by Andrea Charman


Leadership is part of the human condition. Mankind is a social animal, most comfortable in groups, and where there are groups, there must always be those who will or can lead. Small wonder, then, that leadership is the topic of myths and mental models; it’s one of the most written-about topics in history.

In the past, it was often viewed as an exclusive club into which people (men) were born; it was about being at the top of a hierarchy, and thus responsible for providing the answers to whatever challenges emerged.

Leadership takes many forms – civic, military, religious and cultural – plus, it has always occurred in many ways. These range from self-selection to democracy, heredity, and the seizure of power. Think, for example, of individuals who have taken leadership upon themselves, such as William Wilberforce, politician, philanthropist and abolitionist, who led the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade, or William Lever, whose soap business is at the root of Unilever today. Think of Rocco Forte, who succeeded his father, Charles, in the heredity category in business. Think of the takeover of the Forte Group in 1996 by Granada plc as an example of seizing power and Darwin Smith at Kimberley-Clark as an example of the ‘democratic’ leader.

In today’s workplace it is increasingly true that most people need to be leaders of one kind or another. So what are the challenges of being the leader at the top compared with the leader in middle management? Arguably, the most difficult place from which to lead is the middle, because you have to think of those beneath you and those above you while carrying a consistent message to your peers.

Credibility is equally important. This has a number of sources – for example, position and technical excellence – but it is how people feel about you that counts most. In this context, people skills are crucial. Leadership comes in many forms – situations and contexts will differ – but, when successful, it is always about skills in communicating, engaging and working with others. And these skills can be learnt.

Developing leadership abilities begins with self. Effective leaders are always credible and highly self-aware, with a solid sense of self and purpose, plus a keen awareness of how they are perceived by others. They excel at self-management, while at the same time they are skilled at achieving commonality with others. Today’s successful leaders therefore focus on getting the best out of themselves, setting themselves stretch goals as a step towards getting the best from others. So leadership is about growth and development, and it is also about improving collective performance and creating value that is accessible to all contributors.

In times past, it was generally assumed that leadership was an innate, genetically inherited capacity. In this topic, you will learn that leadership skills and abilities can be learned, and this starts with self knowledge and self worth.