Leadership not leaders

28 11 2013

It has become common to assert, not least on these pages, that if there were more women in senior positions that the business world, nay the world itself, would be a better place.
It is true that the testosterone fuelled model that has dominated corporate cultures for decades, the hero style of leadership with its emphasis on the all-powerful individual, is one that most people agree needs to change but what to replace it with? Certainly, in our celebrity focussed culture, it is easy for the media to praise and elevate the individual, male or female, rather than focus on the team. To use an example from football, Manchester United have been a successful team but it is their manager Alex Ferguson and the succession of aggressive captains who have been lionised.

So what might a new leadership look like and is it aligned with feminist principles?

Proponents of a move towards more women leaders may suggest that feminist leadership and good leadership are in fact synonymous, as the principles that underlie feminism; equality, fairness and mutual support are exactly the characteristics that underpin good leadership. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is the suggestion that feminist leadership is a contradiction in terms; feminism being the antithesis of power and equality being contrary to the concept of leadership.

A skim through text books and a surf through the internet tends to suggest that there are some common traits of good leaders, irrespective of gender.


Resilience: An ability to deal positively with criticism
Delegation, recruiting a diverse mix of competent people and then empowering individuals
Collaboration, connecting with all stakeholders


Vision, a clear personal vision and the capacity to transform those ideas into action
Openness, visible involvement, with passion and compassion
Authoritative, being recognised as a moral authority


Autonomy, internal control and self-knowledge
Credibility, being trustworthy and authentic
Emotional intelligence, able to handle (own) emotions

On closer inspection, I contend that it is only the values that differentiate leaders from managers. The commonest misconception, therefore, is that leadership is a skill that can be taught. It seems to me that leadership is an emergent property from the innate internal character. The key is authenticity.

Authenticity is a “moms and apple pies” kind of a word. What’s not to like? Be true to yourself, Follow your own path, Lead with your heart. Facebook is full of such aphorisms, the words often printed over photographs of sunsets or kittens for added effect.

What happens, though, if the internal character is flawed? Which brings me back to Alex Ferguson. Central to his style, which he confirms in the recent autobiography, is control; control exerted through violence, the famed hair-dryer treatment meted out to players who failed to do as they were told, or the threat of violence, taking a sword onto the training ground when overseeing youth team sessions. While none of the leaders I have known have ever resorted to violence there have been many whose combative manner has suggested that it would be best not to push them too far. There is no doubt that Alex Ferguson was a leader. A successful leader if the trophy cabinet at Manchester United is used as a measurement tool. But a good leader?

Can leading like Alex Ferguson be taught? I’m minded to say, “I hope not” for the sake of young footballers everywhere, but in all seriousness I do not think that it can be taught. If we are agreed that being authentic is central to leadership then to lead like Ferguson you have to be Ferguson – or be like Ferguson and possess all of the hinterland that created that distinctive leadership style.

And so if we cannot teach individuals how to be a good leader let’s shift the focus to leadership rather than leaders. And here is where feminist leadership comes in; a different, collaborative, inclusive style of leadership.

Change is happening in what makes businesses successful. On the way out is the traditional command and control approach, the Alex Ferguson model so to speak, where one individual really could steer the corporate ship alone. It is being replaced by distributed leadership, where all of the skills needed to steer the ship no longer reside within a single person. Feminist leadership is not expressed in one woman, but in a collective. The traits that underlie feminism – equality, fairness and mutual support are exactly those that are paramount in the model of distributed leadership.

Women can transform the leadership landscape, not by replacing male hero-leaders with high-profile female versions, but by utilising the strength of the collective to usher in a collaborative model. It may be a difficult transformation to track, since there will be few figureheads around which the press can flock, but it will be a change firmly rooted in leadership not leaders.



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