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Leadership: Death of the Hero?

Martin McCrindle & Philip Maughan - February 2002

Jack Welch retired from the helm of General Electric last year lauded as the archetypal "great leader". Welch spent 40 years at GE building it into one of the fastest growing, most acquisitive, and largest ( and "most admired") organisations in the world. His autobiography has sat on the business best-seller lists for months – the hunger to learn the lessons of leadership apparently undiminished despite years of intensively-marketed leadership development programmes and guides.

On another "hero leader" theme, Ernest Shackleton emerged again this year out of polar history to be lionised both on screen, in the persona of Kenneth Branagh, and in several leadership books drawing lessons from his remarkable adventure, as he rescued himself and his entire crew from potential disaster.

These are leaders with impact – performing amazing feats on a grand scale, or against immense difficulties. Yet how applicable to our daily working lives are such examples? The majority of organisational managers will never experience the power and authority of a Jack Welch; few of us will face the real possibility of freezing or starving to death on a daily basis. Our jobs are important – but only in a few cases a matter of life or death.

Some recent research has opened the debate on what we can usefully view as the critical characteristics of good leadership.

The single most critical element in engaging the workforce may be the effectiveness of an organisation’s leadership. In his analysis on the impact of management style on staff turnover, Marcus Buckingham (1) states:

While there are many reasons for mobility – not least the rationalisations, mergers, re-engineerings that causes job insecurity – there is clear evidence identifying the key influence of staff turnover. Put simply, employees leave managers, not companies’

Leadership used to be viewed as relevant largely to those in more senior, more influential positions in an organisation and based on a command-and-control model. Today, the emerging model is of 'leadership at all levels'. What does this mean in practice, what are the benefits and how can we be sure that leadership at all levels won’t cause organisational chaos or anarchy?

Leadership at all levels involves creating a culture in which all staff will actively seek changes to improve performance. This could involve something relatively minor like moving a filing cabinet, or more significant such as rearranging an office in order to encourage a greater sense of belonging and a team identity. Alternatively it could involve challenging traditional stereotypes: for example an NHS cleaner who takes a greater interest in patients and passes on observations to the ward sister rather than sticking rigidly to her or his role as a cleaner. The reasons why staff might not suggest any of these changes are often to do with assumptions that it's not their responsibility. It’s also very easy to discourage people to be innovative or to seek new solutions to old problems.

’A new idea is delicate. It can be destroyed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a joke or a worried to death by a frown’

Nothing is more likely to engage the workforce more than the belief that new ideas are welcome, will be listened to and perhaps, acted on. Nothing is more likely to disengage the workforce than for their ideas to fall on deaf ears. So cleaners who show an interest in the patients might be reminded that their job is to clean floors, not to be a clinician. The truth of course is that the cleaner is as much a part of patient care as anyone else in the NHS.


Leadership at all levels is arguably just another way of saying empowerment, a strategy which has been much in vogue since the advent of downsizing, right sizing and delayering, all euphemisms for describing how to do more (or at least the same) with less people.

While it’s true that empowerment involves a transfer of power from more senior to more junior levels, there's often an assumption that leadership is also transferred. The truth is that empowering people still places a big leadership demand on those doing the empowering. What changes is the style of leadership. Command and control leadership involves leading and guiding from the front - the heroic model of leadership. An empowered workforce however needs to feel personal responsibility for problem solving, ideas and making decisions. The empowering leadership style then becomes much subtler and concerned with facilitating, coaching and guiding rather than telling or directing.

Parent - child relationship

The relationship between an empowered workforce and the manager is in many respects similar to that between parents and their children. In the early years of a child’s life, parents will typically provide strong leadership, set standards and take responsibility for all-important decisions. As a child matures however, there's a progressive transfer of responsibility until, hopefully, the child is able to take full responsibility and eventually flits the nest. The general principle of the parental role can be summarised as one that provides ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’ and this is no different for an empowering manager.

