Skillsoft Blog

The Leader Within

We’re pleased to bring you this guest blog
post is from Dr. Ian
Metcalfe, Director & Principal Consultant at Adaptive Learning. Dr.
Metcalfe will speak at 2013 Skillsoft
Perspectives Australia & New Zealand on August 21. 

By Dr. Ian Metcalfe

Ever since the Karpin report in the 80’s on
the state of leadership in Australia, we have officially been bemoaning poor
leadership here and around the world. It would appear that good men, and women at the top, are hard to find.

But, has it ever been better? Have we a dearth of leadership
today or is it just historical truth that great leaders are scarce at any time?

This line of thought logically leads us to many more
questions: are leaders born or made, is it nature or nurture? If born then what
character traits does a leader have to possess. Or if made, then how do we do
that? What are the ‘five secrets of leadership’ or the ‘seven habits’ that all
leaders have? Is it what leader’s do
that is important – their behaviours, the results they achieve or is it the
values they hold or even the way they make us feel, that is essential?

With over one thousand books printed each year on the
subject and some pretty serious money being spent on corporate “leadership
development programs”, at least some people believe we can make leaders.

Even our primary and secondary schools have gotten in
on this act. It would appear that every second student is in some leadership
role or other – school captains, music vice captains, president of the
environment club, senior head blackboard monitor, and so on.

But are the books, the courses and the practice doing
any good? Are we producing more leaders? Not that I can see, and to tell you
the truth; I don’t think we even know
what leadership is!

You see by my way of thinking, leadership is a lot
like art – we can’t really define it, but we know good art when we see it – or in the case of leadership, when
we experience it.

The nature of leadership, unlike management but very
much like that of art, is to constantly reinvent and redefine itself. As
Professor Nitin Nohria (currently Dean of Harvard Business School) said a few
years ago: “Our conceptions of leadership are often shaped by the zeitgeist
of our times.”

We have probably been looking at leadership the wrong
way about. Leadership isn’t something fixed in time – we can’t say that this
set of traits or those behaviours will make you a leader any more than we can
say leaders are born, or made. It just doesn’t appear to work that way.

Having the word leader in your position description
doesn’t make you one. It’s more about ‘soul’ than role. Leadership seems to be
an emergent property of the positive relationships we build between each other. Leadership is
personal, and it’s dynamic; it is defined by who follows whom and seems to
change with the situation – those people who are true leaders today might not
be seen as such fifty years from now, nor would they have been leaders if
transported five decades into the past. Leaders are leaders only in
their own place and time

So Churchill was a recognised leader during the war
and a disaster afterwards. One could equally, carefully, argue that even Hitler
was right for his times before going totally off the rails. Only Mahatma Gandhi
seems to have stood the “test of time”. And his advice to everyone: “Be the
change you want to see in the world!” A call for distributed, authentic,
leadership if ever I heard one.

Great leaders seem to be what is required for the times – they are great because they meet our expectations and
fulfil our needs – be these in the workplace, a local community, national
politics, or the global economic market.

This then begs the question: what is it we NEED from our leaders today – in the 21st century?

  • Selflessness
    not egotism for a start.
  • A servant
    leader; a driver of change.
  • A leader who
    challenges us, but also supports us.
  • Someone who
    listens, empowers and enables people to act.
  • Someone who
    understands the big picture, the integral nature of the world, a systems
    thinker that engages
    us all in productive dialogue about what is important, what gives us meaning.
  • A community
    builder (someone who engages that community, and individuals to develop and
    grow, to think deeply about our purpose and significance, our place in the
  • Someone who
    focuses our collective attention and consciousness on things that really
    matter, those things which give everyone a quality of life and not just
  • And a leader
    who leads from the heart and spirit and not from just the head and a budget

Above all we need global leadership today which will
unite humanity behind solving some of the pretty serious problems which face
this delicate little planet of ours.

So, does any of this describe an Abbott or a Gillard
or for that matter any political leader in Australia, New Zealand or the World
that we know of today?

To reluctantly borrow a phrase from (the long running,
long suffering) Big Brother – “I don’t
think so!”

And if we can’t find leadership “out there” [cue the
spooky x-files music], then perhaps we must begin by finding the leader that is within us all, but that’s another

IMM Melbourne 2008 & May 2013

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