Considering the importance that business in general places on leadership, shockingly little time is spent preparing people for it. The chances are that when someone is placed into a leadership position for the first time - usually as leader of a small internal team - they will have had no training at all in how to lead. So they muddle through, as best as they can, learning along the way.
Leadership is, to a large extent, instinctive for this reason. The personality of every individual leader is different, so there is no such thing as a standard leadership model that everyone should follow. Over the past few years we have written two leadership books and spent many months interviewing leaders from in business, the military and sporting worlds, looking for common ground on how they approach leadership in very different environments.
A strong message to emerge from our research was that modern leadership is based on persuasion rather than on explicit direction (and this is true, surprisingly, even of military leaders). Rather than ordering their people to act, the most effective leaders are those who inspire them to perform at their best, in every situation.
What was particularly interesting was the way in which various leaders achieve this objective. Continually motivating a diverse group of people, every day, is a difficult and often exhausting task. Some leaders are lucky enough to be blessed with an inspiring personality, but they are relatively rare in business. What we found is that successful leaders use what could be termed 'motivational shorthand' - a variety of techniques (or tricks, if we were being uncharitable) that help to bring people onside. Here are a few examples:
Quick wins. The success of leaders who are promising change, or leaders who are new to an organisation, depends on their ability to demonstrate that they are making a positive difference. Barack Obama struggled with this in his first year as US President - he was elected on a wave of hope which created expectations that he would struggle to fulfil, simply because of the difficult nature of the job. In the days after the election Obama began to stress that change would take time, but even so it was not long before people began to doubt that he really was making a difference and his ratings plummeted.
It takes time to change or improve a business, and real evidence of success often arrives in the form of dry financial results, six or 12 months later. In the meantime, momentum and goodwill is lost. This is exactly where the 'quick fix' - speedy and highly visible evidence that the leader is achieving something - comes into play.
In 1995, Heather Rabbatts was appointed chief executive of the London Borough of Lambeth, after replying to an advertisement for 'the worst job in local government'. The challenges had not been understated - the Borough was failing, financially and operationally, and morale was crushingly low. It was clear that turning the Borough around would be a long and difficult task and that success would depend to a large extent on getting her staff onside.
Rabbatts spent the first two months talking to as many people as possible, from Borough tenants to the political leadership, assessing the problems. One of the recurring complaints she heard was that the Borough's housing repairs systems was in disarray. Her answer was to order that every broken light bulb on every estate and property in the Borough be replaced. The exercise broke every procurement rule in the book and cost £60,000, but the impact was huge. It was a clear sign to everyone that their new leader was making a difference to their lives, and it bought her time to address the fundamental problems in the Borough's maintenance programme, and elsewhere. 'People don’t want to hear about fancy strategies,' is how she explained it, 'they want lights that work.'
Visibility. Whereas 50 years ago it was standard practice for a leader to spend much of his time secluded away in an office on the top floor, in modern leadership visibility and approachability is the order of the day. Where a leader chooses to physically sit in an organisation speaks volumes to their followers.
It's striking that some of the most popular and successful business leaders make a conscious effort to give the appearance of always being available and approachable. Charles Dunstone, for instance, the co-founder and CEO of Carphone Warehouse, has a glass-walled office that is right in the middle of the action, with hundreds of staff manning the phones outside. His door is rarely closed. And, in common with Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, he eats in the staff canteen whenever possible.
Putting people first. Followers like to think that their leaders have their best interests at heart, and will always put them first. During our research we found that military leaders are particularly good at actively demonstrating this. Colonel Bob Stewart, who was Commander of UN forces in Bosnia in the 1990s, told us that he made a point, whenever he was asked to set up a new camp, of ordering that the soldier's quarters be completed first. Only then did work start on the officers' mess. It sent a message, he said, that the men were his priority.
This same idea also appeared in a business context. When Greg Dyke took over as director-general of the BBC, one of his first decisions was to re-open up the atrium at the centre of the BBC's White City headquarters, which had been closed for years for reasons that had been lost to staff (and were eventually blamed on a lack of wheelchair access). The work was relatively cheap but the goodwill gained enormous. When it was done Dyke threw a barbeque for staff and emphasised that this was their space, and no-one else's.
Delegating responsibility for rules. Inevitably, any business or team has to have behavioural rules, such as dress code, holiday rota policy and so on. But imposing rules imposed from above invariably creates tension, or even resentment.
Sir Clive Woodward came up with an interesting solution while he was coach of the England rugby team during the run-up to their World Cup win in Australia in 2003. Sir Clive's first meeting with the team and coaching staff was at 10am at their training base. Sir Clive was the first to arrive and watched as the players and staff trickled into the room, some on their mobile phones. Quietly irritated, Sir Clive started the meeting at 10.15am. He explained that his vision was that the team should become the best in the world, and prove it by winning the World Cup. He then asked the team to set a code of behaviour that was befitting of world champions. The rules the team came up with - which included an agreement that every player would always arrive 10 minutes before any meeting was due to start and that mobile phones were restricted to bedrooms and their cars - were far more stringent than Sir Clive would have risked suggesting himself. These 'teamship rules' became a matter of pride for the entire team.
These techniques add weight to the argument that leadership is a skill that can be learned, at least in part. That's not to say that a poor leader can automatically transform their fortunes by employing some of these methods - it is one of the hazards of modern leadership that people can always spot a phoney.