Leaders wanted urgently – apply within

It has long been observed that, on no account should anyone, capable of getting themselves elected as leader, be allowed to do so.

We vaunt democracy, and yet it’s track record of producing truly great leaders is patchy at best, it has also generated some notable disasters.

Heredity has an equally patchy track record.  Heredity, as a means of choosing heads of state with any real power, is pretty unfashionable in most parts of the world these days, but there is something sensible about being trained for an important role form birth.  At least that bit seems to work well for Dalai Lamas, however they are not hereditary.

Achieving state leadership through violence, aggression or sheer luck has probably the worst track record of all, with most examples turning out to be totalitarians who continue to use force as a way of maintaining power.  Substantially to the detriment of their populations and often, others as well.

In the corporate world there are three main routes to leadership of large businesses:
1- Appointment after rising through the ranks
2 – External appointment
3 – Being a founder.
The appointment route appears, generally to have a better track record of producing competent leaders than election, heredity or force, but the record is far from perfect.

Founders, on the other hand, in my very informal survey appear to have a rather better track record than their successors.  They also have a level of innate authority that it is difficult for appointees to emulate.

In fact founders have a quality in common with those who many might agree have been the very best leaders of people.  Emergence.

I have often asked groups I have been working with, who they would consider to be the greatest leaders and the answers are remarkably consistently;  Ghandi and Mandela.  Both of whom were emergent leaders (Mandela was later elected).  Emergent in the sense that they became leaders through a passionate commitment to a cause and a knack for leadership that caused others to follow them.  In fact emergent leaders have a great track record, depending on where you draw your personal lines you could include:  Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, John Lennon, Emily Pankhust, Aung Sang Su Chi, Bob Geldof, Jamie Oliver – feel free to add your own examples in the comments below.

Emergent leaders manage to combine tremendous courage and achievement with authenticity.  They lead through inspiration, empathy, example, commitment and importantly they rarely have any authority over those they lead.

This poses two interesting challenges for the rest of us:

1 – How do we allow more emergent leaders to run our corporations and countries?

2 – How do we emerge as leaders ourselves either in business or public life?

The first is fantastically difficult, which is probably why we still haven’t solved it.  In fiction good leadership is often symbolised by a wise council of elders, although it is not usually clear how they came to the role.  In Britain the wise council of elders role could potentially be filled by the House of Lords – if it wasn’t populated so largely through nepotism and as a reward for loyalty to the government of the day.  Could a truly wise council of formerly emergent leaders (the ones who avoid assassination) also be the ones to identify emergent leaders as candidates – who could then be selected or elected in some more open plebiscite type process?

The second is far easier.  We are all capable of feeling passionately about something.  The shift to emergent leadership happens when we take the courage to do something about it and are inspiring, wise and humble enough that people choose to follow us.

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Neil Crofts
authentic business
+34 646391384
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About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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One Response to Leaders wanted urgently – apply within

  1. This is a thoroughly thought-provoking post, Neil – thanks for making me think about this topic!

    I agree with you – emerging as leaders ourselves is much easier than allowing more emergent leaders to run corporations and countries. I suggest that part of the problem is over-capacity (emergent leaders are being created faster than we can use them). But there is a bigger problem. We frequently see examples of outstanding talent which is ignored or passed-over by existing leadership. Many corporations have “fast-track” schemes which identify future leaders, and which put development programmes in place, moving those future leaders from role to role to provide opportunities to develop wider skills. It all seems to be going so well until the final hurdle, when they are not promoted to the Board or the most senior positions.

    I suspect there is a trust issue here – those at the top just can’t bring themselves to appoint someone who they have developed themselves, and they prefer to appoint “tried and trusted” externals. In many cases, the passed-over emergent leader moves to another organisation taking up a more senior position.

    A wise council of elders is a nice idea, and it should work, but often doesn’t – partly (I suspect) because they aren’t as wise as we’d like to think, and partly because of the way in which they themselves are elected. I wonder whether your suggestion of using formerly emergent leaders could work. Would they find this a sufficiently stimulating role?

    To your list of emergent leaders, I would add (Lord) Seb Coe. He emerged from grass-roots athletics to eventually become the Chair of LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games). He has clearly earned a tremendous respect from his peers (no pun intended), and everyone involved in the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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