There’s an almost inevitable period of adolescence experienced between childhood and maturity, typified by a desire to test the boundaries, delinquency or rejection of responsibility (think of Kevin, the Harry Enfield character). This behaviour can also be observed in a newly empowered workforce. Effective leadership then rests on the ability to encourage personal responsibility, which will include experimentation, and the judgement to allow mistakes in the interests of encouraging personal responsibility. The leader provides a safety net of support so that the outcomes are learning and new insights rather than humiliation, loss of confidence and an unwillingness to take responsibility in the future. The desired outcome is to move towards an interdependent, adult - adult relationship between the manager and the empowered workforce.

The psychological difficulty of changing from an acquiescent to an empowered mindset is dramatically illustrated by Jon Krakauer in his book ‘Into Thin Air’ (2) which tells the story of an ill fated attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1996. Krakauer, a journalist and top class mountaineer in his own right, joined a guided ascent of Everest as a client in order to write a feature about high altitude guiding for an American magazine. The guides adopted a command-and-control leadership style, making it absolutely clear that responsibility lay with them and that the clients must do as they were told. So the leadership style wasn't conducive to empowerment. On the summit day, Krakauer noted a number of questionable decisions but did nothing because he was ‘only a client’. Only after five people had died due to these decisions did he question and regret his own inertia.

The commercial Airline industry has been going through a similar revolution. While recognising the need for a clear line of command, efforts are being made to encourage a shallower ‘power gradient’ in the interests of greater input from staff. A number of incidents, some tragic, indicate an overly deferential attitude towards the aircraft Captain, for example the Kegworth air crash in 1989, when a Boeing 737 crash landed, almost onto the M1 motorway due to engine failure. Cabin attendants and passengers noticed that an engine was on fire some time before the crash but didn’t notify the Captain as it was assumed he would be aware of the problem and didn’t like to bother him!

Situational Leadership

Much has been written about the situational nature of leadership - that the effective leader adopts a style or styles according to the circumstances. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (2) has revisited situational leadership and evaluated a range of styles according to their influence on organisational culture. The following table summarises his research:







Pace setting

The style in a phrase

‘People come first’

‘Come with me’

‘Try this’

‘Do what I tell you’

‘What do you think’

‘Do as I do, now’











































Overall impact on climate









Most positive





The table indicates that the Authoritative or Charismatic leadership style is the most effective in terms of positively influencing organisational culture and that Affiliative, Coaching and Democratic are not far behind. The Coercive and Pace-setting styles were found to be generally negative, though Goleman stresses they do have their place, if used sparingly to avoid demoralising staff. Sadly, both of these styles are all too common. The Coercive style for example, is typical of more traditional British manufacturing companies where polarised management - workforce relationships result in defensive or threatening postures. The Pace setting approach is frequently found in high technology industries. Here the perception is that promotion depends on a willingness to be available 24 - 7. In the long term, neither leadership style is effective and simply wears the workforce down until they are either non-engaged or actively disengage.

Leadership and National Culture

Since Goleman’s research was carried out in the USA, it is perhaps not surprising that the Americans rate the Authoritative or charismatic leadership style most highly, as the Americans seem to have a love affair with John Wayne-like charismatic leaders!

Research by Beverley and John Metcalfe (4) suggests that Britain may have developed a less macho view of leadership than the USA. Their research contradicts a number of commonly held beliefs about leadership in organisations: that leadership is rare, that it is found mainly at the top and that it is about being superhuman. They go on to say that most leadership research in the USA has focussed on top management- people like Jack Welch of General Electric and Lee Iacocca of Chrysler for example. The Metcalfes’ research was carried out with 3500 employees in both management and non-management positions, seeking their views on what constituted "good leadership".

The results were as follows, in priority order:

Leading and Developing Others

  • Has genuine interest in staff as individuals; values their contributions; develops their strengths; has positive expectations of staff abilities
  • Trusts staff to take decisions and initiative on important matters; delegates effectively; develops potential, supportive of mistakes
  • Approachable and non-status conscious; prefers face to face communications; accessible and keeps in touch
  • Encourages staff to question traditional approaches to the job; encourages new approaches/ solutions; encourages strategic thinking

Personal qualities

  • Transparency, honesty and consist behaviour; more concerned with the good of the organisation than personal ambition
  • Integrity: open to advice, criticism and disagreement; consults and involves others in decision making; regards values as integral to the organisation
  • Decisiveness: decisive when required; prepared to take difficult decisions and risks when appropriate
  • Charisma: in touch; exceptional communicator; inspires others to join them
  • Analytical and creative thinking: capacity to deal with a wide range of complex issues; creative in problem solving

