Leadership has become one the central questions of our time. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the demand for strong authoritative leadership has been palpable. I remember participating in a NATO sponsored workshop in 2002 on the psychological impact of terrorism. One of the challenges thrown at the participants was to imagine they were facing a major incident akin to 9/11 and to decide who could be trusted with the task of informing the public about what had happened and what needed to be done. In other words, who would provide communicative leadership at a time when society was facing an unprecedented catastrophe?
The very posing of this question caught most of the participants unaware. It was evident that many of the elected leaders of European nations would prove unsuitable for this task. Could the Italian people trust the reassurances of a Berlusconi? How would the Greeks or the Belgians respond to the instructions of their prime ministers? Even the UK-based participants were at a loss and suggested someone like the TV broadcaster Trevor Macdonald should be assigned this task because his words were more trustworthy than those of officially designated political leaders.
Since this workshop, I have become far more aware of the absence of leadership than its presence. Dramatic events like the Eurozone crisis continually remind me of the question posed at that NATO workshop: Where do you look for effective leadership? Similar queries are posed by people in businesses, public sector organisations, and cultural institutions.
That there is a widespread recognition of the feeble state of leadership is demonstrated by the flourishing of a veritable industry devoted to its cultivation. Seminars, training courses and conferences promise to turn uninspiring executives into dynamic leaders. Go to any good book shop and you will see dozens of texts with titles like The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow them and People Will Follow You. Alternatively you can learn everything that there is to know by reading The Leadership Book: How to Deliver Outstanding Results or How to Lead: What You Actually Need to Do to Manage, Lead and Succeed. For the down to earth there is Leadership: Plain and Simple and for the touchy-feely amongst you the book to read is Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence.
There is only one small problem with these self-help texts: there is no formula for authoritative leadership. Experience shows there are many things in life that need to be learned but cannot be taught. Sadly, leadership is not a skill that can be learned from clever teachers. If only it could be acquired through attending a training course we would all be leaders. Rather, it is a quality and attribute gained through learning from experience and the struggle of life.
The art of leadership
Back in the ancient times, it was recognised that authoritative leadership was tied to the exercise of certain characteristics, particularly the willingness to initiate. In fact, the ancient Greek word for government, arche, in its etymological sense means the beginning or a person who initiates or commences. It means a person taking steps in such a manner that others will follow – a fundamental attribute of a leader.
The Latin word for authority auctoritas also hints at the importance of initiation. It means many things – such as to author – but above all it means to initiate - and those Individuals who have auctoritas enjoy the authority, the personal prestige that they have gained through this act. Reading of the Roman classics shows that those with auctoritas possess the power and influence that come from being trusted and respected for their capacity to initiate and lead.
The good news is that gaining such an authority is not confined to a tiny group of extraordinary individuals. Authoritative leadership is not dependent on attributes that we associate with charisma and natural flair. Instead it is a quality gained through addressing tasks seriously and assuming responsibility for them. Like any art, it involves the synthesis of the intellect and the passions. From the ancient to modern times, history shows that individuals gain authority by putting themselves on the line and setting an example. In this sense leadership – whether through words or behaviour – always involves an act of communication.
An effective leader is not someone who attracts attention to himself or herself but who is seen as the personification of something important – something that is oriented towards issues that touch us all. Authoritative leaders are not so much charismatic communicators but people who establish a real presence by giving meaning to society's aspirations. Presence is not so much about the person but about the person forcefully expressing the direction to be followed to confront challenges. Such a presence is established through conviction, commitment and taking responsibility.
As an exercise in authoritative leadership, context determines the establishment of such a presence, the principle virtue of which is the willingness to develop the capacity for exercising judgment. The ability to make judgment calls requires what Aristotle called the virtue of phronesis, the kind of practical wisdom we gain through experience and engagement with the world around us.
Aristotle took the view that there are a range of human actions whose objective could not be achieved by following prescribed formulas. Pottery making can be pursued with technical knowledge (techne), but healing the sick required practical wisdom (phronesis). For Aristotle, phronesis was the most significant intellectual virtue because developing the capacity for exercising moral judgment allowed the exercise of other virtues of character.
This is an edited extract from the Centre for Independent Studies 2011 John Bonython lecture.
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