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The four characteristics of great leaders

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Success in management and success in sports have the same roots.

In business as in games, players must master two critical aspects: the techniques (including those of strategy and tactics) – and themselves. Self-mastery, making the best of your abilities, is the foundation of achievement in both fields. But there are also clear and important analogies in the approaches taken by winning managers and winners in sports to an equally vital matter: working with and through others to achieve success.


Yet the analogy between management and games has seldom been stressed. Far more often, writers have sought management lessons in warfare. Many books have dipped into military history, going as far back as the Middle Ages of Japan, to discover the secrets of business success. In highly competitive markets, strategists and tacticians can learn much useful lore (like never attack the enemy head-on unless you have at least a three-to-one advantage). But the ability to compete at all rests on qualities and attributes that are even clearer (because of the greater focus) in sport than they are in war.

The vital qualities and attributes can be summed up in one word: leadership. Obviously, and as everybody knows, that's crucial for sporting achivement. Once again, though, the sports analogy is far less commonly used. When John Kennedy entertained a group of business men in the White House early in his presidency, one told him bluntly that the United States needed a 'man on horseback'. But Kennedy rightly shot him down with a burst of spontaneous eloquence. Leadership in time of peace, even of cold war, is not properly exercised by riding roughshod over opposition.

Even better-informed people persist in identifying great leadership with military models. When William Rees-Mogg was berating John Major for lack of leadership in The Times, the heroes with which the luckless Premier was lashed were Roosevelt, Churchill and De Gaulle – all victors in the Second World War: though the military contribution of de Gaulle, the only certified soldier, was small, while his civilian contribution to France was huge.

Roosevelt, too, only achieved military leadership because of his prior success in arresting America's civilian slide into to slump and despair. Of the trio, only Churchill depends largely on wartime achievements for his Titanic reputation. The adjective is significant. These men (like their vile contemporaries, Hitler and Stalin) were Titans. But if leadership depended on Supermen, most of the world would be leaderless – anyway, Titans who, like Hitler, lead their followers to destruction, are grotesque failures: who wants to join the Charge of the Light Brigade?

'What makes a great leader?' thus has a simple answer, as any sacked football manager knows: success. That needn't require the man-on-horseback quality of charisma, the aura that generates worship in lesser creatures. Charisma counts only because it reinforces the leader's ability to generate support for successful action. Successes in sport clearly demonstrate that this leadership ability is founded on five strengths that are inward . These personal strengths – vision, self-belief, results focus, courage, integrity – are those that people must develop to close the gap between their potential and their achievement.

These five strengths, while vital, are not enough. They achieve their effect through teamwork, visibility, communicating, attention, commitment . These five outward processes, common to all organisations, but badly executed in most, enable everybody to maximise their contribution to closing that same gap: between what the organisation could achieve, and what it actually manages. Note that the need for these qualities and attributes is general: all managers, at all levels, like all players in all sports, will succeed more the more they develop these assets.

Because he is literally above all, the ultimate leader needs these ten strengths and processes above all. They lie behind the charisma of the flamboyant leader – in war, politics, business or sport. But provided the leader can deploy the ten, image becomes far less important. Alf Ramsay, who led England to World Cup victory, had the charisma of a quartermaster-sergeant. Churchill virtually defined charisma, English style, but was out-led in peace (so the historical consensus holds) by Clement Attlee. The latter's small size, dry manner and crisp style suggested a pedagogue rather than a leader of men – and of powerful, obstinate men like Ernest Bevin, at that.

Excessive charisma, anyway, can have the reverse effect: the Light Brigade rides again, right ino the Russian guns. The late, unlamentable Robert Maxwell is a horrible example, charisma oozing from every pore as he bankrupted his businesses and pillaged his pensioners. He is merely an extreme and extremely obnoxious example of the Great Leader disease. Maxwell is alleged to have observed that boards should always contain an odd number of directors, and three was too many.

The sentiment, inimical to true leadership, is secretly shared by many would-be horseback-riders. The identification of leadership with total power, supreme authority and horsemen goes back deep into the fog of history. Early rulers were either warriors (like Charlemagne) or served by warriors (like Elizabeth 1). Tribal chiefs (and feudal ones) maintained their positions by fighting – as many dominant males must still fight to maintain their places in the animal kingdom. So the identification of leaders with commanders is easily understood.

