Find more leaders in the ranks

It's not just the person at the top. Managers should be encouraged to take the initiative. Roger Trapp reports
There can hardly have been a more propitious time to launch a qualification in leadership. In recent months several well-known companies - ranging from Barclays Bank to the Anglo-Dutch publishing group Reed Elsevier - have struggled to find new chief executives.

But leadership - as the Leadership Trust and Strathclyde Graduate Business School, which are teaming up to start an MSc in leadership in the autumn, would be the first to admit - is about more than the person at the top of the organisation. Increasingly, UK businesses have adopted the US notion of the chief executive as embodiment of the company and demi-god with a salary to match. But at the same time, it has become more and more clear that the changing nature of business requires many more leaders than used to be the case.

Just as in top sports teams, where players do not let their captains and coaches do all the thinking, workers in modern companies must help their organisations by making decisions all the time. In short, there does not seem to be enough leadership to go around.

Thanks to the explosion in business education in recent years, most organisations have more than a limited share of managers equipped with the technical skills to run operations reasonably effectively.

But what they often lack is the vision and the spark needed to lift a business above the also-rans and into what might be termed the premier league. The widespread acknowledgement that businesses are now changing faster than ever before has also created a need for leadership on the grounds that - as John Kotter, the noted management thinker, says - management is about coping with complexity and stability, while leadership is about coping with change.

But even if you accept the need for leadership it is hard to define. And that is perhaps one reason why organisations have not devoted as much attention to it as they have to management. As with many other facets of business, the difficult stuff tends to get set aside for later.

Such leadership as there is often tends to be of the traditional variety transposed from the military and political spheres. And with this comes an assumption that leadership skills are things that you either have or you do not. Even organisations that are in the business of promoting leadership development appear to be divided over how to go about it.

Hence Foundation, which describes itself as "the UK's foremost leadership development organisation", has recently attacked the rise of leadership into what its chief executive, Don Campbell, says seems to be "the latest `trendy' subject for postgraduate study".

Leadership attributes, says Mr Campbell, cannot be acquired from a book. "I fail to see how an MSc or PhD in leadership can improve the quality of one's leadership. Our leadership comes from our character, personality and gifts." Only "experiential training" can improve our leadership, he says.

To be fair to the Leadership Trust and Strathclyde Business School, the course they are introducing appears to have a strong experiential element, with workshops and projects a prominent part of the three-year part-time programme. Moreover, all those taking part will have to have several years' work experience, including at least three years as a manager.

Since its establishment in the 1970s, the Ross-on-Wye-based Leadership Trust has evolved into an organisation that provides courses in leadership and the associated areas of mentoring and coaching. The new programme will be run by Professor Roger Gill, who worked in business before becoming an academic at Strathclyde and then director of the Leadership Trust's research centre.

The very fact that the trust has such a centre is an indication of how seriously leadership is being taken these days. In the United States, the North Carolina-based Center for Creative Leadership has played a significant role in developing the thinking around the subject. One of its researchers, Bill Drath, has helped create the idea of leadership being less about one all-knowing scientist laying down the law and more about participation.

This does not mean that individuals are not vital. The Leadership Trust's view is that leadership is about "using your personal power to win the hearts and minds of people to achieve a common purpose".

And Professor Gill builds on this to point to the need to develop leadership skills beyond what he calls "an oligarchy of leaders" to anybody who manages other people.