The Mythology of Leadership

The Mythology of Leadership

Wise reporters recognise the truth: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." I've been reminded of this saying (which comes from the 1962 western "The man who shot Liberty Valance") quite a lot over the last few weeks. Myth-making, and myth-preservation, have been all around us. The facts have not been allowed to get in the way of a good story.

The clearest examples of this involved the death of Baroness Thatcher and the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Mrs T received a grand send-off, which seemed part of an effort to ensure that the Maggie Myth remained intact, and was even enhanced. Fergie's retirement was marked by newspaper supplements and a wave of commentary and analysis, supplanting such minor stories as war in Syria, 1000 dead Bangladeshi factory workers and the British government's legislative programme for the year ahead. That's showbiz.

Myths can be enjoyable, even comforting. But some are harmful, and ought to be challenged. What the response to the death of Maggie and the end of Fergie told us is that the leadership myth is as strong as ever.

What do people think about when they hear the word "leadership"? I expect they think of decisiveness, firmness, and purposeful endeavour. All good things, no doubt. You can see how Mrs T and Mr F satisfied those criteria.

But what happens next? A crude and narrow version of leadership can take hold in people's minds. Subtlety and nuance lose out. The media reinforce the idea that leaders are simply tough people doing tough things, unflinchingly. A stereotype is formed.

It is in a way a tribute to Mrs Thatcher that a speech she gave over 30 years ago is still so influential in this regard. I'm referring of course to her Conservative party conference speech of October 1980, in which she declared: "U turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." (I did a short piece on the telly about this last year.) Now, changing your mind is a good idea if things aren't working. But today politicians and business leaders find it quite hard to do so. They have fallen victim to the Maggie Myth. They do not dare perform a U turn.

While he was no political friend of hers, Sir Alex's intensity in pursuit of success was almost Thatcherite. One newspaper summed up his departure by putting a picture of a hairdryer on the front page, recalling his favoured technique of getting up close to players whom he felt had let him down and screaming his head off at them.

And thus the myths endure. And yet Maggie trimmed and turned and held back when necessary, while Sir Alex was capable of acts of great compassion and generosity. But these are the facts, not the legend. And, looking back, it's the legend that many people want to hear. We are dealing here with what one academic has called the "teleological deceptions of retrospect" - or, in plain English, rose-tinted hindsight. We oversimplify the past and fail to understand the causes of success. And the role of luck is scarcely ever mentioned. Leadership is hard, and success takes time. Both Maggie and Fergie were very close to being failures, not a thought that is ever dwelt on for very long. The cartoon version of their careers is more popular. But it is inaccurate.

Chuck in the Twitter/always-online factor of today and you have an even more dangerous phenomenon: the growing appetite for instant, simple leadership "solutions" to complicated problems. "Maggie would have known what to do", people declare. "I bet Fergie would have sorted him out sharpish," people say. But sometimes people are wrong.

Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of GE, one of the world's biggest and most successful companies, is a proven leader. He's the boss of a huge business that is operating in 160 countries worldwide. At an event hosted by the Wharton business school in New York recently he explained what he'd learned while climbing down Mount Kilimanjaro with his daughter a couple of years ago:

"You start coming down, and I must have fallen on my butt five times in the first 10 minutes," he said. "The guides have this expression in Swahili: 'puli, puli', which means, 'slowly, slowly'.

"This notion of 'puli, puli' has to do with resilience, persistence, and sticking with your vision and your goals... Essentially anything you want to do that is meaningful in life must be done over time. If you want to change big institutions, you've got to have incredible persistence and constancy of purpose. That's what I learned."

The public may think they want leaders who perform dramatic gestures and take very fast decisions that can be tweeted about and debated instantly and constantly. But leaders need to be thoughtful and reflective, as well as decisive. They need to be persistent, slow and steady, not merely theatrical.

Just like Maggie and Fergie were, in reality.

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