That identification set up a leadership model that has outlived its value. The peerless, supreme commander stood at the apex of the hierarchical pyramid, served by loyal staff, laying down the strategy which sub-commanders converted into tactics. To this day, in the standard Western model, the chief executive (and the Minister) occupies the same exalted position. His word is law, and his decision (or indecision) is final. The same used to be true of captains in sport, notably in primeval cricket, where the captain, sometimes a very moderate performer, was the leader of the amateur 'gentlemen' and the best batsman or bowler in England a mere 'player'.

What worked, more or less, in simple times and situations bears no useful relation to the complex institutions of the modern world. The leadership which (if you believe his critics) John Major fails to exercise would, if Major rose to the necessary level, contain little of Churchill, Roosevelt, or de Gaulle. Reducing unacceptable unemployment and raising the living standards of the underclass poses technocratic challenges of the highest order – but none of the Titans would have relished that kind of challenge.

Yet Titans do display, writ super-large, characteristics which all successful leaders share. First, they know absolutely what they want to achieve. Second, they maintain absolute concentration on that aim through all vicissitudes. Thus Serge Diaghilev, through a life of messy entanglements and crackpot finances, never lost sight of his determination to create the world's greatest ballets – no matter what devious twists and turns he (as opposed to his dancers) performed.

That is the third common characteristic of great leaders. They are apt to believe that the end justifies the means: they deploy the attributes, in Isaiah Berlin's famous phrase, of both the Lion and the Fox. Unfortunately, this carelessness about means is shared with the sociopaths who have disfigured human history, from Genghis Khan to Pol Pot. What's the difference?

It lies in a fourth characteristic. Great leadership expresses the will of the led, and leaves them better for its contribution. Nobody in the Geoff Cooke's Rugby squad initially shared the convictions which led him to turn upside-down the organisation of the team and the game in England. But his main purpose, to raise the side's performance to the world's best levels, was undeniably the popular will, both among the team and its supporters. Not that alll Cooke's moves were popular with all those affected – but courting popularity is not part of the leadership deal.

Sir George Solti led the Covent Garden orchestra from the pits (you might say) to the heights. He did not, in the process, win his players' love. You can't generalise about leadership styles. The martinet, as in the rough and tough, General Patton model of the American football manager, can be sharply effective; but not necessarily more telling than the encouraging leader who is 'compassionate, versatile, sweet-natured, courageous and temperate'.


That description of Field-Marshal Alexander, 'a highly competent supreme commander', comes from Norman Dixon's brilliant 'On the Psychology of Military Incompetence'. Dixon argues that 'afflictions of the ego' underlie authoritarianism, which is the disease of psychological misfits and born blunderers. In contrast, splendid warrior-leaders are psychologically whole, warm-hearted and even (see Napoleon) intensely amorous.

They also (see Napoleon again, de Gaulle and the underrated Eisenhower) convert ably into peacetime leaders. That's partly because of the military system described above. The general lays down his strategy, and then goes peacefully to sleep (like General Montgomery before El Alamein or Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm), confident that the army is superbly trained and armed and that all subordinates know their tasks and will carry them out.

In sports and business alike, effective delegation is indispensable to modern leadership, in which objectives must be agreed and shared. The leader musters all available resources of brainpower, knowledge and experience to come up with a feasible game plan. Leadership further entails ensuring that a plan is turned into action by combined operations. Finally, the leader must monitor the results – and instigate further action if the plan needs modifying: or if U-turns need turning (without making them a habit).

This quartet of steps demands something else: the ability to form teams and sustain a high level of morale and achievement. None of this can be managed on horseback. The leader has to be on foot, moving among the organisation's members, and interacting with them. Shakespeare's 'little touch of Harry in the night' before Agincourt has never outlived its usefulness – as Montgomery showed to famous effect when taking command of a demoralised Eighth Army.

His takeover speech to his officers has passed into legend as a crisp 400-word summation of great leadership. The credo started with two-way trust, teamwork and the 'culture' created by the boss ('one of the first duties', snapped Monty, 'is to create what I call atmosphere'). The objective (smash Rommel) was sharp and sharply communicated with absolute self-confidence. The confident leader gives his people the confidence and tools needed to finish the job – and absolutely insists on high performance.

