Andrew Kakabadse: What makes a good leader in a complex world?

Taken from the Royal Society of Arts lecture given by the deputy director of the Cranfield School of Management
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The Independent Online

Leadership has been one of the most debated topics in history. From military leaders, such as Napoleon and Wellington, to social movement leaders, such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi, the debate has raged as to the characteristics of great leaders.

Some view leadership as the innate characteristics of the great men and women of history, others as the personal relationship between the individual and the group, whilst others as the process of striving towards common goals and values and still others as aspects of behaviour, whether desired and in control of the individual, or, alternatively, driven by a multiple of forces in the environment.

The military historian, John Keegan, identified hunting as a central past time of primitive societies. The deeds of the huntsmen required all to be heroes, for all had to take risks so that the tribe could eat. As all were heroes, the lack of exceptional behaviour made all heroes ordinary, thus reducing huntsmen to being no heroes at all. Similarly in the battlefield, there were no heroes, as the expectation of the primitive warrior was "fight as you hunt". Exceptional behaviour was not exhibited by the warrior, but by the elders who mediated between disputing groups when violence went beyond tolerable limits. So negotiation, the settlement of claims, led to the emergence of the elders as leaders. The elders represented a transactional philosophy of leadership, namely reach a status quo position, get into detail when bargaining, make sure that life can return to an operational, day-to-day normality in order to ensure survival.

However, when it became recognised that physical prowess combined with discipline, cunning and eloquence could gain far more than the conservatism that arises out of mediation, so was born the era of leadership on the battlefield. The distinguished warrior, the glamorous Prince Rupert, the brilliant but petulant Napoleon, portray the more romantic figure of leader, the one who would physically or intellectually take the extra step to be seen to lead and win. As the settling of boundary disputes moved to clever fighting on the battlefield, the heroic, transformational leader came to the fore, envied, feared, mysterious and a role model for others to follow. It was Frederick Nietzsche's interpretation of the glamorous leader through the concept of Ubermensch (superman) that has led to a 20th century quest to identify those extraordinary qualities of leadership, that in the right combination, provide for that unique capability to transform.

In the latter half of the 20th century, such perspective has gained favour with two particular groups, the biographers and the search consultants. Glorification, attribution, the highlighting of extraordinary tensions and the quest and drive for power, have been the techniques used by biographers to immortalise their subjects. Gratefully accepting such perspective have been the search consultants, the head hunters, whose aim has been to find the right person to fulfil the demands of key positions in organisations. In fact, the very concept of "fit", namely fitting the right person to the right job, adds to the mystique of searching for the "great person".

Today's organisations face too many issues and have an order of complexity that has forced the single leader concept to give way to team-based leadership. The fundamental reason that a group-based view of leadership predominates today's organisations is because of an ever-growing political, social and economic diversity.

Continuous attention to context is a must. Responsiveness to context requires a mindset of continuous development, whereby the individual in conjunction with their colleagues, needs to be ready to adjust and change their skills and approach according to the needs and demands of stakeholders. Searching for leaders who display pre-determined capabilities means little in today's world.