Radio killed the leadership development consultant? Not yet, but worth a listen all the same…

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.”

[I hate to say we told you so, but…]

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.”

[I hate to say we told you so, again, but… (by the way, the results for our survey are being crunched as we speak, so watch this space!)]

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.”

Comments (4)
  • Ian Dexter

    January 11, 2011

    So the connection between higher numbers of women board members and failing companies is all a machiavellian male plot. I don’t know what the truth is on that one – but your failure to even countenance the possibility of a more obvious explanation (quelle horreur!)is just yet more proof of your leftist/PC unconscious bias.
    Also the days are long gone when boards try to replicate themselves – except perhaps for the WI.
    Why do you have to spoil so many otherwise enjoyable and informative programmes with this constant lack of objectivity?

    • Ed

      January 12, 2011


      I assume that you’re comment is concerning the second installment of Follow the Leader, aired last night. Unfortunately, this post was actually a review of the first episode. Our review of the second is soon to follow, if you’re interested.

      I think I should probably point out that we are in no way affiliated with, or have any say in Radio 4′s broadcasting schedule or content. And although I don’t agree with what you’re saying, I think your time would be more profitably invested if you directed similar comments to the BBC or Radio 4 themselves.

      Thanks for your time,

      The Graduate.

  • Bill Cooke

    February 14, 2011

    Sorry this is so late in the day, but re: episode two…

    Please, not the old evolutionary psychology we are still living life on the savannah schtick again so leaders have strong jaws, hugely masculine, etc etc. So, how come the famous historical anti-models of the male physique – Napoleon, Stalin, Ghandhi, or Nelson. I recommend Keith Grint’s Very Short Introduction to Leadership (2010) on this, and related matters. For sure women are discriminated against. But if the savannah was the determining factor then nearly our leaders today would be black, right ? Are they ? It is sexism and racism in the present, not flinstone fanstasy of the past that has the most impact.

  • Bill Cooke

    February 14, 2011

    {this is aimed at R4, not this blog, btw…}

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