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Should we kill the 'cult of the leader'?

Matt Chittock

Steve Jobs

From Steve Jobs to Alan Sugar and Michelle Mone – are today’s leadership role models really good for business? Matt Chittock investigates

Here’s a quick thought experiment for you. Could you imagine attending a management training course without hearing an inspirational quote attributed to Steve Jobs – or a case study explaining the success of Apple?

Jobs has latterly joined the canon of management role models who can always be relied on for a zingy quote or an exciting story to enliven a dull training day.

Just his name brings something to a session that can be all too rare in the business world: a bit of star power. After all, the select band of role models which he leads are more like celebrities than CEOs.

They’re regulars on TV (like Alan Sugar and Donald Trump) and the basis of big budget Hollywood movies (like Mark Zuckerberg or Jobs). For trainers, they’re shorthand for creativity, persistence and innovation.

But while that’s all well and good – can they really teach us anything useful about modern management?

Magic moments

It’s natural that managers want to bring the kind of magic to their companies that Jobs brought to Apple. But, in reality, following his management practices would probably win you a P45 rather than plaudits.

Walter Isaacson’s excellent autobiography reveals how Jobs could behave like an overgrown toddler in the office, often bursting into tears if he couldn’t get his own way.

Meanwhile, he fired employees at will and shouted down anyone he believed couldn’t reach the standards he demanded. Even Jonathan Ive, his beloved design chief, said that for Jobs “the normal rules of social engagement don’t apply”.

Roger Delves, director of the Masters and Management course at Ashridge Business School, says that this trademark larger-than-life presence highlights the problems surrounding these new role models.

Larger than life leaders

“All of these people are larger than life leaders,” he says. “They’re highly ambitious and driven people. And while they might be inspirational they inspire people in order to have them meet their goals and objectives.

“Now actually, that’s quite an uncomfortable way to be led. Because although you are being regularly inspired, you’re not having a sense that you are cared for or nurtured. Basically, you are part of an unstoppable force being driven from behind and pulled from in front by this uber-personality.”

According to Delves, in the day-to-day business world staff don’t like to be led by these kind of leaders. They want managers who are much more ‘other-regarding’ and will happily listen to what you did with your family over the weekend rather than yelling at you for not spending all Sunday working.

Alpha personalities

Another problem with the cult of management role models is that these alpha personalities are already working from a position of absolute power.

So when Richard Branson announces that we should ‘Screw Business as Usual’ (the title of his best-selling management tome) he has the authority that comes from millions of pounds in the bank and years of experience behind him.

If you announced something like that in your Monday morning catch-up meeting the chances are that staff might not be as appreciative as those at Virgin.

“With these role models, immediately you’re narrowing your frame of reference to very, very senior people,” says Delves. “When you’re talking about these people what they say is always being backed up by huge amounts of authority and power. So, the lessons of leadership that can be drawn from them are extremely limited.”

The reality of contemporary management is also much more complex than a simple top-down trickle of information, persuasion and responsibility. Delves says that most of the leadership that people get involved with at work is much more democratic – and anything but linear.

For instance, staff might be managers in one context and team members in another, depending on their role and where they sit in the organisation.

So what can we do to counter high profile leaders’ illusionary (though seductive) view of management?

Delves suggests building profiles of potential role models based on authentic leadership showcasing leaders that act with integrity.

Leaders among us

Kathryn Nawrockyi, director of Opportunity Now – the campaign for gender diversity from Business in the Community – says that we should also try to take our eyes off the top when looking for models of leadership.

“I think that we can be inspired by other people in the office – rather than just those that sit at the top – and learn from what they do,” she says. “We need to learn to take small nuggets of inspiration from all kinds of leaders.”

Therein lies the rub. Steve Jobs might have been a problematic manager – but he gives far better inspirational quotes than Jane in accounts.

So maybe it’s not about rejecting charismatic leaders altogether. Perhaps we should seek the likes of Jobs for the kind of everyday inspiration that slots well into a Power Point slide.

But then, once inspired, we should look to our experienced colleagues to work out what comes next.


  • Helen Mayson

    Glad you guys enjoyed this one! I think Martyn makes a good point - things that leaders and managers are required to do can be quite different. I think all great managers can become strong leaders too, but can all great leaders be effective managers? I'm not so sure, in my personal opinion.

    Thanks for contributing to the debate everyone.

  • David Cotton

    I struggle with the cult of the celebrity leader. Most of the best leaders I meet are humble, quietly self-assured and simply get on with the job. They are not, as are those in the article, self-seeking self-publicists. The celebrity leaders are not, as Martyn Fletcher indicates, managers, and would struggle to take the role of managers.  The best leaders are collaborative, good listeners who surround themselves with people better than them in their specialised fields. They synthesise information to inform good decision-making, whether made alone or with those who contributed to the thinking process.  There's a danger of encouraging mini-dictatorships which may be great in the initial stages of creating a business but tend not to work well long term.    

  • Sarah Harvey

    The people being quoted here have been successful in business so they have earned the right to be listened to.  It is interesting to know what made them tick, how did they succeed etc but it doesn't mean they were always right and it certainly doesn't mean they were the perfect role models for leadership.  However what these people managed to do (flaws and all) was inspire people to follow them.. and you can't be a leader without having any followers.

  • Martyn Fletcher

    An interesting and stimulating article. In my reading what I was taken by, was the way the author and ILM have interchanged the titles LEADER and MANAGER. These are very different traits. The celebrity names listed are leaders and tend to surround themselves with managers who are better placed at delivering the day to day business and implementing the vision of the leader. Of course people have strengths in both areas to a differing degree, and I guess the celebrity leaders amplify their leadership, maybe to over compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.

  • Christopher Hughes

    For an organisation whose raison d'etre is leadership and management, it's an unusual question but an important one.   The sort of leadership that is being questioned here is not even simply proactive, it's dictatorship. And of course it's successful because all criticism is removed from the equation (actually, there is no equation!).   Modern leadership and management is about encouraging cooperation across the whole organisation, including decision making. It's too slow for either the fast buck or the media headline but its long term unification values are probably immeasurable, except in the abundance of celebratory smiles.

  • Andrew De Caso

    A very interesting and insightful article.  Having worked in an entrepreneurial business I can relate to many of the comments made.  It is the people that are unknown that demonstrate many attributes of leadership and very rarely those that are the figureheads of the organisation.  In many a company manifesto you will see it written, that our people and customers are at the forefront of our business.  In reality revenue growth, cost cutting and profits soon become the order of the day and in most instances people and customers/service become secondary.  

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