Recently, falling into  conversation with a stranger at a party, I discovered he was presently engaged  in a ‘leadership identification and training’ exercise for the large  organisation which employed him.   We had  a most interesting discussion on the qualities of leadership, whether you could  be trained for it, and what most institutions of long standing actually meant  by ‘leadership’.

Obviously you can be  trained to have qualities that will be useful to you as a leader, such as  influencing skills, speaking ability, etc but I’m not at all sure that leadership  can be ‘trained for’, or even if it’s desirable to do so.   Firstly, I’m rather  sceptical of the suggestion that long standing institutions – government  departments, sections of the armed forces, ancient banks, etc. actually want  ‘leaders’.   To lead implies a journey:  that you start in one place, that you end up in another, that the going was  difficult, and that people accompany you.    Business, large institutions etc normally wish to continue much as they  are, but bigger and better, with more profit.    I put it to my interesting companion that what organisations such as his  really desired was not ‘leaders’ but ‘more effective operatives’.

What people often  secretly understand about leadership is ‘I’ll be in charge, and Very Important, and  people will Do as I Say, and I’ll get paid lots and everyone will admire or  envy me’.    Now this may well be a part  of being a leader, but it isn’t what it’s actually about.

Leaders come in all shapes  and sizes as do situations.   Cometh the  hour, cometh the man is sometimes the case, and out of some tragedy, formed in suffering and forced by necessity, a leader will emerge, often not willingly  but because something has to be done and there’s no one else to do it.     Sometimes this doesn’t happen, as seems to  be the case in some of the rebellions in the middle Eastern states, and without  a leader to galvanise the action, no progress seems to be possible.

But within an  organisation, how do you find them?    They’re probably not the most amenable of people, so are they the ones  who will rise swiftly through the grades, ticking all the right boxes?    That’s more likely to be emollient, smooth,  operatives, people whose keenest attention is on the nuances of power being  exercised, and not necessarily on the task in hand.    Leaders are perceived as being in action,  but to be competent they also need time to think, to plan, to reflect.   They have to know what the purpose of their  group is;  for whom it works and what is  wanted of it.     They have to understand  the ethical and other constraints that surround them.     They have to be sure that the course of  action to which they are about to commit their group meets the criteria.   We can all think of recent examples of  leaders, the darlings of the media for a time, who led their companies on  whirlwind dances which briefly enhanced the profits, but which were destroying  the long term interests of the company.    The leader has to be able to separate his own personal goals – get  famous, get rich, get a knighthood, and those of the group or body of which he  is in temporary command.   He should  accept from the outset that his leadership will be temporary, and in all  probability will end in circumstances which are not exactly what he would have chosen.

Then he has to have at  least some of the gifts of leadership.    Although it is rarely mentioned, physical health and strength are  important.   It helps if he can speak and  inspire others.    He should be able to  take advice and to keep his own counsel, giving way gracefully when appropriate  and standing his ground firmly when it is not.     He should be able to identify and encourage the talents and skills of  those around him, and for me it is one of the defining characteristics of a  good leader, that others mature and flourish in his wake.

He has to be competent  over whatever his business does and inspire confidence in other people.   He has to be able to evaluate risk and have  a balanced attitude to it.   He must not  be so risk averse that he remains quivering in his office, and never sails out  and says to his fellows, today’s the day, come with me;   but equally he must not be reckless and  squander his valuable people.   He has to accept  responsibility.   This means, he takes the  blame;  he carries he can;  if a blood price has to be paid, his is the  blood.    When my husband was commodore  of a small recreational sailing group in Scotland, or when my future son in law  takes a party, including my precious daughter, out sailing, I generally look  whoever I regard as the leader in the eye before they go, and ask:  What is your chief responsibility here?    They are all smart fellows: they know the  answer.    Bring everyone back alive.   Winning the race would be the wrong answer!    One  joked with me once, Can’t I lose just one person?   But I wasn’t for joking, and replied, Only  you – and for god’s sake, don’t do that.   The reason why traditionally the captain is  the last man to leave the ship is not just to do with salvage.  He’s the most competent, experienced: he’s  there to see that the crew gets off and heads for survival in the best possible  order, and in archetypal terms if the sea gods demand a sacrifice, he’s not  necessarily willing, but he’s still standing, ready.   He’s the best, the main man  – who else is it  going to be but him?    In the same way,
honourable heads of bodies resign if their organisation has been found wanting,  for all that unfit leaders increasingly try to wriggle out of this tradition.

In short, to aspire to be  leader is a perilous ambition for more will be required of you by fate than  appears on the job description.   The  leader has to be a hero, which may not be clear to him when he applies for the  post.   If you advertised the post as  Hero Wanted: would you get many applicants?    The life insurance offered to such a person wouldn’t be on attractive  terms.

One of my personal  favourites both as hero and leader is the Duke of Wellington.   Congratulated in gushing terms by a lady  after his victory at Waterloo, Wellington drew himself up to his considerable height and dismissed her compliments.    “Madam,” he is reported to have said, “When I looked out over the scene  of the battle the morning after the victory, I considered it the worst day of  my life, such as I shall answer for on the Day of Judgement.’   Now there, I thought, is a proper attitude  for a war leader.

Anyone can apply for the  post of leader who likes.    I quite  appreciate that a man applying for a post probably should be thinking of his duties  in more practical and down to earth terms than those I have discussed.   A chap setting out on a day’s pleasure sail probably would prefer not to be reminded that from the moment  when he steps into the boat as skipper until the point when his crew set their feet on dry land again, he has to answer for the lives of his companions.        As  for identifying or training them, I think that’s slightly more  problematic.     Leaders aren’t created by someone padding  along to their desk and saying, Hi there, we think you have the makings of a  leader, would you like to come and tick these boxes so you can be one?

Leaders stand up and have to be reckoned with.

(NB I have referred to the  leader in masculine terms, but of course man embraces woman.)


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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