Leading the Organisation

  • Inspiring communicator of the vision of the organisation to a network of internal and external stakeholders; gains the confidence and support of various groups through sensitivity to needs and by achieving the organisational goals
  • Clarifies objectives and boundaries; team-oriented approach to problem solving, decision making and identifying values
  • Has clear vision and strategic direction, engages stakeholders in developing; helps others to achieve the vision

Scales of Leadership

While Charisma makes an appearance in the table, it is well down the list of personal qualities. Interestingly, the research was carried out with approximately the same number of Public and Private sector employees with almost identical results.

The workforce view of good management

The Gallup Q12 survey (1) identified four foundations of good management from an employees perspective:

  • Having a manager who shows care, interest and concern
  • Knowing what is expected of them
  • Having a role that fits their abilities
  • Receiving regular feedback and recognition for work well done

The Gallup study of performance at unit level covered more than 200,000 employees across a dozen or more industries. Teams that rated their managers highly in each of these four factors were more productive and more profitable. They also had a lower staff turnover and higher customer satisfaction ratings.

Principle Centred leadership

The foregoing examples all focus on leadership behaviours and interpersonal effectiveness. According to Stephen Covey (5) however, the most critical aspect of effective leadership is the ability to gain the trust of the workforce:

‘When trust is high we communicate easily, effortlessly. We can make mistakes and others will still capture our meaning. But when trust is low, communication is exhausting, time consuming, ineffective and inordinately difficult’

Covey goes on to suggest that gaining the trust of others rests on the leader’s Integrity, exhibited in the way we express and live our values and beliefs. The model below illustrates Covey’s view of the relative importance of the leader’s skills, interpersonal effectiveness and integrity in the longer term.

Covey pyramid

Covey thus stresses that a leader’s integrity and values - regardless of his or her position in the organisation - is the foundation of potential success.

The Economics of Trust

Francis Fukuyama (6) calculated the economic advantages of trust at both organisational and national level.

In Italy, the relatively small ‘radius of trust’, leads to many family businesses but fewer large corporations compared with countries such as the USA, Germany and Japan, where there is a larger radius of trust. In organisations, a lack of trust translates into the need for greater hierarchy and vertical integration. In Germany, a relatively high trust culture, the average foreman – worker ratio is 1:25. In France, which is a lower trust culture, the figure is 1:16. In Japan according to Fukuyama, trust translates into the long term ‘keiretsu’ relationships that become a substitute for vertical integration. In the late 1980’s this allowed Toyota to produce 4.5 million cars per year with 65,000 workers (69 cars per employee) compared to General Motors in the USA which produced 8 million cars with 750,000workers (10.7 cars per employee).

Death of the Hero?

As the research increasingly points towards the profitability (in all senses of the word) of engaging, empowering "leadership at all levels", are we likely to soon be rid of the "hero" or charismatic leadership model? Perhaps not. Organisations – or perhaps their existing leaderships – often seek simplistic fixes to what are undoubtedly complex problems – none more complex than the issue of engaging the workforce. While the "one true way" continues to be sought, media-friendly exemplars, be they from the world of business, entertainment, sports or adventure, appear easily understood.


1. ‘Same indifference' Marcus Buckingham, People Management, 17.2.00
2. ‘Into Thin Air’ Krakauer J., Pan, 1997
3. ‘Emotional Intelligence’, Goleman D., Bloomsbury 1995
4. ‘The Great and the Good’ Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe and John Alban-Metcalfe, People Management, 10.1.02
5. ‘Principle Centred Leadership’, Covey S.R., Franklin - Covey Co., 1991
6. ‘The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity’ Fukuyama F, New York: The Free Press, 1995

Articles in this section:

Intellect, Will and Passion: The Art of Facilitating Outdoor Development Training

Putting Fun Into Work

Developing a Learning Organisation

Hearts & Minds Wins Latest Work Force Battle

Principle Centred Leadership

Becoming an Employer of Choice

The Half Hearted Virus: A trainer's tale of despair

Leadership: Death of the Hero?

Engagement: Increasing productivity by gaining the commitment of the workforce