Visions of leadership


What is the most important question you would ask about leadership? What would be your answer today to this question?

Time magazine (1) asked people to nominate the most influential leaders of the 20th century. On the cover of this article you will find their top 20 leaders of our era. After the HEC seminars on leadership, in which our guest speakers quickly passed over the sensitive question of the raw material or training required to make a leader, I am still unsure if leaders are born or made. Time’s top 20 is so diverse it is hard to find common characteristics between them, but amongst the Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 CEOs, they tend to be tall, silvered haired, and most importantly, men. In America, only seven Fortune 500 CEOs are female; in Britain, only one woman runs a FTSE 100 company. The question is therefore:

“What characteristics do time’s 20 and the Fortune 500 leaders have in common, and most strikingly, why are there so few women? Was it the raw material that made them leaders or the events that shaped their lives, born or made? “

The clearest observation is the height of CEOs, who are significantly taller than average. But history is full of small men wielding big power (Mr Welch is no giant, and neither was Napoleon), hence it may help but is not required. A study at University of Minnesota “social potency” (2), a term coined by genetic scientists, indicates that there are certain attributes that lend themselves to someone engaging in a social situation as a dominant character. The study also implied that between 35% and 50% of these attributes associated with leadership came from innate genetic inheritance, albeit that they needed the social context and motivation to use them.

If leadership were a quality completely innate, what would be the role of the industry that attempts to teach it? There are vast tomes on leadership in the bookstores, and every business school in the world is inserting the word “leadership” into their existing course titles. Businessmen with a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) have certainly come to dominate the CEO list (3), but is this just a reflection of the sheer number of MBA graduates? By the late 1990s, American schools were turning out 100,000 MBA graduates a year, compared with 13,000 in Britain and a mere 1,400 in Germany. Even President George Bush has an MBA. Whether people can learn to be leaders, either from traditional business-school courses or from the new touchy-feely leadership development programmes, is a moot point. I certainly learnt what I feel I know today on the Job, by watching and making mistakes. The partner at my consulting firm, when I lost the company €40,000 when one of my team quoted the client in the wrong currency, indicated that that I had just been given an expensive lesson in team leadership.

What is the significance of the observation that the ratio of women leaders is so low? Surely this cannot be simply explained by the fact that women are more likely to look after children than men. Certainly there were fewer women in the workforce than today, and it takes time to reach the highest positions. Women are currently in board level positions just below the CEO in greater numbers than ever seen, especially in modern sectors of the economy.

A woman’s leadership programme at Accenture, the world largest consultancy firm, asked women in the company why they felt there were so few women at the highest levels. They responded that, first, they fail to be allocated the really stretching jobs to make partner. Second, they lack networks. It is not that they excluded, but that people bond more easily with the same gender. Activities such as golf make it more likely that men will combine their social and work networks, making them more effective. Third, women find it difficult to develop an image compatible with leadership. There are fewer role models, and simply adopting a male style rarely works. No woman desires to be like one of Time’s top 20, Margaret Thatcher, and be described as an “Iron Lady”. Finally, women are much more likely to refuse the top jobs, they look at what the job involves and think the price is too big to pay.

This highlights that the motivation to be a leader, to dominate others, appears to have strongest correlation to leadership. “Wanting to be dominant is a very important trait of dominance,” observes Nigel Nicholson (4) of the London Business School. And when we look at Time’s top 20, we do see figures with a real desire to lead, however not necessarily in a fair or benevolent manner. The shocking question of leadership then becomes, if it those who wish to lead who lead, why do those who follow tolerate leaders who are often stupid, nasty and completely corrupt?

--Ben, 2004


  2. Richard D. Arvey, Matt McGue, Wendy Johnson, Maria Rotundo, University of Toronto; [WWW]
  3. The leadership initiative at the Harvard business school
  4. “The social anthropology of management”, Nigel Nicholson, London Business School
Benjamin Hughes's Professional profile Benjamin Hughes's Social profile