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Visit the most affluent parts of Leeds, Manchester or other cities in northern England and talk of the “north-south divide” seems wide of the mark. Yet these are the exceptions to the rule that, in general, wealth creation and living standards in the north of England continue to lag behind those of London and the south-east.

Closing the divide is not simply a matter of economic growth. Britain’s sustained period of growth has increased prosperity in the north of England but done little to close the estimated £30bn ($55bn) gap in output between north and south.

Business leaders and politicians in the north, along with central government, are now trying to be more active in helping the region catch up, with a series of initiatives known as the Northern Way. Among the measures is the creation of a “northern leadership academy”, a tacit admission that the quality of business leadership is an area in which the north must improve.

The academy is not for the north’s biggest captains of industry. But it will aim to give owners and managers of small and medium-sized businesses better leadership and management skills.

Steve Bradley, head of the department of economics at Lancaster University Management School, says the north has been less capable than the south in starting up and establishing companies – one of the factors contributing to the regional divide.

Lancaster University Management School, with the University of Liverpool Management School and Leeds University Business School, is one of the partners establishing the academy, with support from regional development agencies.

Lancaster University Management School established a Leadership Centre last year and already runs a 10-month Lead programme for owner-managers in the north-west, featuring masterclasses, executive exchanges, coaching, mentoring, consulting and networking.

Steve Kempster, director of the Leadership Centre and co-director of the academy, says owner-managers “are often a glass ceiling to the growth of their own companies” because of their limited aspirations.

“Owner-managers have a very low association with connotations of leadership. They see themselves as owner-managers rather than leaders. Part of the Lead programme is about making leadership much more prominent and salient,” he says.

That is not easy when many owner-managers find themselves, as Mr Kempster acknowledges, “stuck in the business rather than working on the business”.

The academy will be launched next spring and, although based at Lancaster, will do most of its work online as a virtual resource. It is also likely to have up to 20 physical “hubs” in communities across the region. Those involved are seeking an active academy membership of 5,000-10,000 people from SMEs but also from the voluntary and public sectors.

Influential voices and companies in the region’s private sector may be asked to provide mentoring, but the academy is not necessarily about providing a structured suite of courses. Its priority is to co-ordinate existing provision of leadership advice more successfully, so that the north gets “more bang for its buck” from public money.

Mr Kempster says the academy is about creating “a leaderful north” – an awkward phrase, but one that he says is a step forward from the region’s past, when business leaders were heroic, senior and distant figures.

“That can be great but it can also be very disempowering,” he says. “We want to create organisations that are brimming over with leaders throughout.”

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