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Leadership gurus

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A look at characteristics of leaders and approaches to leadership and guidance from some key leadership gurus.

Over the last 50 years or so, different approaches to leadership have emerged through various phases, usually overlapping.

Characteristics of leaders

The general direction in which these have moved can be described as a shift from seeking the characteristics of the 'perfect leader':

  • multi-talented
  • heroic
  • hierarchical
  • using military figures as examples

towards a more human leader:

  • modest
  • vulnerable
  • working through a team of followers
  • welcoming their diversity and using their complementary skills.

Approaches to leadership

As thinking about leadership has developed, it has gone through four main approaches:

  • traits of a leader: what you ARE - the abilities you were born with
  • behavioural: what you DO - so leadership can be learned
  • contingency: what you DO - varies according to the situation and your followers
  • transformational: what you CREATE - derived from your beliefs.

The transformational approach is the most commonly accepted theory at present but watch this space!

The gurus

Some writers have produced fresh thinking on leadership which has influenced managers in many organisations. We profile some of these writers here:

If you have any favourites do put them forward in a discussion on The role of the leader forum.

John Adair

The father of action-centred leadership, a behavioural approach to being an effective leader.

In the 1960s John Adair was responsible for training future officers at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He pointed out the problems of listing abstract 'qualities' of leadership such as enthusiasm, integrity, etc – people couldn’t agree on the lists and if you weren’t born with these qualities, bad luck.

Instead he focused on behaviours: what should a leader do?

Action-centred leadership

He produced a very simple model which he called action-centred leadership (ACL), to distinguish it from the qualities-centred method.  A leader must make the task really clear and check that everyone understands their part in it; must develop their people into a true team, helping each other; and must be aware of every person as an individual, so that the leader can know what makes each of them tick.

The action-centre leadership model

Action-centred learning model

On the model you notice that the three circles (task, team and individual) overlap. So if a new recruit is welcomed and encouraged, they will quickly make their contribution to the task and begin to be a valued member of the team. The three circles model helps a leader to put their energies into whichever element needs most attention – sometimes it will be the team’s morale, sometimes changing the nature of the task, and so on.

ACL has not only changed the way officers lead, but has been used by thousands of managers in all sectors. Its strength lies in its simplicity.

Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California, is well known for the distinctions that he draws between management and leadership.

Bennis’s definition of leadership is: “the capacity to create a compelling vision, translate it into action and sustain it.”

In his book 'On Becoming a Leader' he says that there are three reasons why leadership is important: "The leader is responsible for organisational effectiveness, for providing stability to the organisation, and integrity within it."

Career beginnings

Bennis became interested in the topic of leadership during the second world war when he was the youngest American infantry officer in Europe. He also noticed the difference between his twin brothers, one being a natural leader and the other not!

Early in Bennis' career, Douglas McGregor was his mentor. McGregor, an American academic, was best known for his book 'The Human Side of Enterprise' (McGraw-Hill, 1960) in which he contrasted the Theory X approach to leadership, which stressed that people are reluctant to learn and need to be coerced into co-operating, with Theory Y which relied on people’s natural goodwill and desire to operate at their best.

Bennis first became noticed in the 1960s with his article 'The Revisionist Theory of Leadership' published in Harvard Business Review (volume 39). In the article he challenged the prevailing wisdom for powerful leaders and pointed out that democratic leaders were more capable of handling complexity and change.

A leader in leadership

For seven years Bennis was President of the University of Cincinatti, having the opportunity to put his leadership concepts into practice. He has advised four presidents of the United States and has been described as “a leader in leadership” by both the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

In addition to his current role at the University of Southern California, Bennis is also Visiting Professor of Leadership at the University of Exeter, where he is a colleague of John Adair.

Principles of leadership

Bennis writes that effective leadership is based on four key principles:

  • management of attention: the need for a vision to focus minds
  • management of meaning: the need to communicate the vision
  • management of trust: the need to be consistent and honest 
  • management of self: the need to be aware of one’s weaknesses.

