The Myth of the Strong LeaderThis is a fascinating look at leadership in the political world, spanning democracies and authoritarian regimes, and exploring leadership in many contexts. The lessons to be learned and the parallels to the world of organisations are many and varied.

The book opens with a useful discourse about the quality of strength and why it seems such a common property we want to ascribe to our leaders – how often do we say we need weak leadership? There are many qualities that political leaders need above and beyond the ability to look strong.

You can listen to a facinating interview with Archie Brown below:


There are some interesting categories of leadership which form the content structure of the book - democratic leadership, redefining leadership, transformational, revolutionary, totalitarian and authoritarian leadership are all defined and discussed. Most of the examples are about heads of government but the author also talks about the huge impact that a great leader can make who does not have that power - I write this review in the week that Malala Yousafzai was announced as the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is a great example of an individual with no positional power who is effecting great change in the world, by definition, showing leadership.

Leadership has to be seen in context- Winston Churchill was seen as failure before the Second World War and lost the peacetime election after the war but clearly had a huge impact during the war. There are many examples in business. So, the leader in a turn round situation is unlikely to be the best leader for the next phase.

There is a useful definition of leadership in its purest form, defined as someone other people wish to be guided by and to follow. It’s an interesting human trait that large groups of people willing to allow themselves to be led by one person or a small group.

Archie explores the development of leadership over time and in different societies, making the point that it was only when communities got to a certain size (several hundred) that it was felt that the chief was needed. Sadly, it was often a strong man form of leadership that developed. He makes the point that in the poorest and most divided societies a visionary and inclusive leadership style is what is needed. I thought back to the world of work and how often organisations in trouble tend to bring control back to the centre and move towards a command style of leadership, when what would be more successful is a visionary.

Adam Smith noted for ways that power was conferred; physical qualifications, age, wealth, class.

The first leadership style explored is the Democratic. The chapter explores the importance of the personality of the leader in winning elections. There seems little evidence that it is the leader of the political party that people vote for - there are many examples where the leader of the victorious party was actually less popular than their opponent. The parallel I draw here is the impact that a CEO has on the shareholders; do the charismatic CEOs carry the support of the shareholders more than a CEO who tends to share power more? Probably not. However in the same way as the policies of a political party will be influenced by the leader, so the company direction can be strongly influenced by the CEO. So the quality that is successful is not strong leadership but the ability to think and to create a vision. This ties in well with the model of leadership that we subscribe to, where the thinking cluster is one of 4 key elements.

Brown’s chapter on Democratic leadership is peppered with great examples from politics in the UK and the US. I particularly liked a quote from Clement Attlee, UK Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. He was keen to keep in touch with the backbench MPs and said “They may not convince me that they are right, but I believe that the foundation of democratic liberty is a willingness to believe that other people may be wiser than oneself” Surely a good maxim for any leader?

The second style is termed Redefining Leadership. This is the leader who challenges assumptions about what is possible and introduces radical change. The most successful leader who is attempting radical change does so through using the political resources they have rather than dominating the system. This style is not about systemic change or a qualitatively new order - that is the territory of the third style, the transformational leader. Examples of such leaders in the book include Franklin Roosevelt Lyndon Johnson, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, Willy Brandt and FW De Klerk all of whom achieved significant change. In the world of organisations we might think about turn rounds, or redefining a brand.

The next two categories are Transformational and Revolutionary, both of whom change the system. The transformational leader is distinguished from revolutionary leaders by the fact that the transformation of the political or economic system happens without resort to violent seizure of power. Charles de Gaulle, Mikael Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela are three examples. I’m not quite sure what the equivalence of the styles is in organisations; perhaps the shift from a mutual status of the building societies to plc status, or the transition of an organisation selling one product to a radically different one, such as Nokia achieved.

Another example is Lyons, a UK catering company famous for their chain of tea shops. 60 years ago this year, they funded the development of a computer to support their bakery order and then many more business functions – arguably the first commercial application of computing. Lyons formed the LEO computers operation, which became part of ICL and then Fujitsu. The company outlasted its parent.

In the political world, some revolutions have natural leaders – Russia in 1917 for example- whereas Tunisia recently happened without a leader. So what might the organisational equivalence be? Blood on the carpet would seem to be required, so the recent changes at the Co-operative Society would be a good example.

The final examples of leadership styles are the totalitarian and authoritarian styles – North Korea being a good example of the former and Singapore the latter. There are lessons to be learnt from these styles. Stalin dominated Russia through fear and oppression, but clearly could not control every aspect of the state. As a consequence, bureaucracy flourished, acquiring and defending power at lower levels. If command and control is the predominant style in any organisation, people throughout will attempt to mirror that style. Creativity and individual talent will be supressed and a climate of fear and dependency will follow. The consequence are clearly not as devastating as they were for Russians, but the parallel remains valid.
One thing that I would have liked to see more of is a distinction in the different qualities that the leaders had that resulted in them adopting that style - or indeed, did they lead in that way because of inherent traits, or were the circumstances they found themselves in the reason why they became that style of leader.

Overall, a fascinating book, from which organisational leaders can learn much, and us as coaches, can usefully reflect on different styles and support our leaders to choose the most appropriate one. And, if you find your client has Stalin as a role model, I’d be happy to coach you on your exit strategy from that relationship.