'Can you point us to an organization that is growing leaders?' they asked me. Silence fell in my room, and I gazed out of the window, reflecting. At the time I was the world's first Professor of Leadership Studies, and so I suppose my two visitors to the university understandably expected me to know the answer. 'Not the armed forces,' they added, 'we have already been to see them.' After a few minutes… well, I could think of plenty of companies that were training leaders - sending their first-line managers, for example, on action-centred leadership courses - but that was not the question they asked. Who is growing leaders?
'I cannot think of anyone,' I replied eventually.
'Alright then,' they said, 'we will do it. Will you help us?'
I agreed to do so, and they told me more about their situation. My visitors, Bill Stead and Edgar Vincent, were the senior group human resources managers in ICI, then known as 'the bellwether of British industry'. (A 'bellwether' is literally the leading sheep of a flock, the practice being to hang a bell around its neck.)
This particular bell was already tinkling the death knell of old-style management in the UK. Not that the rest of the flock had ears to hear it. In 1988, Bill and Edgar told me, the profits of ICI fell by a staggering 48 per cent; the dividend was cut for the first time since the formation of the company in 1926. ICI was too large (over 60,000 employees), too bureaucratic and in the wrong markets. The main board executive directors had decided that ICI's top priority was to develop manager-leaders - the first time, I recall, that I had ever heard that particular phrase.
Over the next five years we went about growing leaders in the nine divisions of ICI, but here let me 'cut to the chase'. After five years ICI was the first British company in history to make a billion pounds profit.
I tell you this story as they say 'up-front' in order to impress upon you that leadership is not a soft skill, an optional extra for oiling the machinery of industrial relations. It is a key factor in business success - whatever your business and however you define success.
The military learnt that lesson long ago. As the Greek poet Euripides, who died in 406 BCE, put it succinctly:
Ten good soldiers wisely led,
Will beat a hundred without a head.
Success in war or battle tends to go hand-in-hand with good leadership at all levels. Leadership exists on three broad levels, which I named some time ago as strategic, operational and team, and that nomenclature is now beginning to catch on. It is a common fallacy that all an organization needs is a good strategic leader at the helm. The secret of business success is excellence of leadership at all three levels. Organizations may be able to buy-in new strategic business leaders for astronomical salaries, like world-class football clubs changing their managers. But faced with the task of developing excellent leadership at all levels they have no option but to follow that distant bell of ICI in the 1980s and grow their own leaders.
In Part 1. Exploring Leadership, as that title suggests, I invite you to join me on a journey of discovery about the nature of leadership and how it can be taught.
My reasons are two-fold. First, unless you are reasonably clear what leadership is, and how it relates to management or command, you will be seriously handicapped when it comes to attempting to develop leadership. If you don't know what it is, how can you develop it?
Then we can get to work together in Part 2. How to Grow Leaders - The Seven Principles with your organization in mind. I can outline for you the principles, and clothe them as best I can in flesh and blood, but here you will be doing most of the thinking. For you know your fields of business and your particular organization, and only you know how to apply...