Leaders Talk Leadership: Top Executives Speak Their Minds

Bruce Lloyd (Professor of Strategic Management, South Bank University 5lloydb@sbu.ac.uk4)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 1 June 2003



Lloyd, B. (2003), "Leaders Talk Leadership: Top Executives Speak Their Minds", Foresight, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 54-54. https://doi.org/10.1108/fs.2003.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

What creates competitive advantage? Why do some companies stay on top for decades, while others decline into oblivion? How do companies identify, attract, develop and retain their best talent? How do CEOs lead in times of crisis?

These key questions are a central theme of this text, and have been widely explored by literally hundreds (if not thousands!) of management texts in recent decades, from In Search of Excellence through Built to Last to Good to be Great. (Jim Collins, one of the author’s of the last two mentioned books, also contributes to this volume.) But what makes this volume different? Is it worth the effort?

First it is based on interviews with hundreds of CEOs, senior managers, financiers, academics and leadership/management experts. Second, it attempts to produce a compendium of leadership features reflected by people who have repeatedly proven their credentials as leaders. A further theme of the book is to explore how companies can best transform themselves and keep their competitive edge in an ever shifting market place.

The 50 brief sections of two to four pages each are written by leading (almost entirely US) authorities. (Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Geoff Unwin of Cap Gemini, Linda Sanford of IBM, Ken Chenault of American Express to name but a few.) These sections are organised into five chapters (Leadership; Managing human capital; Establishing competitive advantage in today’s market environment; strategic change and transformation; and The stakeholder’s view). The insights developed from the interviews are reinforced by a Foreword (“Leading in the new century: storm clouds and silver linings on the horizon” by Jay A. Conger, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, London Business School); the Introduction (“Factors affecting leadership and human capital management” by Stephen A. Miles and Meredith D. Ashby, Business Analysts with Heidrick & Struggles International) and an Epilogue (“Optimizing human capital with people operating system approach”) by Conger, Miles and Ashby.

There is no doubt that the editors are able to tap into the collective wisdom of a group of accomplished individuals. But the key question is the extent to which even the individuals included can be really honest with their insights. Is it enough to say “The honesty of these leaders will no doubt resonate with the perceptions of other leaders …” (p. vi)?

Increasingly it is recognised that the foundation for long term organisational sustainability is values – and many of the “well led” companies of the 1990s were probably simply riding the wave of a booming economy and an indulgent stock market. The last couple of years have revealed more of the realities of the values agenda within business today. Leadership is now recognised as being less about charisma than ensuring that a wide range of positive, values driven, qualities are thoroughly embedded throughout the whole organisation.

The critical attributes of leadership talent were summarised (Epilogue, pp. 215‐17) as: continuous learning; courage; passion for creativity and innovation; proper selfishness; emotional quotient; communication; and strategic vision.

But it is not enough to argue “Talent is the DNA of high performance” (p. xxii). DNA produces its effect virtually automatically, but talent alone, without commitment, means little. “inspiring leaders”, “visionary leaders” and “integrity” are no longer words that can be used without provoking further questions that need to be answered: What do we find “Inspiring”? What are the values embedded in the “Vision”? How do we learn about “Integrity”? How do we find meaning in the product and the process? There are no simple answers to these questions; all we can ask is whether this book helps us on this journey. It is by no means the last word on the subject but it can help us face, if not move, in the right direction. The most problematic area is, as always, that writing about these issues is the easy part; effectively putting the ideas into practice is what is really difficult. Today, more than ever, it is not “what you say” that people take note of, but “what you do.” At least an overarching theme that emerges again and again from the book is that the greatest single asset of any organisation is its human capital. If only that was reflected more in actions – and not just words!

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