Lessons in Leadership: Key Concepts

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IT IS DIFFICULT to deny the truth of these words. Look at the news on a television or mobile device, or read today’s newspaper, and what do you find? That our world has indeed a deep and pressing need for ‘good leaders and leaders for good’ – in all fields of human enterprise and at all levels. On a personal note, may I add that all of my professional life has been governed by a sense of that need and a determination to respond to it.

In 1979, for example, I became the first person in the world to hold a university appointment as Professor of Leadership Studies. More recently, I have served as Chair of Leadership in the United Nations, based on the UN System Staff College in Turin. Since that time, of course, there has been a proliferation of both courses and professors of leadership in business schools and universities throughout the world, but especially in America. For those of us who have been given the rank and title of professor, it is salutary to bear in mind this comment of Einstein: ‘Academic chairs are many, but wise and noble teachers are few.’ For the benefit of practical leaders in senior positions, as well as academics, this book is a summary of the main lessons that I have learned so far about effective leadership. You may be familiar with some of the contents already, notably the chapters relating to Action Centred Leadership, which has been written about extensively and tends to be widely known. Other chapters, however, are much more tentative and exploratory.

If you feel that I have left out something of importance, or for that matter included something which belongs elsewhere than under the canopy of leadership, please don’t hesitate to let me know: For what matters to all of us in this field is truth. In fact, I do have a very firm belief in the importance of truth. To my mind.

Leading from the front

‘PAINTING A PICTURE or writing a book’, said the great artist Henri Matisse, is ‘always best done if I move from the simple to the complex’. The focus of this book is upon what leaders do: the action centered leadership approach. Now if we take seriously the dictum that leadership is done from in front, it is that simple action which is our starting point. So let us try to understand that first and then explore the more complex aspects later.

Why do leaders go first in this manner? The common answer is that they do so in order to show the way, or – in other words – to ensure that those following behind them are going in the right direction. But a moment’s thought tells us that soldiers on a battlefield know in what direction they have to march or run to engage their enemy. And in wider contexts, showing the way is the function of a guide on land and a pilot at sea. As there are no exact synonyms in the English language we must look elsewhere to discover what function a leader – as opposed to a guide or pilot – is performing when he leads from the front.

Oddly enough, the clue lies buried in the etymology of the verb ‘to lead’. The word ‘leadership’ itself didn’t enter the English language until the 1820s. The three constituent elements, however, that make up the composite word – LEAD.ER.SHIP – all date back to Old English, the language of the Angles and Saxons, and its kindred North European languages. That is why today you will find the English word ‘leader’ in, for example, German (Leiter), Dutch (Leider and Norwegian (leder).

The first element in leadership – LEAD – means a way, path, track or the course of a ship at sea. It is a journey word. In its simple verbal form, to lead meant ‘to go’ or ‘to travel’. But in Old English that direct form of the verb is missing. What we have is only the causative form of the verb. So to lead (lædan) in English uniquely means to cause someone or something to move forward or to go on a journey. How do you cause people – people who are both free and equal – to advance in this way? By the simple act of leading them from the front. Or, as Glubb Pasha put it in the last chapter, ‘Do it yourself.’ But why does it work? To find the answer – or at least pick up a clue – we must turn to the natural world.

In the regions around the Mediterranean, the picture of a shepherd leading his flock of sheep from the front to pasture is still a common sight. For it is a fact that sheep are relatively easy to lead from the front but are difficult to drive forward without scattering them from the rear. Shepherds in northern Greece today, like their ancient counterparts, have mastiffs to help them guard their flocks against wolves. Sheepdogs, however, which are bred and trained to round up sheep and drive them from the rear upon signals from the shepherd, are a relatively modern phenomenon.

The same causative effect, we may surmise, has been observed among people. When one tribal warrior went ahead first, others would follow. If he did it more than once, he would become known as a leader (for the –er suffix indicates someone who does something more than once, as in carpenter or dancer).

Sharing dangers and hardships

THE CAUSATIVE NATURE of leading people from the front is, as far as I know, universal. As social beings we are, to a greater or lesser degree, ductile: prone to being led. But that propensity is greatly strengthened if there is respect and liking, though not necessarily love, for the person who is in the role of leader. In other words, the personality or character of a leader, as expressed in their attitudes and behavior, does have an important part to play in the willingness of others to follow. Xenophon gives us character sketches of two of the six generals in office when he joined the Ten Thousand in Babylon.

