Neil McLennan: Leadership Values - the who and the how

Neil McLennan

In the first article in this series exploring wider issues around leadership, we looked at “what is leadership?” The definition is clear but we explored whether it matched our modern perceptions of what leadership is about or should be about.

In this article we will look at the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of leadership in broad terms. The current events of the US Presidential election, to some, show that anyone can be President. History perhaps tells us, if the man born in a log cabin can make it to the top, then anyone can.

But is it really true that anyone can make it to the top? I have recently returned from America and the people I spoke to only used one word to describe the current campaign–“embarrassing”.

American people I spoke within the traditional Republican areas in the south and traditional Democratic voters in the north east suggested that they might not vote at all. For those who were voting, their vote was more about who they did not want elected in, rather than any strong affiliation to one candidate.

However, both candidates got into these positions. Trump though success in business and Clinton through connectionsbut also her own record in public office. Getting into the top job is another matter and succeeding there is another matter.

Drawing from the last article we should remind ourselves that in the first instance, they have put themselves forward. In so many walks of life a vacuum exists and the leader is the one who steps into that domain (either willingly of coerced). It was refreshing to see a secondary school engender that spirit of “anything is possible” with its students and encouragingthem that “if you are not at the start line, then you cannot win the race.”

Only last week the Scottish Conservative Leader, and Scottish Politician of the Year, Ruth Davidson had one message for anyone considering a career in politics, “get involved.” Maybe there needs to be more of this spirit in modern society - the leader figures steps forward in the first instance.

Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s Paris speech in 1910:-
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

However, as the American elections prove, the issue for Americans is perhaps less so who the candidates are as to what they stand for. And so a central component of leadership comes to the fore. The character assassinations, the analysis of how they act and have behaved all focussed back on one core issue - values.

Having recently published a new eBook on values, it has been fascinating to speak with so many people across the business community in Scotland about their value base and how they developed a core set of values.

Those interviewed in the book gave willingly of their time, experience and story. What has emerged is a useful mapping of value considerations across modern Scotland. The truth is, there is no right or wrong with values. However, they are clear indicators for another person of the value and worth they place in you. This is all the more so in leadership positions.

Whilst the winner of the American election will assume power, their ability to progress successfully as a leader will be largely dictated by how they behave and the values they hold to amongst other variables. However, if values accord then there is more chance of success. For the top leadership position perhaps does not carry as much power as we might assume.

Barack Obama’s inability to progress with legislative changes is evidence of this point. Whilst the political process can hold a leader back, so too can the other agencies of power who might even hold ultimate power. The CIA for one and the FBI another within the American system, the latter of which has been heavily involved in the finishing stages of this election process.

And whilst other institutions hold power, the truth is (and should be in a democratic system), real and sustained power comes from the people and is held within the people (at least in the modern democratic context). Many examples of this can be seen in American politics - the Vietnam War policy for one where students, African Americans, the media, the unions and women were all key influencers on changing leader’s direction. This links back to our assumption in the first article that leaders need a followership. In actual fact, many of the best leaders simply lead in the direction the momentum is moving towards.

Churchill is an example of the leader being the bobbing cork in the waves of the backbenches thrown ashore by the crisis tide of war and political vacuum. His services welcome during the storm of troubles and then slowly slipped away again by the calmer tides of the post-war era when the need for his particular style of leadership was no longer needed nor wanted.

And so, returning to Britain, at this time of Remembrance we see many examples of leadership being shared.

Medal winners, heroes and leaders from various conflicts have emerged from villages and towns across our country. Manyof the revered never in leadership positions before. They took on leadership roles and performed heroic deeds in the heat of battle. If we continue on the theme that leaders need followers, I ask two questions for reflection:-

• Would you follow Trump or Clinton “over the top” into battle?
• Would you follow the leadership example you are setting for yourself?

Other questions coming to the surface from this through piece include:-

• How important is social capital in the success of leadership?
• What values do others see in you and your leadership style?

As a final question:-

Is the definition of leadership that we explored in the first article a suitable one in the modern era and does it reflect the reality of what we would want from our leadership figures?

In the modern era the position and title is not enough, the values by which you lead are all important if anything is to be achieved.

Neil McLennan is Director of Leadership Programmes at the University of Aberdeen. The MSc Leadership in Profession Contexts programme caters for middle level leaders through to Headteachers and senior officers.

More details on University of Aberdeen leadership courses can be found at:-
More details of Neil’s latest publication, on values based leadership, can be found at:-