As I assume you’re all aware – and if you’re not, feel free to ring your mum for confirmation – Nigel Pargetter was killed off on Sunday’s episode of the Archers. Now for all of the Archers fans that are struggling to cope with the loss, my heart goes out to you. No really, it does. It can’t be easy having to tune into the Archers on a regular basis. Let’s hope one day you can rid yourself of the affliction and find a more worthwhile past time, like trying to communicate telepathically with your cat or balancing pencils on that little rubber tip that some of them come with.
To be fair, from the sounds of it, even the fans were nonplussed by Pargetter’s demise. I’m pretty underwhelmed by the news. I imagine that’s partly to do with the fact that I don’t listen to the Archers, so I don’t really care. But even so, when my mum said that the writers had told fans that Sunday’s episode would “shake Ambridge to its core”, I had expected a little more. Why couldn’t the Grundys have turned out to be an ingeniously disguised radical Islamist cell. Or a comet reduce Borsetshire to an apocalyptic wasteland populated entirely by radioactive zombified turnips?
Anyway, before I get too caught up in my designs on the future of Ambridge, one Radio 4 programme that was of interest was the first in a two part series called Follow the Leader, a show that enlists the opinions of various credible sources in an attempt to form a view on what makes a great leader. You’re not alone in wondering how they intend to do this in just two half hour slots, but even so, I thought it would be worth tuning in.
And it was. Obviously, it is to be expected that many of the Radio 4 listenership aren’t particularly clued up on the particulars of leadership development and so, at first, the discussion is quite generalised, but all in all it is a good show that alights on some interesting points.
It began to get really interesting when comedian Mark Steel and business psychologist Binna Kandola pointed out that while we often associate leadership with positive character traits – courage, charisma, vision etc. – leadership or ‘greatness’ in any field has been known to accompany negative behaviour as well. Mark Steel illustrated this by impersonating Einstein’s wife as she tries to usher him out of the door for a planned dinner date with the neighbours:
Albert, come on, we said we were going out with the people over the road. We’ve got the dinner booked at eight o’clock. I don’t care how close you are to working out the relationship between, mass, energy, the speed of light and time, I’ll give you a bloody time! Eight o’clock they said! What are you going to do, travel faster than the speed of light and get there half an hour before you leave? Come on!”
This little skit was made all the funnier by the fact that it was clearly improvised. Binna Kandola, a business psychologist, went on to suggest that:
There are some negative traits which are more prevalent in leaders… The three I’d pick out are anti social personality disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder and the third one would be narcissistic personality disorder.”
But while people that embody one or more of these traits may well be adept at getting the job done, they may never be considered great leaders. In the same way as an individual that routinely attains the necessary results, but manages to alienate people in the process, will never be considered a great colleague. Consider the example of Malcolm McClaren, remembered in an earlier post. His friend and colleague, Fred Vermorel, conjectures in a hair raising issue of GQ that McClaren suffered from Tourettes Syndrome. While this may explain the experiences of those who suffered McClaren – a man who was known, for all of his virtues, to be abrasive – it does not offer an excuse for his behaviour. Kandola picked up on this:
It comes back to a really critical issue, which is what is leadership? And for me and for most psychologists leadership is an influence process, it’s the process of influencing other people, so that they are motivated to contribute to group goals and indeed do contribute to those goals. Where a leader uses force, effectively they do the equivalent, psychologically, of holding a gun to someone’s head. That’s not a process of influence, it’s a process of coercion.”
They then go on to speak to a management consultant, who suggests that anyone can be turned into a great leader and that the coaching a delegate receives on any programme can be utilised effectively, provided that there is an adequate learning transfer framework:
The only true way of knowing it works is to follow it through into the workplace. At the end of this course, there’s an action plan, and that action plan is written by the delegates, it’s all about what specific things you are going to see when you get back into work, what are the changes that you are expecting? Once the course has finished, it’s about the person putting it into practice.”
Alex Haslam, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Exeter University, went on to assess the consistency of the training delivered and the lack of research to support the massive expenditure on training each year:
There is no doubt in my mind that leadership courses are effective, sometimes. One thing I would say is that very, very few leadership courses actually empirically test and establish the efficacy of the training that they deliver. There are a very, very small handful of studies that do that.”
It was the final note that the programme struck that really communicated with me though, and in particular Haslam’s observation:
Very few people now adhere to the Platonic view about the great leader who is set apart from everybody else, but nevertheless there are important ways in which our leadership theories haven’t changed. I think actually we’re still very much bogged down in the idea of leaders as great individuals and people who are set apart from the group. And by, if you like, putting leaders on a pedestal and treating them as special and different we lose what really is special about leadership, which is that it is the best of us, and we – everybody – [are] a part of great leadership.”