A study of history’s leaders may reveal shared traits, but in the final analysis an outstanding leader is simply that – unique, unable to be replicated. By David James
Leadership literature routinely focuses on the great leaders of the past as a source of inspiration. In the military arena the popular exemplars include Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Churchill. Less attention is paid to the likes of Ghenghis Khan and Attila the Hun, although they might serve as more accurate analogies of much of what occurs in business life.
Leadership strategists are afforded great attention: Nicolo Machiavelli, the Chinese master counter-puncher Sun Tzu, and the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz. For those with more of a taste for gentle, moral leadership, there are figures such as Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. How do Australia’s contemporary leaders compare with these greats? If a study of emulation is a valid aspect of leadership debate, then to what extent do Australia’s political, civic and business heads exemplify the qualities of leadership that have proved durable?
The probable answer is – not much. Leadership is partly a function of character and partly a response to a set of circumstances, and the current circumstances are not encouraging for the would-be great leader in Australia. Politics has become marginalised by voter indifference, many business leaders have been exposed as greedy, and civic leadership is, at best, difficult. But do any of our leaders resemble the greats of the past?
Napoleon founded the French nation-state; he dominated much of Europe, faltering only when he made an ill-fated attack on Russia. He has become synonymous with mastery: a military genius whose egotism was validated by tactical skills and an ability to acquire an almost god-like status. The best political analogue in recent times in Australia was probably former prime minister Paul Keating, who combined tactical skill with a mercurial, “charismatic” style that his critics often described as egotism.
Few current leaders, however, could really be described as Napoleonic. Perhaps the best candidate is Michael Chaney, chief executive of Wesfarmers, who has created a successful conglomerate at a time when conglomerates seem to be out of favor. Chaney attributes this to a philosophy of “logical incrementalism” – the use of scenarios to define options and possibilities, and to identify the next, tightly logical, step. The company’s above-average performance suggests considerable tactical skill.
The question is, will it last, or go the way of the French empire? Phil Ruthven, chairman of the business information company IBISWorld, says people like Jack Welch of GE and Chaney have high talent and are the ones who put the conglomerates together. “It is the successors who don’t have the same feel, and they are suddenly being asked to understand a huge number of businesses.”
The leader of Britain in World War II, Winston Churchill is associated with courage and a certain scruffy eccentricity. The nearest version in Australian life is probably Prime Minister John Howard (whose middle name is Winston). Howard has to some extent modelled himself on Churchill, but it is probably more the case that circumstances came to meet him. Churchill was considered something of a laughing stock before World War II, especially after the fiasco in the Dardanelles in World War I (where the infamous Gallipoli battle was fought).
Howard, too, had many attempts at the leadership before winning office. Both men came into their own during a time of conflict: World War II in the case of Churchill, September 11 and the war on Iraq in the case of Howard. Both men have a downbeat “salt of the earth” mode of presentation.
They may also resemble each other by leaving office after the conflict is over: Churchill was voted out; Howard will probably retire. Yet they do differ in one vital respect. Whereas Churchill was dismissive of Australians, describing them as being of “poor stock”, Howard is an ardent admirer of all things Australian.
The Chinese thinker was a master of the counter punch: mapping the terrain, knowing when to look powerful, when to seem weak. The leader closest to this style was 1980s entrepreneur Robert Holmes a Court, whose opaque manner created a mystique that he used for gaining powerful strategic leverage. He was the only entrepreneur to emerge from the 1987 stockmarket crash with his wealth intact.
The nearest modern equivalent is probably Solomon Lew, whose recent assault on Coles Myer bears all the hallmarks of the skilful counter punch and positioning for long-term advantage. Lew, whose ostensible motive is his emotional attachment to the company, is adroitly putting himself in a no-lose situation. If his assault is ineffective, he has purchased stock cheaply. If the company is broken up, he is perfectly placed to pick up the parts that best suit his long-term interests. Lew’s, and Lindsay Fox’s, crafty positioning in the Ansett demise also had more than a touch of Sun Tzu. They were positioned to buy the company, but never committed themselves, pulling out when they could not get a deal that suited.
