The best leaders are eccentrics

2007-11-30 00:00

Last week, the PCB held its first Leadership Forum meeting. We were encouraged by a good turn-out, a stimulating presentation on the relationship between leadership and ethics by Martin Prozesky and some lively discussion. Regretfully, time was the enemy, for the issues raised might have occupied us for hours more. For instance, Prozesky asked for examples of good leaders and this elicited many predictable responses — Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and so on. Jack Welch was mentioned, and also Jake White.

I wondered what the relationship is between good leadership and success, or perhaps, the attainment of a goal. I also wondered whether Jake White would have been mentioned, for example, had the English wing not trodden on the touchline. (Who knows what might have happened in the match if England had gone ahead at that stage.) The point is that if the Springboks had lost, and Jake not attained the set goal, he is unlikely to have been mentioned as a good leader. Yet, for four years he would have conducted himself no differently, his qualities and abilities would have been no more or less, his leadership would have been precisely the same. In New Zealand, there is a man who knows all about this because his ability to lead a process and succeed is questioned because his team failed in a critical World Cup match. The excellence of the team for a continuous period of time under his stewardship is in danger of being forgotten.

The more I think about leadership, the more I wonder whether it is amenable to analysis at all. Those who stand at a distance from those who are held up as the notable leaders, have no real insight, and no personal experience to justify their respect. Would those who profess an admiration for Jack Welch have enjoyed working for him, I wonder?

In addition, history and age dull the senses of discernment. It is almost true to say that there is an age of veneration, the attainment of which either eliminates, or at least excuses, past peccadilloes and excesses. And death, assuredly, will obscure them completely behind the pantheon of praise. (This has been characteristic of the tragic deaths of several music stars over the past months. What paragons of virtue they all were.)

Churchill was voted the Man of the Century. He was the prime minister at the time that the war was won. As such, he led the war cabinet, some members of which felt completely marginalised because their contributions were not afforded any value. He is recognised as the leader who led the nation to victory. His contemporaries, both at the time and in his bleak spells beforehand, would not all have agreed with the sentiment expressed by his particular supporters, a relieved British populace who, nevertheless, did not regard him as the most suitable post-war leader, and history which has judged him very kindly. Mainly through his dogged and defiant appearance and his sublime ability to say what people wanted to hear, Churchill took the credit for a plethora of unsung hero-leaders who turned the tide against the Germans.

It is impossible to place Churchill within an academic model of leadership. As with Hitler, and Napoleon, and a host of others of both the ancient and modern eras, the leaders recognised in history texts are almost all eccentric, or deviant, in some way or another. Often, they failed for the very reasons that they had previously succeeded, or even succeeded for the very reasons that they had failed before. (Here I am thinking of Churchill).

I suppose that it is substantially irrelevant to consider the notables of history when we are aiming to develop leadership among ordinary people who are not going to be at the head of an army, or a war effort, or even a General Electric. In a more modest sense, we require people who will influence others in the right direction for the right reasons. Influence which will not only encourage followers to conduct themselves according to the example, but commit to the essential principles to the extent that they, in turn, may influence others.

A good leader is one who takes the blame for what goes wrong and passes on the credit when it goes right. Ergo, the average politician cannot be a good leader.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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