In a few choice sentences in Mrs Warren's Profession , George Bernard Shaw summed up what he thought leadership was all about: "People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them."
This supports the underlying premise of Keith Grint's book The Arts of Leadership , that leadership is an art rather than a science, or, as he puts it, "an ensemble of arts". He means that when we consider leadership we are exploring "how four particular arts mirror four of the central features of leadership: the invention of an identity, the formulation of a strategic vision, the construction of organisational tactics, and the deployment of persuasive mechanisms to ensure followers actually follow." He builds a picture of leadership by exploring the inter-relationships between these characteristics, which reflect the fundamental questions in any situation requiring leadership: who, what, how and why.
His book is well written, weaving historical and sociological perspectives in an effort to understand the "process" of leadership and its characteristics. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which comprises of four chapters that explore "parallel leadership situations". This part contrasts the differences in style in two parallel leadership scenarios, starting in the business arena with Freddie Laker's Skytrain and Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic. Grint then moves to the politics of the 18th century by assessing two naval mutinies (Spithead off Portsmouth and Nore off Sheerness) around the same time in England in 1797, highlighting how leadership played a critical role in the success of one and in the failure of the other. The author then moves to the 19th century to the differential impact of Florence Nightingale's attempt to introduce social change in the organisation of hospital nursing in the Crimea and then in England after her experiences in the Crimea. Finally, he examines military leadership in the 19th century in southern Africa and the sources of success and failure in two battles with the Zulus. This is truly a voyage of remarkable insight into comparative success and failure situations in different contexts, emphasising some of the central features of his leadership theory described earlier in the book. This is not a simple read, in the sense of being a traditional management book. It is steeped in social and political history, which makes it unique and, for any managers who are students of history, a wonderful excursion.
The second section of the book, entitled "Situating extreme leaders", attempts to explore the author's four central features of leadership by examining the careers and approaches of individuals he perceives to be influential in their respective fields: Henry Ford, Horatio Nelson, Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King. We have an analysis of a very successful businessman, a revered admiral, a political leader who brought countries to their proverbial "knees through mass destruction and genocide", and a civil rights leader who changed race relations for black Americans. The last chapter summarises the author's view of leadership in this new millennium. These chapters are, once again, loaded with historical detail to highlight the "who", "what", "how" and "why" of leadership in different contexts.
Having explored the historical successes and failures of leaders in radically different situations over the past couple of centuries, the author comes to the conclusion that although all human groups and organisations need someone to take responsibility for the direction of their activities, the successful leader is the one who does not demand compliance from his/her subordinates. The logic of his interesting argument goes something like the following: the most successful leaders appear to be those who cultivate the least compliant followers for when leaders err - and they always do - the leader with compliant followers will fail. Leaders who make mistakes that can be resolved by their subordinates are more likely to succeed. Grint goes further to say that perhaps the essence of leadership can be found in those leaders, from whatever walk of life, who develop their subordinates in such a way that they have the freedom to, as the author uniquely suggests, "resolve the problems leaders have caused or cannot resolve, but publicly deny their intervention". Leaders, in other words, who understand their own vulnerability and weaknesses and are "responsible" to their subordinates, are most likely to succeed.
This book is not an easy read, but it is a fascinating, illuminating and absorbing one. The reader must be interested in history and be prepared to appreciate that the behaviour of leaders in the past can enlighten our current attitudes and practices and can contribute to understanding how organisations should be managed in the future.
Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, Manchester School of Management, UMIST.
The Arts of Leadership
Author - Keith Grint
ISBN - 0 19 829445
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £48.00
Pages - 440