Professor Keith Grint's model of leadership is epitomised at his local karate club. Hilary Wilce reports

When it comes to leadership, Professor Keith Grint is an expert. He's been studying it over the past 20 years, first at Oxford and now at Lancaster, where he has been appointed head of the school's new leadership centre. You might think he had little new to learn. But children at his local karate club have been able to teach him a thing or two.

When it comes to leadership, Professor Keith Grint is an expert. He's been studying it over the past 20 years, first at Oxford and now at Lancaster, where he has been appointed head of the school's new leadership centre. You might think he had little new to learn. But children at his local karate club have been able to teach him a thing or two.

"It's a very small club, the Oxford Karate Club, and the teacher had to leave," he explains. This meant that the only people left to pass on skills were those in the club with the relevant experience. So the upshot was young teenage teachers passing on their knowledge to students who were much older than them. "I was taught by someone of 16, and I was 40. It was a great experience for me to watch them. We've had five or six groups led by senior students - and we've had the most success of any club in the UK, with members of the under-18 English team and so on. And they always say that the best way to learn is to teach, so these students were really learning as they taught."

Grint believes this model of distributed leadership "really reflects Lancaster's philosophy of leadership development, which offers people a chance to hone skills through dealing with actual problems. We make everything as realistic as possible and avoid dry case studies or trotting out the maxim that 'leadership doesn't work like that'."

In fact, hands-on experience is crucial, he believes, citing the case of a karate teacher who, having done all his training in a "no contact" club, was completely stumped about what to do when he was attacked in the street.

Leadership research and development has been a strength of Lancaster University Management School since the 1970s. But the opening of the new £9.5m Lancaster Leadership Centre this week, which will coordinate and draw on leadership expertise across all the school's departments, will consolidate this.

"It's a real centre of excellence. I think we have the largest number of researchers - about 30 - of anywhere in the country."

The Centre has lecture theatres, seminar rooms and communal spaces. It is partly funded by the Northwest Development Agency and aims to engage local communities with leadership issues, as well as promote academic teaching and research. Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, officially opened the centre, but local primary school children were also involved, emphasising how widely the centre plans to cast its net.

"My wife is a teacher so I have that interest," says Grint. "And I've done a bit of work looking at the kind of mythical stories which help shape our idea of leadership. We asked the youngest children to enter a competition to write or do a picture about leadership." Local children were also invited to the opening of the leadership centre, to interview speakers for their own newspaper.

After all, he points out, ideas of leadership always depend on your own particular viewpoint. For example, when the American government bought up large tracts of land from the Comanches, the native Americans did not recognise these government contracts "because they believed the land belonged to everyone, not a single leader. But obviously not everyone could sign a document, so how could it possibly be valid? Which helps explains why the result was so much violence and conflict."

Once fully running, the centre will provide traditional leadership programmes as well as more groundbreaking work, such as bringing together people from all corners of Scottish public services - the police, social and children's services - to work on collaborative leadership. It is launching an academic journal on leadership and extending its outreach work.

"I'm about to engage with a local girls' grammar school which wants me to help it with its networking. Women are generally bad at this. They think that being good at what they do is enough!"

He is also publishing a new paper looking at the work of chief executive officers, and showing that the higher you go in an organisation, the worse the feedback - so that what looks like a powerful position isn't at all.

"Leadership is the hot topic," enthuses Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at LUMS, who has just published a new book, Leadership and Management in the 21st Century.

"It's about leading as opposed to managing. It's about vision, how you embrace change, how you face up to the fact that jobs are not for life. It's a critical time now. Things are converging, and the pace is going even faster. So it's about a work/life balance, how you get away from bureaucracy and add value with new products and services."

And there are enormous changes to grapple with, he says. "We need to rethink our leadership approach in both the private and public sectors. The challenge is to get people to come along and have no fears about where the public sector is going."

In the private sector, he says, people need to learn not to be mesmerised by huge changes such as the growth of the Indian and Chinese economies, and to think about how to manage their organisations and sell abroad within the changing market. "And there is a whole new emphasis, too, on the ethical dimension of leadership."

Leadership, he points out, was a very trendy topic a few decades ago. "Then it went quiet. But now we're at another turning point and it's exploding again."

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