Carl Von Clausewitz
Von Clausewitz was the author of the classic On War, acknowledged as one of the most influential texts on military theory (his theories were devised to counter the strength of Napoleon in the early 19th century). Clausewitz’s ideas are difficult to describe briefly, but the most distinctive feature is the way he delineates uncertainty. In Clausewitz on Strategy, a book produced by the Boston Consulting Group, it is described in these terms: “Uncertainty in all strategy is not an extraneous nuisance, but a necessary companion. Uncertainty in strategy is not merely an inability to forecast events but – far more important – the consequence of the indeterminacy of events brought about by intelligent and resourceful opposition … true strategists must not lament uncertainty, but embrace it as the wellspring of their art.”
The leader whose method comes closest to this description is Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation has never completely made the transition to stable global company – over the past five years it has recorded a negative return on shareholder funds – but has always managed to look like a central player, adapting as circumstances change and ready to embrace discontinuity in the overall push to develop the world’s most widespread media empire (at one point Murdoch was forced to beg an obscure Canadian banker not to bring down his entire empire).
Murdoch, who is described by his mother Elisabeth as clever but not necessarily an intellectual, exemplifies the fusion of theory and practice described by Clausewitz. He embodies his strategy, he does not merely execute it.
Clausewitz wrote: “Three-fourths of the elements on which action in war is based lie in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. Here, first of all, sensitive and penetrating intellectual power is required to feel out the truth of one’s instinctual intelligence.”
Of all Australia’s leaders, in business or elsewhere, Murdoch perhaps most fully exemplifies such an instinctual intelligence.
Julius Caesar was the most famous of the heads of the Roman Empire – a dictator, but also creator of the Pax Romana, the long period of Roman hegemony. He exemplifies many of the attributes of dominant leaders; at once courageous, persuasive, dominant, ambitious and obsessive. Above all, he is the focus of what he leads, the centre of attention. As Shakespeare observes: “When could they say, till now, that talk’d of Rome, that her wide walks encompass’d but one man.” Centuries later, illiterate tribes people who knew little of Rome knew of Caesar. His reputation has survived two thousand years; his capacity to be talked about has far outlived his influence.
The closest to the Caesar style of leadership is probably Kerry Packer, whose ability to look dominant is probably as important as his capacity to dominate. Other possibilities suggest themselves: Frank Lowy of Westfield and Richard Pratt of Pratt Holdings. Both are billionaires, and both founded commercial empires.
Mandela is the exemplar of moral force in leadership: a man who spent decades in jail for his beliefs, then displayed extraordinary wisdom in dealing with his former enemies when released. No similar experience exists in Australian public life, but a number of people aspire to Mandela-style wisdom and gravitas. The closest parallel might be Noel Pearson, whose views may at times be controversial but whose integrity is rarely doubted.
Comparisons between the great leaders of the past and contemporary Australian leaders are tentative. The exceptional figures of the past are unique and without any precise modern equivalents. The leaders of the future will likewise be unique, different in character and effect from what has gone before. Looking to the past can be useful, but future leaders will, almost by definition, lead in a way that no one expects.
The list of qualities required in a leader is about to grow exponentially as a congeries of developments make themselves felt in the business world
By Leon Gettler
Real leadership has always been tough. Leaders, from ancient worlds to sprawling corporations, have always found it so. But business, economic and demographic trends suggest it is about to get tougher. And if that happens, tomorrow’s leaders will probably need a stomach for uncertainty and the abstract, for complexity and experimentation.
Futurists, business leaders and scenario planners all suggest that ambiguity will be name of the game. Leaders will need to embrace it even more than they do now.
Of course, future leadership will always be a challenge because today’s leaders, by definition, have to do the groundwork for tomorrow. What’s more, some things leaders have done will never change. For instance, the leadership canon has always focused on goal-setting and energising followers to perform above expectations; it is always centred on setting strategic directions, challenging the status quo, creating a visionary landscape and articulating a message.
So, what will be different? The leaders of tomorrow will be doing all of that on several fronts at once, and the tectonic plates will always be shifting as networks, teams and alliances are built across generations, organisations and cultures.
Change Is Nigh
There are signs that this is already happening. In his book Geeks & Geezers (written with Robert Thomas), the eminent management thinker Warren Bennis captures its essence: “Globalisation has raised the stakes for leaders everywhere. The context they must grasp is no longer simply an institutional one or even a national one. Instead, today’s leaders have to be able to respond to an avalanche of information from around the world and to grasp multiple contexts, some very different from the ones they grew up in.”
