The New Leadership Challenge

This article is based on a paper presented at the World Conference for Corporate Governance and Sustainability held in Dubai in May this year.

Both from the perspective of the pressing need for climate-related adaptation, and the consequent changes in society that this can effect, and from contemporary social relationships and how they challenge the ways of the past, I argue that we need to stop treating leadership as an exclusive property of those in power, and instead as a normal human quality that can be demonstrated by people of all ages. We need to challenge those assumptions, structures and approaches that inhibit change, and instead instil values that lead towards a common goal of social improvement.


Most contemporary leadership studies are still based on a small number of models developed by researchers active some time ago. Throughout history, and into the early 1900s, these focused on identifying ‘traits’ of leadership. As a result of field observations in the First World War, and subsequent research in the psychiatric treatment of returning combatants, Lewin, Lippitt and White {i} published one of the first behavioural-based models of leadership in 1939. Behavioural models remain popular, but were particularly prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, when work by US psychologists with combatants from the Vietnam War, were popularised in the management media. This genre of model tends to promote a situational context – that a leader in one situation will display different behaviours to a leader in a different situation (for example, Hersey and Blanchard (1972){ii}).

A typical definition of leadership, in this case taken from Chemmers (1997){iii}, is a “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”. Such definitions, and the theories that seek to explain them, generally share a number of common assumptions – that there is a singular leader, who holds power over other people, and draws on this to influence their behaviour. Almost inevitably, the assumption is that leadership involves some form of hierarchy and contexts where there is not one are rare exceptions.

Even theories that attempt to challenge one of these axioms, tend to continue to reinforce the others. For instance, servant leadership, promoted by Robert Greenleaf (1970){iv}, tried to devalue the significance of positional power, but in practice it was still about singular leaders, drawing on other forms of power, to influence the behaviour of others.


Former US VP, Al Gore, has made many essential contributions to the debate on the future of the world. Firstly, he provided overwhelming evidence of climate change {iv} – scientific evidence that normal human beings can believe even if the politicians still wish to argue about the detail. In turn, he presented the argument that most of the problems confronting humanity today are not only interlinked but can be resolved in the process of adapting to climate change {v}. Finally, he provided substantial evidence that the means to adapt are known to man today. That we are not adequately responding is not down to a lack of belief in the problem, to a lack of effective integration, or a lack of tools – it is about a human reluctance to change.

What we need is the WILL to do something in a timely fashion. Doing things in a timely fashion is what leadership is supposedly about. Those people who are genuine leaders, do just that. Gore makes the point, that the solutions are only going to work, if we make a global collective choice to implement them. This is about people feeling sufficiently strongly about the importance of a new way of being that they are prepared to take a lead – to do different things in a timely fashion.

While leadership is polarised, while we still promote it as something hierarchical, possessed by a few and conceded by the majority, while we still model it on antiquated military models, while we still confuse the to-and-fro of political leadership with directional and transformational leadership, it will not be sufficient.

We need every human being to know that they have choices, that they can influence those around them – that they can educate them and inspire them – to do things that will transform our planet.
So, we need to develop the leadership skills of every human being and we need to encourage them to apply them in a concerted fashion with a common purpose. This is the challenge of leadership that we face today.


There have always been, and always will be, exceptional young people – ones who demonstrate abilities and a confidence that we generally associate with emotionally mature adults. Those of you who are familiar with the TED talks, may have seen the presentation by Adora Svitak {vi}, a 12yr old who acts as an ambassador for literacy in North America. She is an excellent example. We need kids like this. However, we still tend – just as I have then – to see them from an adult perspective. Adora’s example is ironic in some ways, as her underlying agenda is not so much one of literacy, but to bring the adult and young people’s worlds closer together – for adults to see the valuable and unique perspectives that children can bring to world issues.

Many scientists believe that one of the components in our toolkit for climate adaptation is small-scale, even domestic, nuclear fusion. Yet, it took a 14yr old boy, Taylor Wilson {viii} (no relation) in his parents’ garage, to build a working reactor that proved the possibility of such an approach.

