The very word ‘leadership’ conjures up images drawn from history and Hollywood. Historical accounts of leadership describe uncommon individuals, usually men. These characters seemed possessed of extraordinary perception, vision, drive and wisdom. Henry the Fifth, according to Shakespeare, matured almost overnight from a tear-away youth to a visionary King who re-established the dream of Albion and won a famous, improbable victory over vastly superior forces. Hollywood’s heroes for decades appeared larger than life, handsome, courageous and irrepressible until the anti-hero was created who flipped to an equally improbable opposite extreme.
Those of us who have worked close to leaders realise that these stereotypes seldom obtain in the 21st century . Leadership is frequently a team activity rather than the province of individuals. Exceptionally successful leaders tend to draw around themselves groups of talented colleagues and figure out how to bring out the best in them so that the team as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When Rod Eddington led British Airways through the crisis of 9/11, he created sub-groups from his Executive Team: one to look after the daily operation, the other to think their way out of the crisis. One of that team, John Rishton, led the turnaround at Ahold in the Netherlands and the USA but with a tight and talented top team whom he trusted.
It is usually the case. When Gallup published their 2008 book ‘Strengths based Leadership’, they pointed out that the best leaders are not well-rounded but the best teams are. The whole can be merely the sum of its parts, or it can be more or less. Great individuals can bring out the best or the worst in each other and the success of the entire enterprise may hang on which of these situations emerges.
In a former era at Henley, Meredith Belbin demonstrated that teams made up of the most talented individuals rarely succeeded when pitted against better balanced teams of more modest talents. In the last few weeks, Google have published their own research asserting that the key to success lies, not in the talents of individuals working alongside each other, but in their ability to work together.
For these reasons, it is strange that the development of executives frequently follows a pattern that may be counter-productive. Typically, individuals are sent to programmes of executive development drawn from a horizontal tranche of an organisation. Care may even be taken to ensure that no participants on any programme are direct reports of others on the programme. Yet the logic of the argument I have been advancing so far here is that teams may best be developed together, so that their team working may be enhanced rather than their individual skills.
The question I am coming to, therefore, is this: if we don’t need another hero, then why do we develop our senior colleagues as if we do? Why do we ignore the vertical slice through an organisation in favour of the horizontal? If we are only likely to get balanced and complete leadership from teams, isn’t it time we acknowledged this and built our leadership development on a clearer and more robust foundation?
Dr David Pendleton
Professor in Leadership