Leadership – A Cook’s Tour

Forrest Gump’s quote has absolutely nothing to do with leadership but something which best describes the approach I have taken in this article – it will hopefully provide a little bit of everything.

The starting point for this article is the question that I am sometimes asked about what is the most effective style of leadership? The simple answer is the one that best suits the individual. But of course it is more complex than that.

In answering this question, like a lot of you, I have been on the receiving end of a seemingly endless variety of leadership material and information: quotes, management texts, speeches and descriptions of leadership styles, etc.

“My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’– Forrest Gump.

With all this material and information out there it is possible to get overwhelmed by the potential number of things you have to be, do, read and take account of.

With this in mind I am going to attempt to cover some of this material in the article – a ‘Cook’s Tour’ of leadership.


Ok let’s open the batting with a great (but entirely predictable) list of ‘Top ten qualities that make a great leader’ from Forbes magazine: Honesty, Ability to delegate, Communication, Sense of Humour, Confidence, Commitment, Positive attitude, Creativity, Intuition, and Ability to Inspire. No surprises there and hard to disagree with.

For its part the military should know a thing or two about leadership – the US Army’s 11 ‘timeless’ principles of leadership are:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement.
  2. Be tactically and technically proficient.
  3. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions.
  4. Set the example.
  5. Know your people and look out for their welfare.
  6. Keep your people informed.
  7. Ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished.
  8. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people.
  9. Train your people as a team.
  10. Make sound and timely decisions.
  11. Employ your unit in accordance with its capabilities.

Apart from the need to be tactically proficient (though I have had some jobs where this would have definitely been a plus), these also seem to work, across-the-board.

This is what Virgin’s Richard Branson had to say in a recent interview about his top three principles:

  1. Listening is one of the most important skills that anyone can have.
  2. Learn: Learning and leadership go together.
  3. Laughter: My number one rule in business, and in life, is to enjoy what you do.

I particularly like the idea of laughter – it can make for a much happier and productive work-place.

A website called ‘Hub Pages’ identifies 10 Leadership Lessons from Moses: Wait for the Right Timing, Top Level Leaders Don’t Discount Their Own Abilities, Exemplify Humility by Listening to Advisors, Share Power and Responsibility, Mentor Other Potential Leaders, Exemplify Self-Control, Top Level Biblical Leaders Cultivate a Relationship with God, Top Level Leaders Intercede for Their People, Train Up Able Successors, and Leave A Written Legacy.

Like the list from the US Army, these all seem to work, universally, except, perhaps, for the need to cultivate a relationship with God, though, of course, some leaders would legitimately be able to claim this is part of their approach to leadership.

And how about this, from an E-zine called ‘Inc’ which observes that the most effective leaders embrace traits once considered feminine: Empathy, Vulnerability, Humility, Inclusiveness, Generosity, Balance and Patience. I’m not sure this really covers the field.

Finally, I will borrow from an article on leadership in the August/September 2014 edition of ‘The Actuary’, published by the Society of Actuaries, and written by actuary Nick Allen, FSA, MAAAA. He says that being a leader means: being Confident, Cool and Honest. I like that simple list.

As you well appreciate, there are many lists, from different perspectives, and there are common elements among each of them. Probably the best thing you can do is pick the descriptors that work for you.


When it comes to quotes on leadership Forbes magazine (again) corners the market. I have shamelessly mined their ‘100 best quotes’, and come up with 12 from great leaders themselves.

Benjamin Disraeli – I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper – You manage things; you lead people.

Napoleon Bonaparte – A leader is a dealer in hope. Aristotle – He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.

Publilius Syrus – Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

Tony Blair – The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.

Ovid – A ruler should be slow to punish and swift to reward.

General Dwight Eisenhower – Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

Bill Gates – As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.

Nelson Mandela – It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

Abraham Lincoln – Whatever you are, be a good one.

Michael Jordan – Earn your leadership every day.

Again you will see common cause between what this group of leaders thinks about leadership, and what you have to do to be a successful leader.


So much for the things you should do and say as a leader. How then should a leader look?