However, these are, as I have said, young people operating in a world dominated by adult thinking.

Academics, sociologists, psychologists, and those in business schools, have devoted countless hours studying the ways in which society can engage with Generation Y. The postures adopted range from defensive stances against the new generation, their inclusion in adult society, through to a fantasy of their development in isolation. Even well-intentioned initiatives that receive considerable acclaim have a habit of reinforcing the divide, the sense of separation, between young people and adults. We are told that they learn differently, need information presenting in different ways, in order for them to engage with this adult world – this is simply a patronising attitude in disguise. Some of you may have seen the robust response to this – the “Generation We” video which has been viewed over 2 million times on You Tube {ix}.

We have to look at these models and ask ourselves how realistic they are? Society IS ageing. The working population is stretching in age range. Keeping young people at arms length, patronising them, and isolating them is NOT going to work. I would argue that we have to seek to integrate them in as many ways as we possibly can. We need to be prepared to drop our defensive mantle of authority, gravity, conservative approach, expertise and experience, and adopt their open-minded, curious, less blinkered, proactive mind-set. We need to ask ourselves where we learned the working practices that we adopt unthinkingly and assume have no alternative and be prepared to explore, to understand, to experiment, and to adopt other ways of doing things.


This is not something that is easy – there are so many self-regulating mechanisms. I want to illustrate the way in which our conservative thinking is embedded with a simple example from my own experience. In the UK, I am chairman [old think = OT] of a county swimming organisation. We decided that we wanted to engage our younger members in the governance [OT] of the organisation. So, we invited nominations [OT] from them to elect [OT] a representative [OT] on the county executive [OT] committee [OT]. Four people had their names put forwards. Our immediate response was to say that there needed to be an election [OT] through which one would be chosen and three would be disenfranchised. We decided to create a Youth Committee [OT] which it was assumed would operate like a younger version of the adult one. We expected them to hold a physical meeting [OT] and work through a pre-circulated agenda [OT], documenting their conclusions in written-up minutes [OT]. We were so keen not to influence them [OT] that we failed to inspire them too. So their initial efforts to do something fell well short of our (well, certainly, my) aspirations for them – they had simply replicated the old styles of event and activity [OT]. When I expressed disappointment to my adult colleagues, I was told that the young people should be allowed to take (what must be one of the most patronising concepts in the history of man) “baby steps” [OT] and when I showed surprise at the appalling standard of literacy of their promotional material I was told that should not interfere [OT].

In preparing this paper, I am building my own resolve not to fall for these mistakes again. When I return to the UK, I am determined not to be put off by well-intentioned, but I believe misguided, traditionalists seeking to preserve the status quo and force a new generation to adopt and therefore validate our own ineffective, over prescriptive ways of doing things.


At the very least, I believe that we need to find ways of INTEGRATING younger, alternative, approaches into our organisations. This is not about co-opting young people, adding a youth representative on our Boards, or involving them in brightly painted, marketing-led think tanks about alternative ways of exploiting them and their parents. It is about taking a fundamentally different approach to engaging with them and disassembling the traditional structures that reinforce our stale thinking.

As one example, hierarchies and hierarchical thinking have been criticized by many people. The most common alternative proposed is heterarchy and this has been combined with responsible autonomy by Gerard Fairclough in his work on Triarchy theoryx. This is not necessarily new – two organisations that are often held up as exemplars of a different structure, while they are not necessarily heterarchies, are the Society of Friends, established in the 1600s, and the John Lewis Partnership.

Much decision making in corporates takes place autocratically, or through some kind of oligarchy. Good managers, we are taught strive to build consensus for their decisions but are prepared to stand out if need be. There are alternatives though. The Quakers, for example, espouse the use of ‘sense’ and ‘expressed dissension’.

