Are we all guilty of romancing leadership?

Jamie Lawrence
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This article was written by Karen Drury, consultant with Maven International (UK) Ltd.

“The first myth of management is that it exists. The second myth of management is that success equals skill.”
Robert Heller

We’ve heard a lot about leadership in the past months – the death of Margaret Thatcher, unrest over Cameron’s leadership and of course, the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.

I’ve never been fully comfortable with a concept of leadership which is so strikingly male, Western and seemingly so simple in theory but so difficult in practice. And there are so many models – which to choose?

Looking back over leadership models in the management literature, many were constructed more than 100 years ago and have gone in and out of favour over the century. This might indicate that if your favourite is out of fashion now, it will probably re-emerge in a few years. Leadership has looked at a variety of traits and behaviours, but we’ve also had contextual leadership, contingency leadership, relational leadership, transformational leadership, authentic leadership, and spiritual and servant-leadership.

Looking at the plethora of models, one thing strikes me - while many of these models are different, they generally treat “leaders” as a unified consistency, or one group of people. This seems unlikely, and a study by Hay in 2004 indicates that leaders don’t come in one size only, but may need to employ different types of leadership depending on where they are in the organisation.

If Hay is right, this might make all leadership theories too broad for practical use.

My second area of doubt is whether leadership automatically leads to success – or if other things contribute? Theories which intuitively sound robust in the pages of an airport blockbuster may wither in the uncertainty of the real world.

Let’s take the popular prescription that a leader needs to be empathetic and considerate to employees, as described in Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Stephen Covey’s Principle-Centered Leadership – to name but a few.

In the psychological jargon, empathy and consideration fall under the banner of “agreeableness”. Agreeable people want to build and maintain relationships, are honest and straightforward, are altruistic and modest. As a result, they are potentially less likely to be competitive.

Turning to some real life examples, it’s unlikely that you would say that a lack of competitiveness characterises Sir Alex Ferguson or Steve Jobs – or indeed, an over-abundance of agreeableness. SAF, famous for his temper and abuse when displeased, took Manchester United to 38 trophies including 13 Premier League titles. But as David Beckham has been quoted as saying “the fear of getting the ‘hairdryer’ was one reason we all played so well.”

Steve Jobs, revered by some as an American business icon, was also noted for his mercurial management style, prone to calling his employees “dumb” when he didn’t like their ideas. His combativeness against competitors was also the stuff from which legends are made.

Were these people successful? Yes they were. Did they sound empathetic and agreeable? Not so much.

Might there be other people with the same traits as SAF and Mr Jobs who are not successful? Almost certainly. So is it leadership that makes the difference or some chance combination of context, leader, and resources? It’s a complicated area.

Sceptics have argued that in short, it is easier to put organisational performance down to “leadership” than to take into consideration all the complex phenomena that could be involved. Scholar James Meindl, with Sanford Ehrlich and Janet Dukerich coined the phrase “the romance of leadership” suggesting that perceptions of leadership are just that – the perceptions of followers, not objective measures of leadership. This evaluation of leadership says much about the schemas of followers as well as the behaviours of the “leaders”.

And finally, as a consultant, trainer and coach, it’s not escaped my notice that anything with “leadership” in the title commands a premium price. I wonder how much this was down to rhetoric and how much was about a real difference between management and leadership.

Supporting this, a number of qualitative diary studies indicate that while senior leaders may talk leadership, they do management. Ask any leader to tell you what they do, day to day, and description becomes almost impossible. So is leadership more to do with identity than anything else?

The identity of a leader, after all, is something to be aspired to. Leadership - and those who provide services to leaders – has elevated status, and is valued, often to the denigration of the managerial label. I have recently heard middle management described as the “permafrost” in change programmes.

This is in part what makes the role of the leader so desirable – that it’s NOT management.

And in the midst of recession, the position of the leader occupies a place of tension between the discourse of vision, idealism and hearts and minds – and the need to cut costs. Change, particularly in increased standardisation and centralisation to save costs and increase control, appears to me to simply strengthen the bureaucracy which leadership is supposed to loosen and do away with.

