Decisive. But even-handed. Confident. But not arrogant. A front runner. But also a team player. A leader. But a manager, too.
We expect a lot from people who hold positions of leadership. There is no shortage of books on the subject, and no sign that the supply will ever dry up.
Leaders are often portrayed as lonely individuals, taking decisions in isolation which colleagues must either take or leave. It is a false, but seductive, picture, an oversimplified account of something far more subtle, and complicated.
In Leadership Without Easy Answers (1998), Ron Heifetz - who will be profiled in this Saturday’s FT - pointed out that leadership should not be seen as the responsibility of a single individual. Problems can be complicated and “adaptive”, not simply technical. Authoritarian approaches may not work.
In Leadership On The Line (2002), Heifetz and his colleague Martin Linsky argued that leadership can be perilous: “To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear – their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking…” they wrote. “People push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium they know. And people resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game.”
In spite of the dramatic collapse, from “hero to zero”, of several famous business leaders in recent months, still we focus overwhelmingly on chief executives, waiting for the next hero to emerge for us to place our trust in. Away from business, President Obama is the latest heroic role model to provide inspiring leadership. But if and when he fails we will find another figure to replace him.
Life has changed, and leaders need to change too. The writer Michael Maccoby points out, in The Leaders We Need (2007), that “People today respond to different qualities in leaders than they did a generation ago.”
We still want to look up to our leaders, but we don’t want to have to crane our necks too far. As Jay Conger, a professor of leadership at Claremont McKenna college in California once put it: “We need leaders with shorter legs.”