Management versus leadership

Bennis is particularly well known for the distinctions that he draws between management and leadership:

  • managers do things right, leaders do the right thing
  • the manager asks how and when, the leader asks what and why.

His analysis of failing organisations is that they are usually over-managed and under-led.

Some of the contrasts that he draws seem forced, as though he is trying to belittle management. For example:

  • leaders master the context, managers surrender to it
  • the manager is a copy, the leader is an original
  • the manager accepts the status quo, the leader challenges it.

But fellow leadership guru Charles Handy acknowledges Bennis for “having changed my life”. In his book 'The Handy Guide to the Gurus of Management' (BBC World Service), Handy says that he learned from Bennis that “the real challenge of our future societies is to harness the talent and skills of every individual in ways that could benefit us all.”

Types of learning

Bennis selects three types of learning which mould leaders:

  • maintenance learning, which provides methods to deal with recurring situations
  • shock learning, when you are overcome by events
  • innovative learning, when you are proactive and shape events.

He stresses the need to use both left and right brain, to operate in what he calls 'whole-brain mode'.

Kouzes and Pousner

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner approach leadership as a measurable, learnable and teachable set of behaviours.

Kouzes and Posner are academics based at Santa Clara University in California. They were strongly influenced by the book 'In Search of Excellence' by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman.

Kouzes and Posner started their research in 1983, with the aim of finding out what contributes to people operating at their personal best in leadership situations. Asking the same questions of everyone they interviewed, their initial survey covered 550 encounters. They later extended the survey to cover a range of sectors.

They distilled the results of their research into a book, 'The Leadership Challenge', which has sold more than 1.4 million copies in 12 languages.

Leadership practices

Their message is that there are five “practices of exemplary leadership”:

  • model the way
  • inspire a shared vision
  • challenge the process
  • enable others to act
  • encourage the heart.

Each of these practices is developed further into two commitments: for example under “Enable others to act” the commitments are:

  • foster collaboration by promoting co-operative goals and building trust
  • strengthen others by sharing power and discretion.

Everyday heroes

Kouzes and Posner maintain that leadership is essentially a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow. They salute “everyday heroes”, not just those people at the top of their organisations. For this they draw on many real-life individuals, ranging from an officer in the Indian navy to the founder of an environmental charity.

An interesting critique of Kouzes and Posner’s message comes from Mitch McCrimmon, who claims that they deal only with values-leadership and ignore thought-leadership. His view is that thought-leadership has nothing to do with managing people, rather it is about innovation and thinking outside the box. He also says that thought-leadership has immediate impact in contrast to values-leadership which involves taking people on a journey. For more information, see Mitch McCrimmon's articles on and his Leaders Direct website.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has wide-ranging interests including leadership, strategy, empowerment, work-life balance and the influence of technology on business.

The Times rated Kanter as one of the 50 most powerful women in the world. She has 22 honorary degrees and has published 17 books. She has also spoken at the World Economic Forum at Davos.

Change management

One of Kanter's favourite themes is the management of change. She contrasts the change journeys of leaders and laggards. For laggards there is denial, then anger and blame, followed by cosmetic change. For leaders, there is curiosity and getting the feel of the new situation, then examining their own response to change and finally the encouragement of many simultaneous projects which reshape the organisation.  


In her book 'Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End (Amazon) Kanter writes:

“Confidence has to stand on a firm foundation. The three cornerstones of that foundation are:

  • accountability: you’ve examined the facts and you’ve worked hard to improve your abilities, so you know you can take responsibility in a given situation and be accountable for performance
  • collaboration: you support and are supported by the people around you
  • initiative: translates to an action you can take with the sense that you’re in control of it.

Confidence in others

She goes on to clarify the role that confidence plays in leadership:

“Self-confidence is not the real secret of leadership. The more essential ingredient is confidence in other people. One person may have the top title and the official authority, but their effectiveness is often a function of the quality of all the other people who stand beside them to exercise leadership.

