Command and conquer: cadets at West Point learn leadership skills © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Jim Collins’ ideas have shaped leadership thinking for more than two decades. As author of bestsellers such as Good to Great, he introduced managers to “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” — lofty targets to inspire teams to perform better — and laid out how resolute but humble “Level 5 leaders” rose to the top of successful companies.

Latterly Mr Collins has looked at leadership from the other end of the telescope. At West Point, the prestigious US military academy, he saw how important it was for young, frontline unit leaders to take responsibility — a “mission command” approach within a wider strategy. Similarly, at schools across the US, he has observed how headteachers acquire and exercise their leadership skills.

When he asked companies how their Level 5 chief executives emerged, he found that they often started as unit managers, with a determination to “take what I have responsibility for and make it truly great”. Such leaders paid no attention to their career advancement, the author says in an interview ahead of a rare visit to London this week: “They typically said, ‘I’ve responsibility for this minibus’, and people then asked them to drive bigger and bigger buses until one day they drove the whole business.”

The military emphasis on giving frontline commanders autonomy and responsibility is increasingly reflected at large companies.

In volatile and uncertain times, Franz Heukamp, dean of Iese business school, says companies should “push down decision-making” to people who are closer to the challenges the organisation faces.

The consequence is that corporate heads and business educators have to find ways to transmit leadership skills to people who do not have “leader” in their job description and will probably never attend a top-level, leadership programme. As Shlomo Ben-Hur, professor at IMD business school, puts it: “We teach the top 5 per cent — but the majority of this work is carried out by the other 95 per cent.”

Prof Ben-Hur’s work has focused on ensuring that managers understand how to assign the right jobs to their team members and motivate them to perform well, using theories of behavioural change that senior executives have typically never learnt on their way to the top. Dedicated managers well below the executive board need to know how to use these tools, too, he says.

At big companies, this objective can often be achieved by creating leadership programmes that encourage lateral sharing of ideas and best practice. Pedro Muñoz Royo, part of Airbus’s digital transformation team, took part in a course organised by Iese in 2013, aimed at bringing together middle managers from across the aircraft maker.

In the vivero — the Spanish word for nursery used for the project — new ideas were encouraged. Mr Muñoz came up with a system for dealing with waste carbon fibre, making the production process more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Another participant hatched the idea of checking for manufacturing defects using drones and augmented reality.

Along the way, the programme created the dynamic of “a mini MBA”, says Mr Muñoz, teaching practical leadership skills and fostering a strong internal network that is still important four years on.

Separately, Airbus has recently launched a corporate “university”, which will spread leadership ideas throughout the organisation. The theory, says Mr Muñoz, is that “being a leader isn’t just about being a vice-president; it’s about being able to push the company towards new ways of doing things and executing the things we have to execute. That could [apply to] a blue-collar worker on the shop floor or a VP.”

IMD’s Prof Ben-Hur jokes that the first piece of advice he gives to companies considering a corporate university is “don’t buy a castle”. More important than a grand location is the way in which the programme itself is constructed. Inevitably, the same intensive, expensive courses traditionally offered to “high potential” executives cannot be offered to everyone, but many of the most useful motivational tools can be.

Prof Heukamp says he and his faculty members are always challenging executives on Iese’s courses to answer the question: “How are you going to roll this out to your team?”

Technology helps. Massive open online courses (Moocs) can help bring important leadership lessons to large audiences, though the drop-off rate for such programmes is high. Prof Ben-Hur has explored “gamification” — the use of incentive mechanisms drawn from games — to make leadership insights stick and change workplace behaviour.

Entrepreneurship modules may help encourage managers, even within large companies, to think and act independently. Mr Collins swears by the power of mentoring as a way of spreading good practice more widely through a business when a more systematic leadership development approach is impossible.

Too often, though, the challenge of getting an organisation or a country from good to great still falls to a strategy conceived and pushed through by people with the title of leader: chief executives, generals or ministers.

But as Mr Collins says: “You have to have outstanding four- and three-star generals, but if you don’t have great unit leadership, you don’t have the cellular structure” that will be strong and flexible enough to handle the challenges ahead.

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