Inside Business: It's lonely at the top

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The Independent Online
These are tough times for leaders. At the very top, the many high pay rises must sometimes seem little compensation for the barrage of criticism. Lower down, there is confusion about what the spreading of leadership around organisations really entails.

One area of confusion is meetings. Received wisdom has it that the modern leader lets everyone have their say and lavishes heavy praise on those who have done something worth while.

However, according to research recently published in the US, it might not always be good to talk. Professor Randall Peterson, of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, says that when group discussions get out of control - say, when somebody dominates the session - the leader is expected to exert some control.

Professor Peterson's paper, "Too Much of a Good Thing? The Limits of Voice for Improving Satisfaction with Leaders", suggests that employees rate decisions reached at the end of discussions more highly if the group has not been "held hostage" by a single person with a strong character.

The point is that there is a fine line between consultation and lack of direction and, even in these days of supposedly flatter organisations, people often look for a lead.

Nowhere is this need more apparent than in the area of corporate values. Most people will agree on the values that organisations should have - trust and mutual respect, for example - but unless somebody makes it clear that these are the key to how things get done, they will be seen as nice add-ons of little genuine importance.

According to the management consultancy AT Kearney, the ability to get things done is a key attribute of the effective leader. Pointing out that we hear a lot about the need to engage hearts and minds, Anne Deering, the firm's head of knowledge, stresses the importance of what she calls "intent to act". In other words, chief executives have got to get on and do some of these tasks rather than just talk about them.

It sounds obvious. But, for all their supposed zeal and commitment, chief executives are not always keen on the sort of action that is required. The latest issue of Fortune magazine has a cover depicting the faces of a number of failed chiefs. All are held to have failed in one particular way: lack of execution.

Translated, that means they did not get on with implementing the solutions judged necessary for survival.

It sounds poor - and in a sense it is. But it is also understandable. At a time when every decision of senior executives is called into question, even the most arrogant are going to want to weigh up the options just one last time before they push a button and unleash far-reaching consequences.

Surely this is another reason for us to abandon the notion that in the modem age one man or woman can possess all the skills, qualities and insights required to be a chief executive.

Perversely, it might turn out to be a little easier to fill all these chief executive vacancies if it were made clear that at least two people were being required for each position.