Debate: The changing face of the leader

By on June 4, 2013

Whether it’s managing a far-flung team, projecting the right values or venturing onto Twitter, the challenges facing those at the top of business have never been more various. In association with Unilever, MT debates the evolving nature of leadership.

In association with Unilever, MT gathered eight business leaders to discuss whether leaders are born or made.

On the panel were: Andrew Saunders, deputy editor, MT; Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School; Leena Nair, SVP, leadership and organisational development, Unilever; Caroline Plumb, co-founder and CEO, Fresh Minds Group;Peter Earl, CEO, Rurelec; Srikanth Iyengar, head of UK and global head of sales, Infosys; Andrew Peters; divisional director, Siemens Industry;Andrew St George, St George Partners and author of The Royal Navy Way of Leadership; and Doug Baillie, chief HR officer, Unilever. 

Andrew Saunders: It’s axiomatic that the best leaders – whether in business, politics, sport or whatever it may be – are born to the task. Cometh the hour, cometh the Steve Jobs, Marjorie Scardino or Nelson Mandela. But is this really the case? For every natural born entrepreneur or chief executive, there are many others for whom the skills and aptitudes required for leadership have had to be learned. Add in the challenges of keeping the talent pipeline fully supplied in high-growth emerging markets and the case for developing your own people becomes even more compelling. So are leaders born or made? And why do we need them?

Nigel Nicholson: You can have leadership without leaders. A flock of birds rising from the ground doesn’t need to have a leader. But we do seem to have a preference for people telling us what to do. The problem is that we’ve elevated leaders to this iconic status. There’s a danger of saying that every organisation needs a charismatic leader. On the whole, they serve society rather poorly. Often, we want someone who can acknowledge flaws and interact easily with us.

Leena Nair:  There are times when leadership comes out of all of us. A few years ago, some of my team and I were caught up in the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. We were stuck inside, debris was falling and people were screaming. But a young member of staff rose to the situation and took care of us. This 22-year-old woman guided us through the hotel and led us to safety. Nothing in her training had ever taught her how to respond in a situation like that, but she was calm, composed and unflappable. The way she exerted her authority was amazing. She showed me a lesson in leadership – you can lead in the moment, with your heart.

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