The Debate on what is Debatable in Leadership

Last week I attended the annual Windsor Leadership Debate, held at the Royal Institution in London’s Mayfair. Windsor Leadership Trust is a charity founded 1981, that provides “transformational leadership programmes for senior leaders across all sectors, including corporate, public, military, education, faith and not-for-profit” (according to its website), and that operates within the grounds of the Royal castle adjacent to “that” chapel where Harry married Meghan.

4688940526_b0a5581f76_bstatue of Michael Faraday by John Henry Foley 1876 by kind permission of The Royal Institution

Historic surroundings

The debate was held in the impressive lecture theatre most Brits know as the location for the Christmas science lectures first established by Michael Faraday in 1825.  The Windsor leadership panel on this occasion had impressive credentials in the arts, business, diplomacy, charity and public service and the audience was equally interesting and qualified, mainly alumni and supporters of Windsor Leadership, including several Henley alumni and staff. I enjoyed the evening, particularly the wit and wisdom of the Right Revd Stephen Cottrell, Lord Bishop of Chelmsford, who came up with some epigrammatic gems. Meanwhile, members of the audience proposed a series of questions or remarks about what issues ‘leadership’ – as a phenomenon – faces. There were several reminders of the value of reflection in leadership learning and development, which was great to hear.

Too much Agreement?

After the event it struck me that everyone in the room was basically in agreement. There was much nodding and quite a lot of (deserved) appreciation for the various opinions, and clearly a consensus around… around… well, this part was the tricky bit. Around what? This got me thinking more generally. What does it take to find the cutting (the leading?) edge in the leadership debate? What is there to be debated? Where is the contention? Where does the real work need to be done?

Is a leadership debate about arguing how best to define what leadership is?

Or is it about understanding the nature of the world (and ourselves) and the problems we face – to which, presumably, leadership turns out to be the solution?

We need to stretch ourselves

Much of what goes into and comes out of the leadership debate feels like the former.  We put our energy into supporting or countering other people’s definitions of leadership and of the leader, and we may have lost sight of that contextual view as a result. The latter seems to be to be a deeper discussion, but is not where Management Education currently sits. Academia has often struggled to speak about our failure to ensure long-term and sustainable survival of the environment we depend on.

The new frontier of any debate for or about leadership (and therefore of the persona of the leader) must surely require a reflective process of finding raison d’être in the face of the innumerable and often insurmountable social, political, economic and environmental events that we admit we face.

Perhaps it’s going to be a bit of both. The main thing should be that we spark debate on that which is truly important.

by Dr Chris Dalton





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