Leicester's lesson in leadership

10 Oct 18:00 by


A leader is not 'the special one', but 'the one who makes us special', argue S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher.

The one most important word: 'We'
And the least important word: ‘I’
“Idea 42: A very short course on leadership” (Adair, 2009, p.101) 

It is probably in our history classes at school that we are first exposed to the idea of leadership. And, most likely, this encounter serves to couple the concept closely with notions of heroism. Think Elizabeth I, Churchill, Aung San Suu Kyi, Wellington, Gandhi, Mandela. Of course, there is a dark side here too (Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin) but, nevertheless, from an early age we are encouraged to see leaders, above all else, as individuals with some special quality that eludes ordinary mortals.

And so, when we aspire to become leaders ourselves, the question in our head is characteristically whether we too have that special quality. Are we made of the right stuff – a stuff that allows us to outshine mere followers? It is a highly profitable view, both for those who run costly training courses to help us discover our inner leader and for leaders themselves who can use the idea of exceptional qualities to justify exceptional salaries. It was not for nothing that former Chelsea FC manager José Mourinho styled himself ‘the special one’.

But then again, perhaps it was. For the point at which Mourinho became convinced that he was ‘special’ appears to have been the starting point for his decline. Indeed there is a long history of leaders whose success seduced them into thinking that they were above everyone else, who came to believe that they alone knew what to do, and who thereby transformed success into failure. Hubris. Think Tony Blair.

The problem, then, is not simply that it is wrong to think of leadership solely in terms of the characteristics of the individual leader, but that by doing so we actually compromise performance and organisational effectiveness.

The simple reason for this is that, as Warren Bennis has repeatedly observed, leaders are only ever as effective as their ability to engage followers (e.g. Bennis, 2003). Thus, however great their vision, leaders are more likely to be dismissed as lunatics than lauded as heroes if they cannot convince others both to share their vision and to work hard to translate it into material reality. Without special followership, special leadership is nothing. 

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