'People are recognising that soft skills are important, and that women have them'

There are all the inspirational leaders? As global choices multiply and those at the top are seen as only too fallible, it is a question increasingly being asked. We struggle to fill top jobs satisfactorily, as people shy away from what they see as a poisoned chalice.

That's a concern for Marshall Young, vice-chairman of executive education at Saïd Business School in Oxford. According to him, today's executives are less and less comfortable with the demanding complexities of leadership.

"Leaders may be becoming an endangered species as executives see the risk of premature burnout as too great," he says, quoting a recent study of 150 companies by the Conference Board of America. This concludes that demands on future leaders could be so enormous that the pool of qualified people might shrink. Those with the potential may question whether they want to climb the ladder any further.

This makes teaching on leadership vital, in Young's view. He has found that highly successful and senior people in organisations tend to be "wholly unused to moving outside the classic, techno-rational, manager-ial mind-set, and unable to tap in to the emotional intelligence and broader frames of reference that leadership increasingly demands." This, he says, is where schools can help, enabling leaders to stand back and take a wider perspective, being more reflective about themselves.

Certainly, business schools are trying to respond to the challenge. Robert Owen, director of accreditation services at the Association of MBAs (AMBA), says that leadership is still the buzzword in the business school world, with schools fast developing more ways of getting to grips with the issue.

"That's because organisations want MBA graduates to be more proficient in soft skills", he says. "They don't want people just managing businesses, but taking them forward".

While people used to claim that leaders are born not made, practitioners and academics now recognise that even if you are not a naturally talented leader, you can learn a lot.

That's certainly the view of Peter Kilgour, principal at Towers Perrin, who was responsible for his company's recent sponsorship of the Centre for Leadership, Learning and Change at Cass Business School. His passion for the subject was sparked by his work with Cass's dean, David Currie, the first chair of Ofcom, in setting up the regulatory body. "I think things went very well during that enormous period of change precisely because we were focusing on leadership", he says.

"When people are going through such changes they can be overwhelmed. But leaders have to work less hard if people around them are energised. Today we see far too much management and not enough leadership".

The spectacular falls from grace at Enron and in the Martha Stewart affair have focused minds in the US on leadership issues. Elizabeth Winslow, who runs the Cohen Leadership Development Program at Tuck Business School, says the topic is woven through courses because " the business world needs leaders who are smart, sensitive and reflective.

"Students raise excellent questions," she adds. "They include 'do I have to be an assertive, outgoing leader if that doesn't work for me?' and 'how do I adjust to the culture and norms of an organisation and still leverage what makes me unique?' Simple command and control doesn't work any more. No one can afford to say, 'Oh, that's just people stuff, I'll pick it up along the way.'"

At Insead, near Paris, new techniques are being tried. Students on the executive MBA programme are participating in specialised group coaching developed by the school's resident leadership guru, Manfred Kets de Vries. This is aimed at breaking resistance to feedback sessions, he says.

Students also get to pair up, each spending time shadowing the other as they go about their daily work, viewing leadership techniques and routines in an "anthropological" manner, and writing a report based on their observations.

Back at Oxford, Marshall Young puts it very simply. "We desperately need leaders," he says. "It's only too easy to become disproportionately absorbed in the demands of narrowly focused jobs. Leadership requires a much broader range of skills than today's Gradgrinds in both business and government would have us believe."

Christina Polito believes she has her executive MBA, taken at INSEAD last year, to thank for her subsequent promotion. The need to know more about what makes a good leader was a key factor in her choice of course. "I wanted to move into a senior management position, so it was important for me", she says.

Now a national director at LaSalle Investment Management, Polito says that what she learnt surprised her. "It's not so simple; people need to learn what works and what doesn't. We discussed, for example, the 'set up to fail' syndrome, where leaders often make things worse when an employee has done something wrong. They treat them negatively, the person gets bitter and annoyed, and a cycle starts.

"That can define people and prevent them from changing. The right reaction, we found out, is to be helpful and supportive, and to work out why a mistake was made".

Polito thinks leadership is a particularly good subject for women to study. "Women are rising to positions in specific areas - you often get a woman as head of a department, for instance. But people still don't expect to see a woman in one of the top positions. They may not get much encouragement, so it's important for them to be given an opportunity, to learn that they can lead.

"In the past, it was enough to be good at your job - to be the best. You could then be promoted into managerial positions. But great leaders need more than the skills which brought them to the top, they need emotional intelligence. Now people are recognising that these soft skills are important, and that women have them."