Kanter has great faith in the untapped potential of employees and the opportunities for empowerment. She says: “A vision is not just a picture of what could be. It is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more.”

Charles Handy

Charles Handy is an Irish author/philosopher specialising in organisational behaviour and management.

Charles Handy started his career in Shell at a time when it was common to have a career for life in a large multinational. After a few years he left and gained an MBA degree at Sloan Business School in the United States. He became one of the founders of the London Business School; later he spent four years as Warden of St George’s House, Windsor Castle, chairing seminars for leaders on ethical issues.

He is best known as a writer.  His first book, Understanding Organizations (Amazon), was published in 1976 and he later wrote Understanding Voluntary Organizations: How to Make Them Function Effectively (Amazon).  In this book he suggested that there are four styles of organisations, each of which can be fit for purpose.  

Club culture

The club culture is like an extension of the organisation’s founder, strongly based on his or her personality. The club is good at fast response, with short lines of communication.

Role culture

The role culture is much more procedural; it is managed rather than led; “the organisation is a piece of construction engineering”.  These organisations find it hard to cope with change: “If it’s not in the rule book, they have to wait for the rule book to be rewritten before they can act.”

Task culture

The task culture is all about groups. It thrives in situations where problem-solving is the key activity. It tends to be warm and friendly and suits young, lively people.

Person culture

The person culture makes the organisation a resource for individuals’ talents. People’s professional skills are paramount.  Organisations such as architects’ practices and legal chambers are typical.


Handy is skilled at using vivid metaphors. In discussing career paths he contrasts the elephant and the flea – fleas being independent professionals who work for a portfolio of clients rather than building their whole career with one corporate elephant. He coined the term “shamrock organisation” in which a shrinking core of professionals are supported by freelancers, part timers and temporary staff.

In his citation as one of the world’s top 50 business thinkers, reading Charles Handy’s books has been described as like having a conversation in a leafy vicarage on a Sunday afternoon. He regards himself as a social philosopher. Examples of his stance are:

  • The purpose of business is not to make money but to do something that is more useful to more people than anybody else. But most capitalists don’t think about it that way.
  • A company ought to be a community: a community that you belong to, like a village. Nobody owns a village – you are a member and you have rights.
  • Through the richness of his own career and the depth of his thinking, Handy forces us to get back to fundamentals - what are organisations for?

Further reading 

John Adair

To read more about ACL, see John Adair’s books such as:

Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis' books include:

  • Leaders (Harper & Row, 1985, with Burt Nanus)
  • An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change (Addison-Wesley, 1993)
  • Leaders – Strategies for Taking Charge (with Burt Nanus; HarperCollins, 2003)

Kouzes and Posner

Kouzes and Posner's website is The Leadership Challenge

Their books include:

  • The Leadership Challenge third edition (2003), Jossey-Bass
  • Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it, revised edition (2003), John Wiley & Sons
  • Encouraging the Heart Workbook (2006), Pfeiffer.

They also run workshops and have produced The Leadership Challenge Leadership Practices Inventory, a type of 360 degrees instrument.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Books and other works by Kanter include:

  • Men and Women of the Corporation (Basic Books 1977), dealing with corporate careers and success factors
  • The Tale of O: On being different (Goodmeasure, Inc 1979), video on the topic of diversity
  • The Change Masters (Simon & Schuster 1983), The Financial Times rated this as one of the most influential business books of the 20th century
  • When Giants Learn to Dance (Simon & Schuster 1989), dealing with new competitive issues
  • Evolve! Succeeding in the digital culture of tomorrow (Harvard Business School Press 2001), on the topic of technology and business
  • Confidence, How winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end' (Random House, 2004)

Her current book, Supercorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good (Amazon), was published in 2010.

Charles Handy

Charles Handy's books include:

Have your say

Who do you think the gurus of leadership are? Start a conversation or ask a question on the Role of the leader forum.

Page last edited Jul 05, 2017

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