If all the fashionable books, articles, doctoral theses and consultants' reports on leadership were laid end-to-end they would cover all the catwalks in the world and more. Reflecting this, the first paragraph of Writers on Leadership states: "In 1996 a staggering total of 187 books and articles were published with the word 'leadership' in their title; and this does not preclude the many manuscripts that were about the subject but did not mention the dreaded word."
It is an inauspicious opening. Why John van Maurik chose 1996 is not explained; I suspect he means "include" not "preclude"; and his 187 books and articles constitute but a thimbleful of the works now available. Enter the keyword "leadership" on amazon.com and up will pop 2,139 tomes for you to scroll through.
Do we really need another? This book assesses the work of more than 30 leadership gurus. Most of their theories are not that dissimilar. Some gurus clothe their theories in different words, some do not even bother with this. In the hip language of leadership studies you can get a long way by repeating half-a-dozen key words - vision, integrity, intuitive, team, wise and empower. "A leader is a person with vision and integrity, who is wise, intuitive and empowers his team", is a winning sentence in this world.
The repetition makes Writers on Leadership a tough read. As each new theory comes under the spotlight, you almost feel the author's increasing desperation. He tries to be objective, but as a critic he suffers from a serious disadvantage - he hates to criticise. Maybe van Maurik knows most of the gurus personally, or maybe he is just a nice bloke. Either way, his book has a saccharine flavour and lacks bite.
Still, it is a useful guide for anyone seeking a summary of the mind-numbing torrent flooding academic and management circles. But the bottom line is that leadership, like most human traits, is part nurture, part nature and part happenstance. Churchill manifestly had the aptitude. He had been trained, and he had trained himself by studying history's leaders. But had he not become prime minister in 1940, would we now think of him as a great leader - or as a failed minor politician?
There is a massive amount of luck in the leadership game. Van Maurik and his gurus focus on the nurturing of leadership, touch upon the inheritability of leadership, but ignore the essential role of luck. This means that most of them get their post hocs badly mixed up with their propter hocs - not something a smart guru should do.
Winston Fletcher is chairman, The Royal Institution.
Writers on Leadership. First edition
Author - John van Maurik
ISBN - 0 14 029305 1
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 248