But what do you think? Is leadership real or rhetoric? What is the difference between a leader and success in one situation and the same leader and failure in another?

About Jamie Lawrence

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.


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30th May 2013 09:43

I remeber reading a story recently of a major UK company who after losing their CEO left the "temporary" running of the company to the three remaining chief officers, causing a panic amongst analysts and a large write doen in their share value (obviously believing without a heroic leader they would crash). 18 months later, after an unsuccessful search for a ne CEO, the shareholders and analysts began to realise that the company was actually performing better than previously! Accidently provign the point that, on the whole, the strong leader myth, was just that, a myth.

I hve read umpteen examples of underperfroming CEOs yet amazingly we are still fed the Jack Welsh story as an example of why companies need to pay huge salaries for the "best" CEO.

I agree every organisation needs strong leadership but I do not agree in the strong leader myth. In fact the best leaders are the ones we do not her about or the ones who operate as part of a senior team, although their stories do not sell books!

-- Senior Employee Benefit and Reward Consultant

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30th May 2013 09:59


Well, certainly a higher than average pay packet for leaders as opposed to managers also enhances the status of leadership to make it a more valuable identity.  Just a thought - is there a palpable difference between "a strong leader" and a "strong manager"?  Your example would indicate perhaps not.....

Thanks for engaging!

-- Karen Drury

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30th May 2013 17:08

Perhaps the problem could be modelled thus:

Where E is overall effectiveness

AL is Actual Leadership

M is Effective Management (of business)

n is given amount for each quality...

E = nAL + nM

Where E is a combination of both. 

Maybe some companies need more “leadership”  than others, e.g. more external visibility of the leader.

Nobody cares who runs tax office, as long as they apply the rules and collect the tax and revenues; lots of people seem to care who runs Virgin, as Branson is the brand, in a lot of ways.   So we can now add Required Leadership to mix

E = nPL = nL + nRL + nM

Then there is PL, Perceived Leadership.

As an example - John Major had a problem as he had little PL, though he must have had some RL - he won an election and was PM for 5 years, despite working with “a bunch of b*****ds.

We don’t know what sort of leadership Richard Branson employs (other than being out there...), we extrapolate his projected persona into this leadership style.

So now we have

E = nPL + nAL + nRL + nM

And the only problem with this is, we can’t define what any of these things actually is, so even if we know what n was for each characteristic, the equation can’t be solved.   Which is, perhaps, a good thing.

And it certainly makes coaching managers way more interesting than plugging bits of them into an equation (not physically, you understand...)

Oh, and did I mention trust? 

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30th May 2013 17:50

Algebra was never my strong point, but I agree that the actual levels of the characteristics into the mix is likely to be at best, guesswork and at worst, completely wrong. And no, you didn't mention trust, so can we add that too as a common denominator? Multiplier?


-- Karen Drury

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30th May 2013 18:34

Has to be a multiplier, cos if its value is zero then E= zero, irrespective of other values.  Yay.  All sorted.  :-)

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30th May 2013 19:30

Right - world peace next?


-- Karen Drury

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30th May 2013 19:57

I do believe leadership and management are different skills, although they can be undertaken by the same person. Also every business needs at least one of each. However if only one can be picked I would pick management.

What I dislike is people assuming leadership is somehow superior to management, the pied piper and Hitler were leaders!

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4th Jun 2013 12:35

Thank you for starting this conversation – essentially leadership is to achieve the following; Direction Alignment and Commitment. This can be done as the ‘heroic’ leader or increasing in a collective approach – organizational leadership. Leadership too can be a key driver of change in an organization; change leadership, a shift from the management of change focus on structure and process.

Can I suggest what is missing in this discussion is the beginning of leadership has to be a deep understanding of oneself and a focus on authenticity, coupled with the understanding that leadership is situational.

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4th Jun 2013 20:24

Great article - great replies!

Can I offer to bust two more myths with my own observations?

