The one where I first talk about leadership

Over the past few years I have had to, as part of my role, develop leaders and trust me it’s so easy…


Hang on, it’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my entire career

I recall running a leadership workshop last summer, tweeting the title of workshop and being asked the question by several people “can leadership be trained?”

For my part I don’t believe that leadership is something you can be trained to do – management is trainable, but not leadership. Which then begs the question ‘are leaders born or made?’ to which my answer is…both, which may appear something of a paradox but it’s not. If you notice, in the first sentence I used the word trained and I do strongly believe that leadership cannot be trained it can however, with the IMHO caveat firmly applied, be developed i.e. helping people to discover the qualities, abilities, confidence, points of view, courage, insight, self awareness, understanding etc, to become the best version of themselves…which in turn may engage people to follow them as leaders…

When faced with having to run a leadership workshop for the first time (some time in the distant murky past) I stood facing 12 people and asked the question “what do you think defines a great leader?”

Having heard the sound of tumbleweed for what felt like forever (in all likelihood I probably only lasted about 20 seconds) I forged on, asked questions to stimulate thought and at the end of a 20 minute bore fest had less than 10 words on a flipchart. To use a twitter expression #epicfail

My failure I believe was due to several factors amongst which were as an out and out extravert not letting people have any time to think about any answer but more significantly to pick a topic so vast and dare I say it over published/discussed/venerated/poorly defined and then to expect people to pick some nuggets out of thin air. Suffice to say the workshop didn’t improve much from there and I went away deflated and introspective….

*Time Passes*

So having to now deliver it again (some months later) I realised that yes I did want to have a discussion about what the participants considered great leadership. So how was I going to make it work? Easy…give them some time to prepare and some sort of framework to think within (I am in L&D after all!) and then an idea came to me that seemed so simple yet it *may* work… ask them all to bring a picture of someone they considered a great leader. As they get stuck on the wall, they get discussed, scrutinised, challenged and understood (and I’m in L&D I write this all on a flipchart)

What has ensued on the many occasions I have used this, in countries as diverse as the UK, US, Hong Kong, China & India, are probably some of the most interesting and enlightening discussions I have had at any point in my role and what’s amazing is the diversity of people that get chosen but more about that another time….

For now, I just share what has come to mind whilst thinking this through:

1. Learn from your mistakes – quickly, but don’t necessarily change your objective just consider different ways of doing it

2. When something isn’t working, get out and move on…

3. Poor workshops are the fault of poor design or delivery NEVER poor participants

4. Apparently it’s OK to consider Captain Kirk (as played by William Shatner) a leader in at least 2 countries!

5. Only 4 people have appeared multiple times (and if you guess I’ll tell you)

And leave you with a question, who do you consider a great leader? And why? (Answers on a postcard, tweet or in the comment box below please)



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11 responses to “The one where I first talk about leadership

  1. Mark Brinicombe. Mark was my boss for a while when I worked for Dixons and he was (and I’m sure still is) a fantastic leader. Led by example, he could switch from person to person and give full focus to each at the time he was in that moment. Hard nosed driven business man and sensitive guy at the same time. The way he dealt with me when I found out my Grandpa died whilst I was at work will stay for me always. Top bloke, top leader.

  2. neiljmorrison

    I have a fundamental belief that all great leaders are unbalanced. Which is one of the reasons I don’t think leadership can be trained. Because you have to train towards something, which assumes perfection is obtainable, which I don’t believe it is.

    So the normal names people would trot out would I guess be people like Shackleton, Mandela, Branson etc.

    I’m going to give you an all women shortlist, Pankhurst, Jean d’Arc, Aung San Suu Kyi,,,,,

  3. Sarah Durbridge

    I was asked “What do you admire/value in a Leader” in two recent interviews and without too much thinking I simply reeled off characteristics and behaviours of an ex-boss of mine, Steve Durgin.

    Steve did all those things that Doug mentions above and he too is a “top bloke”. In addition, a number of things made his leadership style really stand out to me. I’ll share just a few to give you a little flavour of this guy.

