Headstart: Management – Sorry state of leadership

British businesses are still dominated by poor leadership, dogged by conservative thinking and an age-old reliance on hierarchical structures.

And, instead of inspirational leaders there are merely managers sitting atop a system that rewards risk aversion.

‘It is a sad picture,’ leadership guru Hilarie Owen said this week. ‘If you look today what you tend to see is management not leadership.’

Owen despairs at the level of leadership within business. In response, she has set up the Institute of Leadership, which officially opened for business on 31 January.

A non-profit making organisation, it aims to act as a catalyst for change by undertaking research and providing training programmes for individuals and organisations to develop leadership skills.

Among the training programmes on offer is one called Quest. This lasts six months and examines those taking part during courses outside the office and within their own organisation.

Owen wants companies to forget the traditional ways of behaving and ‘unleash leaders’ from their own staff.

In essence, this means allowing all staff to take risks, forgetting the blame culture and recognising that staff at all levels, not just the most senior, have potential.

‘Leadership isn’t about being at the top of a hierarchy, it is about the authentic expression of an individual. People think I am a manager then I must be a leader. That is not the case.’

This ‘authentic expression’ remains unused in many companies, says Owen, as most staff are too frightened to make suggestions or, do not feel it is their place to do so.

‘Leadership throughout is being totally suffocated. People won’t take risks if they are suffocated.’

Although her approach may seem theoretical, Owen can point to real life examples of good and bad in the economy.

Among the firms she admires for allowing risk-taking and innovation are, ‘it has broken the rules’, and Virgin. ‘There’s a buzz there,’ she said of Richard Branson’s empire. ‘People there are allowed to think and try new things.’

She has harsh words though for troubled high street retail giant, Marks and Spencer, which, she claims is a good example of the old school.

‘It is very authoritarian at the top. I know store managers who are frightened when they have visitors coming from head office. That is ridiculous,’ said Owen.

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