My trusty Oxford dictionary asserts leadership is ‘Guidance given by going in front’. There are many ideas of what constitutes a leader and, therefore, leadership. I think the compilers of the dictionary had some difficulty in paring this down. This is the one I personally like best.
Does ‘going in front’ imply solitary activity or, as I believe, taking others with you?
I began thinking about who might be an example of a good leader. Richard Branson, whom I follow on Twitter, immediately came to mind. Analysing why his approach to business success and to people is simple but highly effective. He does lead from the front but takes his colleagues with him. He is quoted as saying ‘to succeed in business you have to keep everyone informed and involved with everything you do, listen and then take action.’ I loved seeing this in action recently when air hostesses employed by his airline complained about their new uniforms. He went on board a flight dressed as an air hostess, complete with make-up and served passengers on the journey.
When my daughter, Fiona, was Operations Manager at the Virgin Train line booking service in Edinburgh he dropped in one day and handled calls himself, instructed by Fiona. A great example of leadership. Now, of course, not all CEOs would do this. Maybe, however, if more of them did so the recent banking scandal, may have been at least in part averted.
What about politics and leadership? Many people would cite Winston Churchill as the greatest leader. Personally I believe he was a better leader in wartime than in peacetime. Margaret Thatcher was a most memorable leader. Yes, she was outspoken, stubborn and often courted controversy. She was also very brave as we saw in the Brighton bombing disaster. In fact, Margaret would not have become leader of the Conservative Party had she not had the courage and confidence to stand the first round of the election to replace Edward Heath – himself a leader of some repute. None of the men thought she would win outright and were waiting for the next round to come forward. But win she did!
I met Margaret Thatcher a number of times and saw not only her political skill but also her more human side. Once at a Reception, with my daughter, Fiona, another guest pushed between us spilling wine all over Fiona’s white lace top. In a single movement Thatcher elbowed the woman out of the way, opened her handbag and took out two hankies, mopped up the wine and said ‘there, dear I don’t think that will stain!’ I relate this to demonstrate her awareness of other people and the more human side of her nature.
Now, anecdotal as ever if readers will allow me I would like to conclude with some experience of my own. In the 1980s I was serving as a Councillor on Edinburgh District Council. My then Party did not do well at the 1988 election. After this a number of the group came to me soon afterwards and said ‘all the Group wants you to be our leader.’ What followed is a true example of pride coming before a fall, or maybe not! You see not all the group wanted this. There were 23 of us. I was elected by one vote – my own. What did I do? For the first year I treated those who were against me a in exactly the same inclusive way as my supporters. Many attempts were made to undermine me. It was hard but I stuck at it. There is not space, or readers’ patience, here to go into details but suffice to say we began to work as a team and at the election in 1992, we got 40% of the votes cast and deprived the then ruling party of its overall majority, though we didn’t take control as a coalition was formed with other parties. So I returned as Opposition Leader. After a year I decided to stand down from the leadership and give someone else a chance. You see, I think all leaders should know when it is time to go!
I leave you with the words of possibly the greatest leader of our time, The Dalai Lama ‘The best way to resolve any problem in the world is for all sides to sit down together and talk.’ True?
Christine Richard is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.