The recent September 27 edition of The Economist says that ‘Getting to the top is as much how you look as what you achieve’ (Schumpeter column, p. 67). It says that the ‘typical’ CEO is more than six feet tall, has a deep voice, a good posture, ‘a touch of grey in his thick lustrous hair’ (Oh to have thick lustrous hair!) and a fit body.

The point of the essay is that, even with the redistribution of power in human society between men and women, the West and the emerging world and geeks and non-geeks, the stereotypical boss still conforms to the description above. Thankfully this appears to be breaking down, albeit slowly.


shutterstock_123036292There are many different styles of leadership which have been identified, grouping them under three headings identified by German-American psychologist, Kurt Lewin, seems to work. Lewin’s categories resulted from leadership decision experiments he conducted in 1939, where he identified three different styles of leadership: autocratic, democratic and laissez-fair.

In the autocratic style, the leader takes decisions without consulting others. In Lewin’s experiments, he found that this caused (unsurprisingly) the most level of discontent. This style works when there is no need for input on the decision, where the decision would not change as a result of input, and where the motivation of people to carry out subsequent actions would not be affected whether they were or were not involved in the decision-making.

In the democratic style, the leader involves others in the decision-making, although the process for the final decision may vary from the leader having the final say to them facilitating consensus in the group. Democratic decision-making is usually appreciated by people, especially if they have been used to autocratic decisions with which they disagreed. It can be problematic when there are a wide range of opinions and there is no clear way of reaching an equitable final decision.

The laissez-faire style is to minimise the leader’s involvement in decision-making, allowing people to make their own decisions. This works best when people are capable and motivated in making their own decisions, and where there is no requirement for a central coordination, for example in sharing resources across a range of different people and groups.

I think this simple list works. Often we can complete our analysis of things and have too many categories
to choose from. The major observation I would make is that it’s important to adapt your style to suit the circumstances. The perpetual authoritarian will end up alienating people, being too democratic all the time can erode your authority, and always being laissez-faire might result in organisational chaos.


Type in ‘leadership’ into amazon.com.au and you get 24,001 hits for books alone! I almost don’t need to say anymore in terms of the volume of literature out there. The key question is: does reading any of them make you a better leader? The good ones probably help. My personal opinion is that you are better studying a great leader, rather than reading a management text book.

But if you really want a list of classic leadership books – try this one:

  • On Becoming A Leader by Warren G. Bennis
  • Leadership by James MacGregor Burns
  • Leadership Is An Art by Max De Pree
  • On Leadership by John William Gardner
  • Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life by Kevin Cashman
  • Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within by Robert E. Quinn
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t by Jim Collins
  • In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman
  • Why Leaders Can’t Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues by Warren G. Bennis
  • The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff
  • What Leaders Really Do by John Kotter


This is where we have to differentiate between speeches on leadership versus great speeches by leaders (the former seem to be few and far between and quite dull). Just as with leadership texts, it’s more instructive to listen to a really good speech (or read it).

I am going to identify two great speeches (quite different) which I think embody leadership characteristics. The first is by Elizabeth I, Queen of England, when she visited her troops in the field at Tilbury before they prepared for battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588.

In a short speech she (apparently) said, in part:

“And therefore I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too …”

Inspiring words from a leader, who showed that she was there, in the fight, with her subjects.

The second speech is by General Mark Welsh, Commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, speaking to 1,000 officer cadets at the US Air Force Academy, in 2011. It’s one of the best speeches I have heard because it’s so different from what you’d expect a military commander to say. Rather than being directive, Welsh is incredibly engaging and inspiring. If you don’t believe me, you might want to watch part of it http://vividmethod.com/the-best-leadership-speech-are-you-ready-to-lead.


‘Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal’ Vince Lombardi (American football player and coach).

While I don’t normally take advice from football coaches, I think Lombardi is correct. The only experience I can bring to bear on this subject is my time in the Australian Army where we were literally taught how to be effective leaders from the ground-up. It was always the case that some were better than others from the start (they were naturals), but ultimately the best leaders were those who consciously made a study of it, and practised what they had been taught.

Others of course may take a different view and say that leaders are born not made.


There is a lot of material available on leadership and that leadership is a very personal thing. My advice to anybody who has ever asked me what leadership style to adopt is cherry-pick from people who you admire, work out what approach works best for you, and adapt your style to suit the circumstances you face.

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