Leaders require self-belief and a tendency to take themselves very seriously but they don’t necessarily need to be smart, says Stewart Gowans
There are probably more theories about leadership than leaders. Entire continents of trees have met their death in the cause of books that try to identify what makes a good leader.
One of the longest-held theories about leadership is The Great Man Theory. Firstly, let me apologise to women: this theory was formulated when only men were thought to be capable of leadership. Today, it should be called The Great Person Theory.
Mrs Thatcher challenged the Great Man Theory, being, as she was, a woman. Younger readers may have to Google Mrs Thatcher: she was very big in the 1980s (a bit like Duran Duran, only she wore less make-up)In her 10 years as PM she scared the pants off everyone, dominating the political scene with a leadership style best encapsulated in the phrase, “I’m right, and everyone else is wrong”.
In the end, it all got a bit out of hand and, in an uncanny replay of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, was stabbed in the back by her colleagues. Whether Mrs T was a good, bad or even great leader will be judged by history, but she had many of the traits necessary for leadership. Most notably, she didn’t go in for self-doubt. Most leaders don’t do self-doubt: they do self-belief; they have egos – and some have egomania.
Appearance also comes into the debate. Research shows that good-looking people earn more, have more sex and always find parking spaces. In today’s ultra-visual world it’s often said that no one can become a leader if they have some physical trait that makes them less than conventionally attractive, such as being ginger or overweight. This is nonsense, as a quick glance at today’s leaders shows. Richard Branson is, of course, gorgeous; but David Cameron’s face looks like it’s been squeezed out of plasticine and Ed Milliband acknowledges that he looks like Wallace from Wallace & Gromit. A full head of hair is often thought to be a requisite for success, but this is also rubbish. Prince William is fast losing his hair and yet – if he keeps passing the rigorous Monarchy exams – he will be King one day.
No laughing matter
Being funny is a clear disadvantage. Leaders must be serious. Gordon Brown, for example, never smiled. Actually, that’s not true; I know someone who worked with him, and they said that Gordon smiled first thing every morning – just to get it over with. Gordon was right not to smile or try to be humorous; no one wants a jokey or funny leader.
I once interviewed an industrialist who we shall call “Lord Bufton”. The interview took place in the noisy foyer of a hotel and I suggested we go up a short flight of stairs to the mezzanine where it was quieter. He looked at me horrified and said, “Lord Bufton doesn’t do stairs”. I knew then that I was dealing with someone whose ego outweighed his intelligence by several kilos.
Referring to yourself in the third person is a sure sign of egomania. I once interviewed an industrialist who we shall call “Lord Bufton”. The interview took place in the noisy foyer of a hotel and I suggested we go up a short flight of stairs to the mezzanine where it was quieter. He looked at me horrified and said, “Lord Bufton doesn’t do stairs”. I knew then that I was dealing with someone whose ego outweighed his intelligence by several kilos.
Which leads me to brains: do you need to be bright to be a successful leader? Not necessarily; I’ve met lots of business leaders, and have always thought that if ignorance is bliss, many of them must be very happy indeed. With deep regret, I have to conclude that stupidity combined with arrogance and a huge ego will get you a very long way indeed.
Does ego matter? Oh yes it does. In Daniel Goleman’s Leadership That Gets Results – a Harvard Business Review study involving over 3,000 middle-level managers, which measured leadership’s effect on bottom-line profitability – it was found that a manager’s leadership style was responsible for 30% of the company’s profitability.
What about me: do I qualify as an egomaniac? I refer you to my latest book, Famous People Who Have Met Me. The comedian Tim Minchin once said that his last words would probably be, “Who will the world revolve around now?” I certainly feel the same. Not everything is about me, of course; but let’s face it, most things are.