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Interviews with aspiring leaders often leave a ‘sense of dread’, opinion

Professor Jim Saker

There has been a lot of talk about leadership over the past few months and if one looks at the management bookshelves even more has been written.

I have often asked groups of students who they considered to be great leaders both globally and within the business world. The responses have been varied and have included religious leaders, alongside campaigners for different causes including civil and women’s rights.

The fascinating thing is that, when you start to interview people who aspire to be leaders, one is often left with a sense of dread.

John Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University have done several studies looking at confidence and competence. They have given their names to an effect which is described as ‘the tendency of people with low ability in a specific area to give overly positive assessments of this ability’.

Basically, people, especially men, are blissfully unaware of their incompetence. The double whammy is that their lack of intellectual and social skills not only stops them producing the correct responses, but deprives them of the expertise to recognise that they are not performing and that they are the cause.

This presents a major challenge as the stereotype of the leader is one who makes decisions with confidence which masks the level of incompetence behind the decisions made.

I have increasingly been drawn to the idea of humility underpinning the concept of servant leadership. The leader serving those who he or she leads.

The idea of listening to others and seeking advice seems alien to some leaders but it has to be the basis on which leadership is formed.

We live in a complex and multidimensional world where the understanding of differing perspectives is critical.

There are two quotes about leadership which summarise an attitude which, I think, should be embraced widely in today’s times.

  • Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
  • In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome meal.

These were both from Winston Churchill. As the First Sea Lord during World War I, he showed stunning incompetence in the Gallipoli Campaign which lead to 300,000 Allied casualties of which more than 56,000 were killed. He was subsequently demoted.

It can be argued that the balance between confidence and competence shifted as he moved from a failure to being regarded as a great leader in World War II.

Churchill recognised that his competence was linguistic, not in strategy development. President Kennedy said of him, ‘he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’.

Leaders need to serve those who follow them, acknowledging where they lack competence and being humble enough to recognise it.

As Nicky Gumbel, the founder of the Alpha Course, stated: ‘If service is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you.’

Author: Professor Jim Saker is director of the Centre for Automotive Management at Loughborough University’s Business School and an AM Awards judge. He is also president of the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI)

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