lately (the last one I saw, from a company that shall remain nameless, ran to two paragraphs, with three modifying clauses) will understand the problem.

The dearth of leadership talent was well illustrated last week by a KPMG survey, which asked 200 company directors to name the country's best business leader. The top choice was Richard Branson, who was admired for his ability to delegate large areas of responsibility to subordinates and his ability to motivate. No surprise there. However second and third place went to Sir John Harvey-Jones and Lord Hanson respectively, both in their seventies and neither taking a very active role in business any more.

I am not a great one for hand-wringing over British inadequacies - there are far too many things we do well as a country to dwell solely on failings. But would it not be a good idea for more leadership training to leak into graduate management training programmes, or even accountancy and law courses? If we are going to hand over the future of British industry to bean counters and legal types it would be useful if they could also act as team leaders, visionaries and risk takers when the occasion arose. We cannot rely on the system turning up another Branson naturally