Amidst the constant innovation in information and communication technologies, hierarchical authority structures are giving way to greater decision-making latitude for individuals and more flexible definitions of job activities. This new style of work presents a challenge to existing organizational forms, and we are seeing unprecedented examples of collaboration in online communities driven by personal motivation and the satisfaction of making one’s own decisions. A good example being the development of open-source software solutions such as Libre Office that even out-compete traditional commercial offerings.

Sadly, many organisations refuse to embrace such trends and resort to ridicule or scare-mongering. One corporate in its advertising literature recently implied that all collaborative software development was being performed by hackers seeking to undermine society and to destroy the internet. The sheer irrationality of this wasn’t picked up until much later– why should they seek to destroy the environment in which they thrive?

Apart from a preparedness to change, the key to using such alternatives is to tap into and align with individuals’ values. The popular jargon word of the 2000s for this process has been ‘engagement’.


However, I don’t think integration and engagement are sufficient. We talk of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In the late 90s and early 2000s, it became ‘trendy’ to drop the ‘S’ and clever spin-doctors tried telling us that it was wrong to think of organisations doing ‘social’ (by which they really meant ‘societal’) things. Instead, we were told, CR should be seen as a ‘normal way of doing things around here’. Well, I’m sorry, but in my experience this has been a way of justifying limiting the scope of influence that a corporate could exert in the misguided view that such efforts cost money and don’t yield sufficient return on the investment.

The work of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation in bringing to fruition the theories of Walter Stahl from the 1970s, and the idea of the circular economy, is forcing a rethink of the relationship between corporates and their environment. This embraces physical materials, sources of energy, financial resources and human potential.

It is the responsibility of corporates to not simply drain the human resources that they draw upon, but to nurture them, to provide them with the means to achieve their fullest potential, even if this does mean that they leave and move on to better things. The development of people in an organisation is no longer acceptably limited to training for the job. It is about individuals developing the skills, attitudes and confidence that will enable them to make the fullest possible contribution to the change in society that we need to effect.

This may seem like a political manifesto. It is not – it is perhaps a philosophical one, but it is grounded in simple real world changes that organisations can make that allow us to move steadily to wards that world in which we are all leaders – embracing change with a common purpose.


One simple example of this embracing approach comes from the Timpson shoe repairers in the UK. The prison population in Britain is growing. We know that the likelihood of re-offending is massively reduced if an inmate has a job to go to when they are released. But job opportunities are few, and prisons don’t have the resources to train people. Training on its own is no solution – we need to provide these people with real work opportunities. Enter Timpson. They have worked with two prisons – Liverpool and Wandsworth. Their company creates a training school within the prison, teaching not only the practical skills of shoe repairing, but also customer service and essentially business management. Inmates completing the training are offered positions in the many outlets of the company and are encouraged to develop the leadership skills needed to take over their own franchise. These people are acquiring a different set of values – they are becoming responsible citizens, developing the confidence to take a stance in the outside world, and they are becoming vocal leaders in their own communities advocating change in that direction of a common purpose.


Time is not on our side. We need to stop treating leadership as an exclusive property of those in power, and instead as a normal human quality that can be demonstrated by people of all ages. We need to challenge those assumptions, structures and approaches that inhibit change, and instead instil values that lead towards a common goal of social improvement.


i Lewin, Kurt; Lippitt, Ronald; White, Ralph (1939). “Patterns of aggressive behaviour in experimentally created social climates”. Journal of Social Psychology: 271–301.
ii Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. (1972). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources (2nd ed.) New Jersey/Prentice Hall
iii Chemers M. (1997) An integrative theory of leadership. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. ISBN 978-0-8058-2679-1
iv Greenleaf, R (1970) Servant Leadership ISBN 0-8091-0554-3
v Gore, AL (2006) An inconvenient truth.
vi Gore, AL (2009) Our choice – a plan to solve the climate crisis. Bloomsbury.
x Fairclough, Gerard (4 September 2005). The Three Ways of Getting Things Done. Triarchy Press. ISBN 0-9550-0810-7.

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