But he also walks a couple of tightropes: between discipline (which binds the led together) and the human touch (which enlists their hearts): and between the out-and-out urge to outdistance all competitors, and the rational intellect which keeps the competitive drive under control. The crashes of men on horseback (or bankers' backs) like Alan Bond and Maxwell show many examples of overweening ambition: 'the deal too far'.

That's one great problem with great leadership. Even in more enlightened circles, the feeling is that excellent achievement can only result if a single person takes charge with clear and total authority: which means that it can easily be abused. The principle is further weakened in the West by insistence that said person must also be the most senior (which generally means the oldest) – an insistence that has dwindled away in sports for the good and sufficient reason that great captaincy requires experience, and playing careers end too early for players to start their on-the-job learning late.

Neither age nor long service have anything to do with ability to lead in the modern sense: identifying the need, mobilising the power to identify the solution, effecting and controlling the execution. The mysterious East, which has caused the transparent West so much economic pain, has never shared this faith in peerless leadership – despite the ferocious military traditions of shoguns and sumurai.

Behind the warriors lay a different tradition, summed up by the constitution promulgated in 604 by Shotoku Tiashi. Among 14 injunctions, 'all the nobles, greater and lesser' were told to 'be at their posts from the early morning and go home late' and in 'important affairs', never to 'act alone on the basis of your own judgment, but discuss the matter first with several others'. All this fits in perfectly with our concept of the inward strengths and outward processes.

The modern Japanese leader is still just as industrious, still practices on the basis of consensus, and still exists to serve the organisation: it's not the other way round. If the leader's weaknesses endanger the long-term interests of the corporation, he is swiftly despatched: preferably before lasting damage has been done, and not afterwards (as in the recent enforced departures of the bosses of General Motors and IBM).

Both these failed leaders followed in Titanic footsteps taken between the wars, when one man could mentally embrace an entire corporation. Those days are gone for ever. Making these stumbling businesses pick up their feet and run demands new collegiate forms of leadership: and replacing old with new over such vast organisations is a fiendishly difficult task, with only one factor in its favour. When you inherit a shambles, you have a license to cure.

That's why, so often, the great sports side – like Wigan in Rugby League – rises from the ashes of failure. The cure will demand another attribute of leadership: stubborn persistence in a winning cause. By definition, great leaders never give up. Like Mao on the Long March, they may retreat – but only to fight (and win) another day. The invincible determination is essential in sustaining morale among your followers when there's precious little food for encouragement. Indeed, great leaders deliberately use adversity as a springboard to success.

When Ian McGeechan's British Lions were savaged by Australia, the outcome was a stunning win in the Second Test and the series. Similarly, ICI's first-ever quarterly loss, for instance, was used by Sir John Harvey-Jones as his leverage to jack up the entire group and raise its sights to another first-ever: the first billion-pound profit made by a British industrial company. Analyse the Harvey-Jones achievement and you find a programme that bears a close resemblance to Monty's maxims – which isn't surprising, for leadership knows no boundaries. It can be exercised in any profession: and by any personality.

Those who believe that leaders are born, not made, will wrongly challenge that statement. True, there are natural leadership qualities, dependent on genes and early life-experience, that elevate gifted personalities above the pack. But that doesn't end the story. Those with lesser gifts can achieve greater results if they systematically and intelligently obey clear-cut rules – which start with taking clear charge and unifying the group, team, company, or institution behind clear and agreed objectives.

Be ready to challenge and reexamine anything and everything in the process of clarifying ends and means, and determining which are right. Don't take any longer over that process than you need. Be prepared for instant changes in plan, people and anything else that wants changing, because circumstances will change. 'Never fail to reward merit', to quote a great Japanese business leader, Seisei Kato of Toyota, 'but never let a fault go unremarked' – or uncorrected. And make sure that everybody knows exactly what's happening, why, and what their role is – and help everybody to contribute to the full.

Not one of the leadership techniques is inborn, and all are easily grasped. Using them to achieve well-chosen objects is what ultimately makes a great leader, or a leader great. That is a matter of choice rather than birth. But while many leaders are chosen, few choose to learn the lessons of leadership. That is why so few are great: but it's also why anybody can aspire to rise towards greatness – and maybe achieve it.

Robert Heller