Leaders and the led: which come first?

The issue of leadership – and responsibility – is very much in the air. As I write, the plutocrats are meeting in Davos, debating the future of capitalism; the Republicans are struggling to find a credible presidential candidate; bankers and EU governments are trading insults about who should take a haircut and how much fat cats should be paid – and all the while, Western economies bump along the bottom, at best.

Whether in business or government, our times call for exceptional leaders. So Briefing’s guest columnist this month – Matthew Gitsham from Ashridge – asks a very pertinent question: is a new generation of CEOs starting to emerge, bringing new direction to our great corporations? To his list, I’d add Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook – with the pointed observation that just getting greater diversity among our leaders would go a long way to improve things.

But my own experience in various leadership roles tells me there are very real limitations in what a leader can achieve. In fact the ‘chicken and egg’ question applies here: which comes first – an organisation ready and able to be led or a leader capable of doing it?

Certainly, a leader can stop things happening – a bad leader without vision is a killer of initiative and innovation. But a good leader without followers – and people who act as the vanguard and pathfinders ahead of the leader – won’t achieve much either.

As Disraeli famously said: I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?

As a leader you can set a direction, articulate a vision, call for action and remove barriers, but you can’t run ahead of what the organisation can actually deliver.

Behind all the inspiring stories that cross our news desk each day here at Briefing are dedicated CSR and SD managers, pushing good practice in their companies; only some of them have so-called inspirational leaders.

At the end of the day, yes, we need good leaders. But without committed people right down the line making things possible they can’t achieve the scale of change with the necessary urgency. To misquote Bismarck, leadership is the art of the possible.

This article first appeared in Corporate Citizenship Briefing

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