Great leaders: born or made?

Saturday 19 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Cinema 2 Institutions in crisis?

Many are called. Just about all are chosen as well. At least, that’s what the new fashion for modern leadership training seems to imply. There is a constant stream of literature, endless executive acceleration conferences, away day programmes for emerging leaders and seminars aiming at turning ineffectual executives into formidable Churchills. And many individuals in both in the public and private sectors are willing participants on such courses. But can teaching leadership really solve the crisis at the heart of rudderless institutions? Trust in those who lead is at an all-time low. There is little faith in those who head up the BBC, the EU, the NHS or for politicians and corporate CEOs in general. While there are plenty of charismatic leaders around, from Obama to Branson, too few seem prepared to take responsibility, act decisively, see initiatives through or even have confidence in their own judgement. ‘The buck stops here’ seems to have been replaced by passing the buck. The plethora of inquiries and consultants, bringing in outsiders to investigate and advise on organisations’ internal problems, speaks to a trend to outsource difficult decisions. A report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills last year showed nearly three quarters of organisations in England reported a deficit of management leadership skills.

Addressing this deficit is a new multi-million pound industry of leadership training, executive coaching and self-help manuals. Leadership has become commoditised and professionalised – now available for sale in hard back rather than being hard-won through experience. But is it true that leadership is a set of generic skills that can be taught irrespective of context? And doesn’t leadership by numbers, following a ‘best practice’ script, paradoxically restrain people from exercising judgement, a key part of showing leadership? In a culture that penalises those who use their initiative without following procedures, that preaches caution, can a diploma in leadership really help anyone buck the trend? Do qualifications, name-plates, academic titles confer real authority? Is there a danger of substituting formulae for more organic experience and practical wisdom? Or are such leadership courses a useful mechanism for restoring trust in institutions’ leaders and giving confidence and skills to those who at present don’t dare to lead?

Neil Davenport
sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist

Tracey Groves
partner, PwC

Robert Phillips
expert adviser on communications & trust; visiting professor Cass Business School, London; commentator and public speaker

Professor Kathryn Riley
London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education; author, Leadership of Place: stories from the US, UK & South Africa

Mike Wright
executive director, Jaguar Land Rover

Dr Mark Taylor
vice principal, East London Science School; London convenor, IoI Education Forum

Produced by
Dr Mark Taylor vice principal, East London Science School; London convenor, IoI Education Forum
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