As a child passing through the education system of the seventies I was introduced to magical characters such as Clive of India; General Wolfe; Cecil Rhodes; Captain Cooke; Horatio Nelson and Robert the Bruce. I cannot remember if I was told, if I believed that I instinctively knew, or if I somehow worked it out for myself, but these individuals were leaders of men, of that I was sure. It was not just the tales of do and dare but the contrasts and the contradictions that characterised their lives that held a draw for me. Clive may well have been the first of the modern-era soldier-politicians who helped the British gain ascendency in India, whose fame and notoriety lay in his political and military conquest of Bengal but I was just as fascinated to learn how as a boy he climbed his local church tower and perched on a gargoyle to frighten those below, or attempted to set up a protection racket and vandalise the premises of local merchants who would not pay. Wolfe is remembered for his heroics in defeating the French in Canada and establishing British rule there but I remember sitting transfixed and hearing of how at Culloden he had refused to carry out an order of the Duke of Cumberland to shoot a wounded Highlander, saying that his honour was worth more than his commission. Tales of how a sickly, asthmatic teenager was sent to South Africa in the hope that the climate would improve his health and how he grew up to found De Beers diamond company and have the country of Rhodesia named after him had a classroom enthralled. Captain Cooke was remembered not just as an explorer, navigator and cartographer but for the violent and bloody nature of his demise and the fact that after his death his body was held by the Hawaiians and the flesh cut and roasted from his bones in a ritual reserved for the chiefs and highest elders of their society. Nelson was remembered as much for his seasickness as his strategic prowess and Robert the Bruce for inspiring us to never give up and try, try and try again in the face of adversity, after witnessing the efforts of a spider to spin a web in a cave.
The characters may no longer be popular, seen by some as cameos of empire and a best-forgotten past and the teaching methods which allowed young minds to ferment with such colourful imagery may be an affront to political correctness but it is in such tales that a lifelong interest in leaders and leadership was grounded. Perhaps a child fascinated by such textbook leaders is destined for a life that somehow seems unfulfilled. Witnessing the demise of industry, influence and confidence it should be of no surprise to learn that the child of the sixties, who had grown into the young man of the eighties, on scanning the horizon found leadership noticeable only by its absence. I did not recognise the leadership of my textbook heroes in the politicians or activists of left or right, in the bosses I met in the workplace, in the academics encountered at university or the sportsmen seen on the pitch or playing field. Like most childish things it was felt that an interest in leaders was best put away.
It was only while watching the 1990 BBC television series, Troubleshooter, hosted by Sir John Harvey-Jones that there was a reconnect. His character, his wisdom and his mission held an appeal and on further investigation it seemed that he too, like my childhood heroes had a complex past. Bullied unmercifully at school, naval college at thirteen, sunk twice during the Second World War and a post-war career in intelligence before joining ICI and rising to the position of Chairman. He was a man who maintained that his mission was to concentrate on putting more power into fewer hands so as to reduce the number of those who can say ‘no’ and increase the motivation of those who can say ‘yes‘. He is also a man who insisted that there are no bad troops, only bad leaders. So leaders did exist. Or at least my sort of leader existed, and had existed when I had thought that there were none. He had been busying himself in the boardroom of ICI while I had been busy looking elsewhere. erhaps other sorts of leader existed too?
I increasingly became aware of this possibility as my career progressed, as I too became a management consultant, working in the private and public sectors and with politicians at a local and national level. It was only when I found myself working regularly with people whose job title was simply the word ‘Leader‘, as in they were the leader of a local authority, that I began to realise that I no longer had that childlike certainty that I knew what a leader was. Increasingly I found that I was not alone but I also found that my expectations all too often differed from those around me. There seemed to be an agreement on an absence of leadership, a void, there was an expectation that something must be done but there was no consensus about what should fill the void, no shared understanding of what a leader was.
I’ve written extensively on the subject and no doubt the quest to define leadership will continue but the writer is also fearful that the search for leaders will seemingly bear less fruit. After all if you don‘t know what you are looking for how will you ever know if you have found it?
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