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Philip Delves Broughton is right in saying leadership failure played a part in the creation of the current economic crisis (MBA arrogance and the myth of leadership).

But giving up on leadership development, as he suggests, throws out the baby with the bath water.

The leadership development community surely does share some blame for the master-of-the-universe mentality exhibited by many actors in the economic meltdown.

Many leaders attributed their rise to personal characteristics: their innate leadership talent. It is true they might have imbibed arrogance along with their MBA courses. They naturally turned to so-called “strengths-based” development. Favoured strengths include independence, drive, take-charge attitude and decisiveness. When these are overplayed they inflate egos and can lead to what Lord (David) Owen, a physician-turned-politician, has dubbed “hubris syndrome”,* a characteristic of which is “the inability to change direction because this involves admitting that one has made a mistake”.

According to Robert Kaiser, editor of The Perils of Accentuating the Positive, a compendium of observations by executive development experts**, “it is no surprise that the strengths-based approach gained its popularity amid the self-serving decadence and delusional optimism of the first decade of the 21st century that spun the global economy out of control. The ensuing crisis was a painful reminder of what happens when self-interest is allowed to reign supreme”.

Ignoring weaknesses is dangerous. In Perils, William Gentry and Craig Chappelow note that “about half of all senior leaders ultimately derail. The most common causes of derailment can often be traced back to weakness of one kind or another”. Examples of derailing weaknesses are inflated self-importance and inability to work with different types of people – or with people in general. We have just seen the result of collective managerial derailment in the financial sector.

Mr Delves Broughton implies that some people have innate leadership capability and others do not – and never will. However, experience has taught me that, while some people take more naturally to leadership, everyone can get better at it. Many leaders now recognise the need to raise their game.

But helping these leaders improve is not enough. Nor is removing the bad apples – the prescription for the corporate scandals of the 1990s.

The problem is not – as Mr Delves Broughton states – too many leaders, but too few. We need to spread leadership throughout the organisation, with a leadership strategy tied to business strategy.

In 2002, the Corporate Research Forum looked at ways to prevent corporate meltdowns following the scandals of the 1990s (Enron, WorldCom, Tyco).

“The productivity and stability of any organisation,” it says, “depends crucially on the directors’ ability to manage change, lead people, pre-empt and meet competitive and operating challenges, and to be personally resilient and forward-looking. Positive, co-operative and ethical behaviours will not flourish unless exhibited and embedded through leadership style, which needs constant reinforcement.”

Creating a leadership model where everything and everyone are linked means there is more responsibility and accountability. It means moving from a command-and-control style of leadership to a more interdependent and collaborative model.

The world is facing perhaps its greatest economic calamity in three-quarters of a century. No one wants to go back to the failed leadership that preceded this disaster. And we do not have to. There is a brighter future if we change our notion of what effective leadership really is.

*‘In Sickness and in Power’, David Owen, Methuen Publishing, 2008. **‘The Perils of Accentuating the Positive’, Robert B. Kaiser, editor, Hogan Press, 2008.

Rudi Plettinx is vice- president and managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Center for Creative Leadership.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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