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What makes a leader? Good question

The authors of 'Exploring Leadership' ask some intriguing questions but provide few answers.

August 21, 2011|By Morgen Witzel

What is leadership? What do leaders do? How should we choose leaders? Is it possible to train prospective leaders in the art of leadership?

These and many other questions about leadership have been asked many times, and remain unanswered. We seem to be as confused about the real nature of leadership as ever.

Many of us, it seems, regard leaders as being special — glamorous, charismatic people who attract strong followings.

As evidence of this, the authors of "Exploring Leadership" point to the popularity of television programs such as NBC's "The Apprentice" and the British talent-search program "The X-Factor," coming to the U.S. next month on Fox. And they argue that the most recent elections in America and Britain were both fought on the basis of personality rather than policy.

In other words, we tend to follow people who are good-looking, well-spoken and have nice personalities, regardless of whether they are any good at actually leading.

The authors, Richard Bolden, Beverley Hawkins, Jonathan Gosling and Scott Taylor, are a quartet of well-known academic thinkers and writers on leadership. In this book published by Oxford University Press, they argue that by focusing on the leader as an individual, we are taking a wrong and ultimately self-delusional approach.

Businesses, political parties, religious institutions, sports teams and other bodies spend much of their time trying to identify leaders by the qualities they possess.

For example, the National Health Service adopted a "leadership qualities framework" several years ago, intended to be the last word on defining leadership and assessing leaders. In reality, the framework draws on the experience of a handful of leaders and attempts to make generalizations about all of leadership from this tiny sample.

The authors maintain that leadership is a "social process." It's not a set of qualities inherent in people, but rather exists in the interactions between the leader and others who look to him or her for leadership; "followers," for want of a better term.

The common view of leadership is that leaders give orders and others obey them.

The social-process view, say the authors, "requires leaders who are prepared to ask questions and involve others in determining what to do rather than seeking to provide an immediate solution or decisive action."

In other words, successful leaders work with their followers to solve problems, rather than pretending that they themselves have all the answers.

Much of this is known already, yet we continue to choose and train leaders according to the old model, as if all we have to do is find a person with the magic set of leadership qualities and all will be well. Perhaps the authors are right, and our obsession with celebrity clouds our judgment when thinking about leadership.

This is a very thoughtful book, one that probably asks more questions than it answers. Part of its purpose appears to be to start a larger debate about how we choose and, especially, train leaders.

Beyond that, its purpose is less clear. The book has a tendency to get involved in academic debates which — as the authors point out — are unlikely to be of much interest to anyone outside academia.

There is a lack of definite conclusions about leadership that may disappoint some readers. Those big questions about leadership noted above are still unanswered — but perhaps they are unanswerable.

One of the strengths of "Exploring Leadership" is its refusal to indulge in slick, management-consultant definitions. "Leadership is largely unknowable," say the authors, yet they are emphatic as to its importance.

Like other fuzzy concepts such as love and beauty, we need to study leadership even though it is ultimately mysterious. Perhaps the real aim of studying leadership, as with contemplating beauty, is to learn more about ourselves.

Book reviewer Morgen Witzel is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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