He clearly demonstrates how personal qualities influence the effectiveness of both leadership and command. Proxenus the Boeotian had invited Xenophon to join him on the Persian expedition, and so they were probably friends. Proxenus was a very ambitious young man and had spent much money on being educated by a celebrated teacher called Gorgias of Leontini. ‘After he had been with him for a time’, wrote Xenophon, ‘he came to the conclusion that he was now capable of commanding an army and if he became friends with the great, of doing them no less good than they did him; so he joined in this adventure planned by Cyrus, imagining that he would gain from it a great name, and great power, and plenty of money’. Proxenus, however, liked to be liked, which led him – as with many a later leader – into the mistakes of appearing soft and of courting popularity for its own sake:

He was a good commander for people of a gentlemanly type, but he was not capable of impressing his soldiers with a feeling of respect or fear for him. Indeed, he showed more diffidence in front of his soldiers than his subordinates showed in front of him, and it was obvious that he was more afraid of being unpopular with his troops than his troops were afraid of disobeying his orders.

He imagined that to be a good general and to gain the name for being one, it was enough to give praise to those who did well and to withhold it from those who did badly. The result was that decent people in his entourage liked him, but unprincipled people undermined his position since they thought he was easily managed. At the time of his death, he was about thirty years old. By contrast, Clearchus, the veteran (at fifty years old) Spartan general who saved the day after the Battle of Cunaxa, could never be accused of wanting to be liked.

Indeed, he seemed to go too far in the opposite direction. As Xenophon noted, Clearchus never won the hearts of men and had no followers who were there because of friendship or positive feelings towards him. Xenophon continues: He had an outstanding ability for planning means by which an army could get supplies, and seeing that they appeared, and he was also well able to impress on those who were with him that Clearchus was a man to be obeyed.

He achieved this result by his toughness. He had a forbidding appearance and a harsh voice. His punishments were severe ones and were sometimes inflicted in anger so that there were times when he was sorry himself for what he had done. With him, punishment was a matter of principle, for he thought that an army without discipline was good for nothing; indeed, it is reported that he said that a soldier ought to be more frightened of his own commander than of the enemy if he was going to turn out one who could keep a good guard, or abstain from doing harm to his own side, or go into battle without second thoughts. So it happened that in difficult positions the soldiers would give him complete confidence and wished for no one better.

… On the other hand, when the danger was over and there was a chance of going away to take service under someone else, many of them deserted him, since he was invariably tough and savage so that the relations between his soldiers and him were like those of boys to a schoolmaster.

Discovering the three-circles model

IN THE HEAT of the Egyptian summer, the Scots Guards moved south from their base camp near Port Said to guard and patrol a vast ammunition dump in the desert of the Canal Zone. My platoon was given the job of laying a dense and broad barbed wire barrier around a section of the ammunition dump. We had to drive out to where the fence ended with lorries loaded with the necessary materials, and then start work where our predecessors had left off. The dump was so large that we were out of sight of any buildings.

On the first day, we laid about 20 meters of the complex barbed wire barrier. It was extremely hot and the guardsmen were far from happy. Next day I took off my shirt and worked with the men, knocking in stakes and fixing the coils of wire. By the day’s end we had built about 80 metres of the entanglements. After supper that evening in my tent I worked out in my head several ways of doing the job faster, such as dumping stores in advance of the work.

As a result, next day we laid even more wire. By the fourth day a remarkable change had come over the platoon: They were cheerful, keen, full of ideas, reluctant to stop work and eager to set a higher target for the fifth day. So it continued for the next two weeks. For example, I noticed a big change in Guardsman McCluskey, a former Glaswegian gang member with a criminal record and a reputation as a real troublemaker back in camp. Here he emerged as a leader of a subgroup.

He was enthusiastically still talking about ways of laying more wire if we could be allowed to obtain certain other types of equipment when the time came to hand over the job to the next platoon. ‘You’ll never lay 200 meters of wire in a day like we have just done’, announced McCluskey to the newcomers. Nor did they! Although I carried the scars of the barbed wire on my arms for several years, I looked back upon those days under the burning sun as happy ones. And in retrospect, too, I can see that in that experience lay the seeds of my discovery of the Three-Circles model.

At the time, to be honest, I attributed the success of the project almost entirely to the fact that I had ‘led from the front’, or led by example if you prefer, and shared the extreme heat and toil of the day with the soldiers. And doubtless at the time I was rather pleased with myself for having done so. But if so, I had fallen into an error. Over the course of time, my mind came up with a very different interpretation of why things went so well that day, thoughts that formed the groundwork of what became Action Centred Leadership. For what I had observed for the first time – perhaps I should say experienced – is the dynamic interaction in workgroups between progress on a task and the cohesiveness of team.

Also I had noticed the effects of that change on each individual involved. Guardsman McCluskey and myself are examples of that phenomenon in this story. And far from it being the case that my action of working alongside the men had galvanized them into working harder, what I had actually done as their leader was to perform some necessary functions, such as planning, controlling and coordinating, and encouraging.

