Keith Grint is a major figure in the academic world on the subject of leadership, so a highly appropriate selection to write this short introduction to the topic of leadership for the Oxford University Press’s (OUP) ‘Very Short Introduction’ series. This book was written in 2010, when Grint was Professor of Public Leadership at Warwick University, a position he has now retired from. Prior to that he had been Professor of Defence Leadership at Cranfield University and before that Professor of Leadership Studies and Director of the Lancaster Leadership Centre at Lancaster University Management School. From 1992 to 2004 he taught at Oxford University. Keith spent 10 years in industry before switching to an academic career. He is a founding co-editor of the journal Leadership published by Sage, and founding co-organiser of the International Conference in Researching Leadership.
As the author notes at the outset the number of books written about the concept of leadership increases at a staggering rate, and yet we seem to never get closer to a generally agreed definition of what leadership is. This book serves a vital purpose in scanning the broad horizon of these different perspectives, and drawing the multitude of threads together to present a woven cloth of the field of leadership.
Leadership is a peculiar beast as a topic, most people implicitly acknowledge that leaders are necessary, and that good leadership makes a critical difference to outcomes, but there is no single definition of what leadership is, what good leadership looks like or how it can be achieved. The truth is, as the author makes clear, that leadership is, if not mercurial (though many leaders are), a shape-shifting, ever-changing set of responses to the current context and the qualities necessary to react appropriately to those changing contexts are far too long for any single person to be able to hold individually.
At the start of this short book Grint explores the old saw, the difference between leadership and management. He is quite direct in tackling this. Leaders are there to resolve emerging, unknown problems, most probably ‘wicked’ ones. That is those which do not have clear, linear solutions. If there is a known resolution to a problem, if it is an issue that has occurred before and needs a specific set of responses, then putting those responses in place is a managerial, logistical issue. Leaders have a different role, they need to identify a new method, or more plausibly, gather a team who can identify a new method to resolve new problems.
Grint breaks leadership down into four distinct groupings; leadership seen as being defined by being position-based, person-based, results-based and process-based. Over this he layers the question of what is leadership for, acknowledging the truth that it is nothing without followers and an objective. Though that objective can often be leadership itself, ie the attainment of power.
The author recognises that we are too often lured in by our leadership preference to resolving issues ‘hierarchists become addicted to command, egalitarians become addicted to collaborative leadership, and individualists become addicted to managing all problems as if they were all tame…. we become addicted to elegance when we ought to be cultivating a clumsy approach…’ The point being that different contexts require different and often iterative approaches, which most probably do not adhere to any single framework.
The core idea for the book is that leadership is a relational concept; you cannot be a leader without followers, and how those followers relate to the leader is fundamental to the leaders ability to lead. He makes clear that humans have a tendency to ascribe more responsibility and impact to leaders than they often deserve. Great outcomes come from good leadership supported by able and competent followers – but the followers rarely get a mention, all the plaudits tend to go to the leader at the top. And this fosters the leaders belief in themselves, and reduces their appetite for dissent so courting a circle of sycophantic lieutenants, which leads sooner or later to the leader’s hubris or laziness bringing failure – and the need for a new leader.
“So this issue is not ‘How should an organization find a leader who does not make mistakes’, but what kind of organization generates a supporting framework that prevents leaders making catastrophic mistakes…” Chapter 7 ‘ What about the followers?’ is the unsung hero of the book. Followers, their role and how to be a good one, is an area rarely explored or developed in organizations. Grint stresses that the key aptitude of a good follower is as a ‘constructive dissenter’. Someone who understands the objective and whose loyalty lies with the organization and not the leader, and is therefore able to support the leader when they see that organization, objective and leader are aligned, but is willing to call them out, politely and in a face-saving way, when they see these diverging. It was traditionally only the court jester who was able to contradict the King, but that was a powerful and valuable role – in today’s world the penalties for dissent are less life-threatening than in a medieval court, but the need for telling truth to power has not diminshed or got any easier.
Grint highlights the famous quote of Lord Acton that ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – and so raises karl Popper’s question ‘how can we stop our rulers ruining us?’, the answer lying with an adaptation of Burke’s (alleged) dictum ‘that it only takes for the good follower to do nothing for leadership to fail’. In today’s complex world leaders need to make sense of that complexity, and to do that requires a broad set of perspectives and data requiring honest input and feedback from many sources – it is the leader’s role to create the environment where that can occur, and foster the abilities of their subordinates to be able to challenge them.
This is a delightfully short book, but it encapsulates the heart of the leadership challenge and summarises a couple of centuries of thought (Chapters 3, 4 and 5 will give the reader the most concise and clear summary of the history of leadership they will need) and sets out the essenatial elements of the leadership framework with all the pros and cons of the arguments around traits, capacities, born/bred and more.
It has been said that the very best people in any chosen field frequently re-familiarise themselves with the basic primers in their topic, to prevent them falling down rabbit-holes of sophisticated complexities, and remind themselves of the critical basics of the subject. This book is therefore essential reading for both aspiring leaders as well as experienced ones.
Title: Leadership: A Very Short Introduction
Author/s Name/s: Keith Grint
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publishing Date: July, 2010
Number of Pages: 126
Author Knowledge Rating: 1-5 (based on their years of experience, academic expertise in subject areas, and exposure to cross-functional thinking in the area)
Readability: 1-5 score(1=dense and v academic; 5=frantic; page turner)
Appropriate Length: (1=could have been written in 25% of the length;5=could have been longer)
Core Idea Value: (1=nonsense (or entirely esoteric); 5=game-changer)