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Sunday, 19 December 2010

New Ideas About Leadership? They're Nearly 2,500 Years Old!

Many of the social media gurus on leadership seem to think that their ideas are brand new, radical, revolutionary and innovative.

As it happens, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384BC-322BC) suggested that there are three forms of rule: the rule of one, the rule of the few and the rule of the many.  A student of Plato, he opined that the 'rule of one' was necessary to prevent anarchy and mob rule.  Now that is radical.

In those years and subsequently during the rise of Rome, the 'rule of one' came into prominence wth emperors like Augustus, Claudius and the unlamented Caligula ruling.  So what happened to the rule of the few and the rule of the many?

It seems that even if there were a valid example of the 'rule of the many', in very short order a leader emerges to impose the 'rule of one'.   Post 1917 Russia is a classic example where the revolution of the masses spawned Stalin's 'rule of one'.

I recall a workshop weekend with a previous company where we had some six breakout groups of about ten in each, and we were asked to work on solving an insoluble problem.  Each group was allocated a minder who sat there and took notes and, in the event, reported back to the meeting after an hour's deliberation.

It turned out that we weren't actually working on problem solving, but were there to give the minders (all psychologists) a view of how groups work and how they choose their leaders.

Astonishingly, all the minders reported the same results,  In every case each group elected a notional leader/chaiman, usually a Director of the company who happened to be in their group, and then proceeded to ignore him.

The more forceful and articulate seemed in each case to emerge into a leadership role with the majority of the other members of the groups deferring to them.  Seniority had no effect.

So what does this mean in terms of a modern approach to leadership?  Many businesses, especially those which are essentially entrepreurial, are run on the 'rule of one' basis and the 'rule of the many' applies only in unusual cases like the John Lews Partnership.   Most SMEs are run on the 'rule of the few' basis and preferably 'the virtuous few'.

However, it must be said that in the business world, Aristotle was percipient to the extent that in well run companies, all his rules apply.  Starting with an entrepreneurial leader, as the business grows and expands, an effective management team has to be built into a 'virtuous few'.

So where does the 'rule of the many' come into the calculation?   Until a business understands that 'the many' have much more to offer than merely their labour, then it will effectively be run on a 'top down' basis without any upwards contribution. 

Perhaps this implies that one of the most important facets of great leaders is that of humility; the acceptance that they don't know everything about everything, and that everyone in the business has a place in the scheme of things.

An anonymous sage once said "The people wnat me to be their leader: I must follow them".  Now that calls for humility.

There won't be a Sunday post next week as we are away (weather permitting) so may I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy Christmas and a successful, healthy and peaceful New Year.


For further information, visit www.vistage.co.uk and www.maa-uk.co.uk
To contact us, email to ivan.goldberg@vistage.co.uk

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