First, really great leaders *aren't* always the most senior in an organisation.
(Classic example - the Beslan siege, if you might recall it.  Who led the unorganised but most effective response to a desperate and unfolding tragedy? Not the Government, nor any officials, but the parents of the children taken hostage.)

Second, of course effective leadership behaviours *can* be identified and mapped!   The only problem is that they are organisation and culturally specific, and not necessarily translatable anywhere else. 
(Which of course is surely why so many acclaimed leaders may well fail in their next organisation...)

Isn't that your experience too?

-- Jeremy Thorn

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24th Jul 2013 15:31

I think the sharpest distinction between the two is one I heard some years ago:

You do what a manager says because you have to - you do what a leader says because you want to.


A manager thinks of getting the job done - a leader thinks of how their people are going to get the job done.

Management can be learned from scratch as a set of distinct skills - leadership requires a certain attitude, a certain charisma, that can't be learned, and certainly can't be faked. 

I've seen a few bad leaders who seem to me to have been good managers who tried to be good leaders, without understanding the fundamental difference between the skillsets.

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1st Aug 2013 13:01

Hi Philip

Yes, I absolutely agree that you should start with an understanding of yourself - but that's applicable to everyone, isn't it?  Leadership presumably doesn't have the monopoly on self awareness. But perhaps that's yet another element/facet/characteristic of leaders?

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1st Aug 2013 13:08

Hi Jeremy

Sorry for the late response - and thanks for your comments!  Agree (along with the rest of the world, I expect) that great leaders aren't always senior.  But on you point about how leadership characteristics CAN be mapped, I suppose, even if I don't agree with you, the question I'd ask you is "why?" - particularly if, as you say, they are organisationally and culturally specific? 

One of my biggest concerns is that in large organisations using the typical leadership competencies, you then get identical skills sets.  Where's the NEW stuff in all this?  The mainstream idea of leadership hasn't actually changed in the past 100 years and is essentially male and white.  Do we want more of this?

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1st Aug 2013 13:17


Thanks for your comment!

It's a nice idea, but surely people also do stuff for managers because they want to?  And do stuff for leaders not because they want to (see Hitler) but because essentially, there is no choice?

I'm also not sure I agree about a "certain attitude" or charisma - Rosa Parks could be considered a leader and there was nothing charismatic about her.  And there we get into the debate - for every example, you could probably come up with another that demonstrates the opposite.

But what does everyone else think?

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1st Aug 2013 15:11

Hi Karen - thanks for the response.

Yes, you're right - both scenarios can arise - but when people do things for a manager because they want to, I suggest it's because the manager is demonstrating leadership.  When they do things for a 'leader' because they have no choice, that's not because of the leadership qualities of the leader but the consequences of non-compliance.  To an outside observer, there may be no discernible difference between the two, but the engagement levels of the person concerned will be radically different. 

I'd also consider the old adage that some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.  Rosa Parks did not intend to become a leader, but when circumstances put her in a position where many people were looking to her for guidance, she stepped up and supplied it.  Whatever natural charisma led her to take her actions in the first place was significantly magnified later on by peoples perception of her.  Saying there was nothing charismatic about her does her a great disservice.

And I can only speak for myself but over 30 years of employment I've noticed the difference between managers and leaders.  For me, someone can be an amazing technical manager, and not inspire me one whit to excel or succeed.  A good leader can be much less skilled as a manager, and still instil confidence and enthusiasm in their people.

I believe both are essential for success, and you're right, the lines between the two aren't always clear-cut, but let me work with someone for a week and I'll tell you which they are.

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1st Aug 2013 15:34

Hi again

Yup, obviously the heat is getting to me, because I completely misunderstood what you meant about the engagement of the individual.  Although (again) engagement is often more to do with task than who asks you to do it.

I certainly did not mean to do a disservice to Rosa Parks, but I think we're not seeing the word charisma in the same way. I understood you meant it to be about a personal magnetism - and if Rosa Parks had it before she was arrested for not obeying segregation rules, it's not obvious from the histories. 

I agree with you that some people can inspire you more than others - but I wouldn't automatically define them as a leader.

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