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Were all leaders in the modern workplace

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<b>Leadership isnt confined to the top team. Its about taking responsibility for yourself and others, says Richard Donkin</b>

I see a lot of management books, with review copies coming through the post almost every other day. Just occasionally I get one thats worth keeping but most of them are a waste of good lumber. Still, they can be instructive even if you read nothing much more than the title.


Last year, for example, there was a spate of books on leadership. The publishers had decided en masse that management was out and leadership was in. I couldnt


understand what was going on but the penny has finally dropped. Leadership has been separated from the leader and repackaged as a ubiquitous commodity that offers something for everyone.


Leadership used to belong to the elite. It used to be recognised in, well leaders. Anyone of us could name a leader. They were people like Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte and John F Kennedy. Today you might pass a leader in the street and never bother to turn your head. In fact it could be you.


The idea is that leadership is a quality, or a set of qualities, that can be found in all of us. It can lie


dormant or unrecognised for years until one day,


perhaps quite suddenly, it will blossom in all its glory. It may be triggered by some tragic event, or by a sense of frustration with the Government or with a corporation. In a business it may emerge because the company has asked employees for ideas.


A popular consensus has emerged in the past year, that it is leadership, not management, that is needed to transform British companies into world-beaters. This may be so, but first we need to arrive at a common definition. At the same time we should not be too hasty in getting rid of a body of management theory that has created great companies in the past. Well-led companies need to be well-managed too. The difference today is that companies no longer have the luxury of advancing elaborate strategies for expansion without expecting the unexpected.


The military has understood this for years. The speed of events in the opening days of the latest Gulf War demonstrated the need for troops on the ground to deal with situations as they arose, knowing that they were working to a grand plan that inevitably would be disrupted by events.


My own Damascene revelation about the fluidity of leadership occurred on a mountainside earlier this year. I had travelled with friends to Argentina to climb the 22,840ft-high Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside Asia. Was it work or leisure? I think I could make a case for both. We had a leader of sorts a French mountain guide. The guides authority relied on his experience and skills. We bowed to his judgment because he knew much more about climbing this kind of mountain than any other member of our party. But he did not know everything. One member of the team was a consultant paediatrician, and for medical advice I noticed that most of us leaned towards the doctor. In that sense leadership was shared.


Another revelation involved team dynamics. I would like to say that we worked as a team; and I believe we did. But as we edged ever nearer the summit it was clear that the biggest benefit any one of us could contribute to the team was to look after number one. Maybe this is what Charles Handy had in mind when he wrote of proper selfishness in his book, The Hungry Spirit. To be properly selfish, he wrote, is to accept a responsibility for making the most of oneself by, ultimately, finding a purpose beyond and bigger than oneself. This bigger purpose could be getting the team to the top safely and down again, and the best way to do this is to look after your own health so youre not a


burden to your team-mates. Even this is a form of leadership leadership through self-knowledge and understanding.


If we translate this concept to the workplace, we can begin to understand why management is becoming a two-way street, why leadership is implicit in this thing called empowerment and cannot be confined to the top team. It is all about taking responsibility for yourself and others. The business books are right about one thing leadership and management are not the same. We still need good management in the


workplace but increasingly we need leadership, and at every level. Leadership has been liberated from the Hall of Fame and devolved across organisations. Were all leaders now.


richard.donkin@haynet.com


Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times