But globalisation is just one force. Research from the Conference Board, the well-respected United States business forum, nominates several others that are reshaping the landscape for executives. According to its research report, Developing Leaders for 2010, these include:
- Hyper-competition, where many industries, from financial services to consumer products, are being “commoditised”. The combination of an oversupply of products and services (Seiko produces 5000 watch models; Sony has turned out 5000 new products a year, more than two per working hour) and technology has squeezed profit margins and slashed the lifespan of products and any competitive advantage they may offer. Success in the market is now, and will increasingly be, a function of speed and cost. Future leaders will need to be the experts.
- Technology that enables speed of information, competition, business and organisational change.
- Expectations of boards and financial markets intolerant of underperformance and quick to punish not only those that fail to meet targets but also those that struggle to reassure investors they are in for a period of solid growth.
- An emphasis on customer relationships, where competition becomes less about market share than about aiming at segments of the market. This means leaders will need to devise better ways of meeting customer needs.
- Changing organisational structures. Two main types will emerge: the “megacorporation” and narrowly defined companies focusing on core capabilities. Leaders of the former will need the ability to select and develop talent at the lower management levels and handle complex arrangements that decentralise decision-making and operations while ensuring that appropriate levels of control remain in place. The latter model depicts a more focused organisation. Companies in different industries will focus on core parts of their business and develop complex sets of relationships with joint-venture and alliance partners, suppliers and providers of outsourced services. The networks will have layers of complexity, as a competitor for one business unit may be a partner for another. And, with relationships likely to be more strategic than transactional, there will be room for more collaborative planning and forecasting.
- Employee expectations. Leaders will have to respond to the demands of talented employees who will seek challenging, meaningful work and will be less trusting of organisations, less willing than past generations to subordinate their interests to those of the business and less accepting of old hierarchies. They will expect the boss to devise individualised flexible work arrangements. The best leaders will understand that it is not as much about a new type of employee as it is about tailoring the workplace to diverse needs, and those who retain the “one size fits all” model will be left behind.
The New Leader
Leadership development will need to develop skills around a universe of extreme cognitive complexity, fragmentation and competitive pressures, an environment in which big decisions will have to be made quickly in the absence of any clear answers. In the face of this, organisations will focus more on leadership skills, as opposed to technical know-how and industry knowledge, and this will reshape organisational structures.
Highly refined expertise in communication and talent development will be seen as a critical element of leadership. Team-building that involves the staffing and mobilising of talented managers will be even more of a priority. Given the high levels of complexity and ambiguity, the creation and implementation of successful strategies will be possible only by teams of executives.
In summary, the Conference Board nominated 10 broad skills the successful leader will have in 2010. These are:
- Intellectual firepower and mental agility.
- Strategic thinking skills, especially in regard to global competition and technology.
- Analytical ability and the savvy to sort through a tsunami of information sources and select the most relevant parts.
- Solid decision-making in the face of uncertainty.
- Personal and organisational communication skills.
- The ability to influence and persuade not only within the organisation but also outside, involving customers, suppliers, strategic partners, external constituents, and investors.
- Managing a diverse workplace and employing several styles for dealing with many cultures, generations and points of view.
- Knowing how to delegate tasks and responsibilities but at the same time managing risk and having sound controls in place.
- The ability to recognise, attract, develop and retain talent.
- Personal adaptability.
A Whole New Learning Experience
To develop the new skills, companies may have to adopt new approaches such as executive chat rooms, “thought leader” access, e-mentoring, business simulations, scenario planning and even lending employees and projects to outside organisations.
Another solution might be to set aside investment or “venture capital” funds to support high-potential executives pursuing new business opportunities within the company.
The problem for many businesses, already squeezed for resources, is the extra cost. And quantifying the benefits in developing the leaders of tomorrow is fraught with difficulty. Measuring the effect of an investment will probably become a priority for companies that see it as a key to staying ahead. Getting around the risk/reward ratio will not be easy, but doing nothing is no alternative.
Managers and leaders of tomorrow are entering a world that will look very different. In 25 years, there will be more people living in Shanghai than in the whole of the South Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Asia already accounts for half the world’s population. The Australian employee of tomorrow will be well travelled and will probably work for an internationally owned firm. Everyone will be required to have some form of post-school training: training for a job, training on the job, a vocational qualification of some sort or a university degree. Many are likely to speak Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Spanish as a second language. For children, most learning will be done in non-school locations, with lap-top computers and regular communication with children in other countries. Tomorrow’s manager will be a global citizen.