Working myself among the men had been, as it were, only the icing on the cake. As you may have guessed, I am now calling on my own Three-Circles model and its associated functional approach to understanding that desert experience, but in fact, the development of the theory of it then lay about ten years away in my future. Although some readers may be already familiar with this theory, let me outline it for you now.

Group personality and group needs

Workgroups are more than the sum of their parts: They have a life and identity of their own. All such groups, providing they have been together for a certain amount of time, develop their own unique ethos. I call this phenomenon group personality, a phrase which I borrowed from the British prime minister Clement Attlee.

Writing about the cabinet form of government, he says: It is interesting to note that quite soon a Cabinet begins to develop a group personality. The role of the Prime Minister is to cultivate this if it is efficient and right-minded; to do his best to modify it if it is not. The other half of the theory stresses what groups share in common as compared with their uniqueness. They are analogous to individuals in this respect:

Different as we are in terms of appearance and personality, we share in common our needs – at midnight all of us usually begin to feel tired, at breakfast time we shall be hungry and so on. According to my theory, there are three areas of need (Figure 4.1) present in working groups:

The role of leader

THE THREE-CIRCLES MODEL forms the basis of my theory that there is a generic role of leader – a common set of responsibilities that can be found in all workgroups. First, however, it is important to understand the concept of role. By origin it is a theatrical metaphor: In its English form, a roll was the paper that contained the actor’s lines, his or her part in the play. In extended use, a role is a capacity in which someone acts in relation to others. In social contexts, it is often determined by the expectations of others. For example, we expect police officers or doctors to act professionally in characteristic ways. Therefore role implies appropriate conduct; it has a reference to a norm of behavior built into it.

It is worth bearing in mind that the most enduring forms of social relations – those which are sufficiently repeated as to be classified under common names – however deeply personal they may be, are also role relations. Notice, too, that role relations are always reciprocal. You cannot, so to speak, function as a doctor without a patient, or as a police officer without a citizen. To be a father, Socrates observes in Plato’s Symposium, it is necessary to be somebody’s father. The common phrase ‘role model’ refers to a person who is regarded by others as an example in a particular role.

The implication here, of course, is that the person so described is a good example. Rivers of academic ink have flowed in trying to determine the difference between a leader and a manager. But this debate has proved to be entirely fruitless because it rests upon a basic category mistake, a term introduced by the distinguished Oxford University philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his classic text Concept of Mind (1949). Ryle gives some colourful examples to illustrate the meaning of a category mistake.

For example, he talks about a cricket match, where all the players and their roles are being described by an English host to a foreign guest. ‘I do not see whose role it is to exercise esprit de corps,’ she says. Her mistake is to think that exercising team spirit is a specific function in the game, rather than being a manner or spirit in which specific functions are performed. Another example of a category mistake is to confuse a generic term, one relating to a class or group, with the specific. Pears, apples and peaches are examples of specifics in the class of fruit.

You can eat all of them but it would be a category mistake to order ‘fruit’ for that purpose. Following this metaphor, ‘leader’ is the equivalent to ‘fruit’, and terms like ‘manager’, ‘company commander’, ‘director’, ‘conductor’, ‘chairman’, ‘chief executive’, ‘prime minister’, ‘president’ and ‘king’ are all specifics.

A general framework

‘It is a fact that some men possess an inbred superiority which gives them a dominating influence over their contemporaries, and marks them out unmistakably for leadership.’ So an eminent churchman, Dr. Hensley Henson, Lord Bishop of Durham, told his audience at the University of St Andrews. ‘This phenomenon is as certain as it is mysterious,’ he continued.
It is apparent in every association of human beings, in every variety of circumstances and on every plane of culture. In a school among boys, in a college among students, in a factory, shipyard, or a mine among the workmen, as certainly as in the Church and in the Nation, there are those who, with an assured and unquestioned title, take the leading place, and shape the general conduct.

These words were spoken in 1934 – the year, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler became head of state in Germany, taking the title of Führer. The bishop believed, as most people thought then, that leadership was a form of ‘inbred superiority’ – in other words, you are either born with it or not. The born leader would emerge naturally as the leader because he (note the assumption that leaders are men) has innate qualities that give him such an ‘assured and unquestioned title’. Such a leader could presumably lead in any circumstance or situation.


The first list of these ‘innate qualities’ of leadership in the English language appears in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. At that time, the word ‘leadership’ did not exist, though Shakespeare does call some generals ‘men of the great leading’. The prime function of a king in those days was to lead his army from in front into battle as epitomized by his role model of kingship, Henry V. So we can take it that his ‘king-becoming graces’ are essential leadership qualities.

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