    Firstly, he really got to know his team. He learnt what made each of us tick and from that he would make sure we all had tasks/responsibilities that played to our strengths, needs and preferences. Secondly, he was a massive advocate for the team; he loved nothing more than celebrating our successes and more importantly sharing them with our larger team, and our clients. Thirdly, he trusted his team unconditionally; we each felt empowered to make decisions, and mistakes – without retribution. Lastly, he was a very loyal employee. I found this extremely admirable. I am in no doubt that his advocacy and loyalty towards the company throughout the numerous re-organisations, and his attitude towards the countless reels of red tape and the processes that not many believed in (think performance mgmt), really shaped and influenced the way I approached and dealt with those things.

    Like I say, those are just a few of the reasons… and writing this reminds me that I miss him being my “Leader”. I am still in touch with him however, and in fact, I called on him a couple of weeks ago when I was facing a tough decision. His advice was the advice I followed 🙂

  4. Durbs nails it in the last comment for me. Look for someone who inspires others to follow. That’s a leader. Agree with Neil’s point about balance too – those I’ve seen inspire people (in business and elsewhere) are often those who by another measure would be one card short of a full deck.

  5. One thing I like about Leadership is its Uniqueness – Every Leader is different and inspires people in different ways.
    I could list big names, historical figures, super heros, teachers and ex-managers but I’m not. My Great Leader is young guy I worked with – Andrew Jones.

    Andrew attended my New Employee workshop 4 years ago and I could see this guy was going places. During the workshop he asked me why wasn’t there an XYZ Network chapter in London. I had no answer to that but challenged him to start one – anyone could do it! And he did!
    He had a vision, he shared it, inspired others to follow him, and they did, in droves! Andrew wasn’t in a formal Leadership position so he used his own personal power to influence and inspire people, including those in formal leadership roles, whom he successfully lead to help him set up the London chapter. He was a nice guy, always took part, listened to people, asked questions, even asked for help, challenged the status quo but never lost sight of the vision. Andrew was a pleasure to work with and a true professional.

    He became an inspiration for other new employees and XYZ Network members, who often referred to him as a The New Breed of Leadership. Ultimately Andrew was rewarded with a real Leadership Role, where he’s flourishing!

  6. Oli

    Delayed but I have an answer to your question.

    For me during my career the people I have seen as leaders are people who not only taught me new knowledge but also showed me. I am a of the mould where if you’re going to tell me to do something, sodding well show me you can do it as well – or have done it.

    This for me, is where I’m going to throw a curve ball on leaders I admire. Brett Favre & Tom Brady are two who come to mind- both NFL quarterbacks. They have lead men on the field of action for years and have also won it all. It Favre’s case over a 20 year career of getting squashed by 300lb defense men. His records are numerous and awards endless, to have stayed at the level he did in such a punishing sport and lead team after team is an incredible achievement. Lest not forget that some of the guys Favre finished his career with would’ve only been just born or toddlers when he first strutted out on the ‘football’ field.

    Where am I going here?
    Favre and Brady (also a record holder and multiple champion in this area), in my opinion, show single-mindedness, determination, skill, perseverance and the ability to get people going when they potentially don’t want to.

    Leadership for me, is all about inspiration and confidence. If you can inspire me and make me believe in your words I will always be up for the fight. If you can instill a confidence in me that I don’t see I will feed of this confidence and perform all day long.

    Hope that is of help…. !

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  8. garethmjones

    Well theres this great book… ha ha couldnt resist it! 😉

    Ok, so for me great leadership is about bringing out the best in others, encouraging them and allowing them to find their sweetspot. I personally believe the notion that there is a shortage of talent is a load of bilge and also very patronising. What we are short of are leaders who can enable people to unleash or recognise their talents, give them the confidence and permission to try and succeed.

    I’m not convinced you need to be unbalanced to be a great leader. I know you are going to hit me over the head on this one but Jim Collins does a pretty good job of nailing what a great leader is. None of his traits included unbalanced!

    In terms of who? Well, the best leader i had was the manufacturing director in my first HR job. He wasnt one for convention. Even though i was a very green personnel office with not much of a clue, he roped me into all sorts of projects, regardless of whether they needed HR input or not. Basically, he just involved me because of what i could bring as a person, not a job title, and encouraged me where others wanted to hold me back. He was inspirational, down to earth, funny, kind, firm etc etc. He could relate to everyone – from the CEO to the janitor. And he never shied away from issues or bad news.

    Another example of someone i have not worked for would be Ricardo Semler (Stop rolling your eyes there Robert!). Unorthodox, yes, but you cant argue with his results.

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