The “I”of leadership a new book by Nigel Nicholson


Nigel Nicholson  is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour (OB) at London Business School, where he has wide-ranging involvements in research, executive education and business. The focus of his work is diverse, but currently primarily in leadership, family business, executive development, risk and decision-making, and interpersonal skills. He direct two of the School’s major open enrolment programmes (Proteus and High Performance People Skills).  He has strong links with business in Africa and India. Das Humankapital meets the prof. Nigel Nicholson  for discussion of his book.

Davide de Palma: Prof. Nicholson, I would like to thank you for your attention to Das Humankapital! is a honour! In your book (The “I” of Leadership), you talk about leadership, What is it?

Nigel Nicholson :  If I say is an efficient way of coordinating and directing people and materials towards shared goals, that sounds rather bloodless, for we also associate leadership with passion, of the best and worst kinds.

Davide de Palma: what’s the function of leaders in social systems? 

Nigel Nicholson :  My point is that it is possible to direct and coordinate without leaders, and often we do, but it seems that we have a strong preference for doing this in a personal way: leadership.   More functionally, the essential tasks of leadership are direction, alignment and commitment .  That means poiningt the way forward, coordinating the resources and motivating people.

Davide de Palma: What is the leadership processes?

Nigel Nicholson :  It is to be adaptive to a changing world – the world inside and outside the group.  In many leadership books you will find long lists and recipes of what a leader should do.  In mine you will just find a simple statement, what I call the Leadership Formula:  to be the right person, at the right place and time, doing the right thing.  This actually is less simple than it sounds, and it has some important implications.  One is that any behavior can be a leadership process – it just has to be right for the situation.

Davide de Palma: What are, in your opinion, the ways to make the leadership more effective?

Nigel Nicholson : Effective leadership, following my Leadership Formula, sometimes means transforming the organization and positioning it;  even sometimes, as Steve Jobs did, changing the market it sits in.  That is one side a duality:  the other side is surf the waves of change, to be adaptive, versatile and adjust behavior to meet the changing demands of the times.   Effectiveness means continually getting the balance between shaping and adapting right.

Davide de Palma: In your book you deal with different kinds of leadership, for example: the adaptive leader, What do you mean by this?

Nigel Nicholson : To be an adaptive leader you must not take your leadership situation for granted.  If the board that appoints you says, for example, that your challenge is turn this company around, you should say ok but let me figure this out for myself.  You have to be investigative, by talking to the people who aren’t usually consulted and not relying on the nearest and most powerful around you.  You need to come to your own conclusions about what needs to be done.

Davide de Palma: What is the dynamic leadership?

Nigel Nicholson : It is very easy to fall into familiar patterns and ways of seeing.  You have to keep refreshing your perspective, not least by actually seeking out feedback on the effects of your own strategies.  Jack Welch was a great leader because he got the whole of GE into this way of thinking.

Davide de Palma: …could you explain what do you mean by narrative leadership?

Nigel Nicholson :  People need stories.  They love stories.  Jack Welch was a great storyteller – he always said being of Irish origin helped.  But most of all leaders need a story of themselves.  This is the narrative: This is who I am, and this is why I am here.  The “who am I” part is not your CV but your awareness and ability to communicate the critical events that shaped your identity and worldview.  The “why I am here” part is a promise – a value proposition for your people, about what life will be like with you as their leader.

Davide de Palma: so, what is the self-management of leadership?

Nigel Nicholson : I am afraid to say that a supreme human gift is self-deception.  We are very good at kidding ourselves about why we are acting in any particular way – taking risks, making decisions, engaging with people – that conceals from us our hidden self-interest.   Leaders have to be self-aware and exercise self-control, by understanding and interrogating their own motives; by challenging what they might be taking for granted; and by putting themselves in the shoes of others, considering how they might see things differently and why.

Davide de Palma: How can leaders influence events and help them to change?

Nigel Nicholson : No-one ever changed anyone else.  People change themselves.  You can sometimes change people’s actions, but the most powerful way to change people is to alter the way see the world.  That is what I have learned as an educator.  That can be instant and powerful – leaders have to show people what the future can look like – that is what most people call vision, I think.  That’s why my book’s subtitle is “Strategies for seeing, being and doing”.  Seeing comes first.

Davide de Palma: What are the critical leader relationships?

Nigel Nicholson : This is a very interesting idea that is hardly written about.  It is the thought that the great leaders often have great confidants or confidantes – people with whom they have a bond of trust, yet who are sufficiently different to them to challenge them constructively, give them fresh perspectives, offer emotional support, provide truthful feedback and help them.   Too many leaders don’t have such people.  They function in isolation and feel they have to do everything themselves.  This is terribly dangerous.

Davide de Palma: What are the possible elements that hinder the emergence of a leader in an organization?

Nigel Nicholson : Hierarchy is the biggest block, especially when there is a lot of competition for promotion.  If you have tournaments in which tough ambitious fighters win, and more emotionally intelligent people lose, you end up without the talent pool you need for the top positions.   It is a matter of structure and culture of the firm.

Davide de Palma: Why is difficult to see a leader in an organization?

Nigel Nicholson :  We tend to rely too much on past performance, which creates a bias towards technically qualified leaders who lack leadership skills.  People develop into great leaders by two main routes: 1. They have great role models and mentors to learn from; 2. They have to chance to develop self-knowledge and people skills through managing ambitious projects.   For this they need the right kinds of positive support to learn from their mistakes, when instead they are just given performance targets that make them risk-averse and defensive.

Davide de Palma: What is your ideal leadership?

Nigel Nicholson :  It is human.  The best leaders know how to ask smart questions and to read the hearts and minds of others; they are courageous and not afraid of the truth; they are culture-carriers embodying positive values in all they say and do;  they are empowering and see their role as serving the organization as a community and liberating the talents of its people.

Davide de Palma: In your opinion, can leaders save the world?

Nigel Nicholson :  In theory, yes, but my fear is that our tribalism, our self-interestedness, and our self-deception will prevent us from finding what we need, which is a sense of ourselves as a global community, clinging to this beautiful blue lonely planet floating in the vast emptiness of space.  No-one else is going to help us.  We need leaders with a vision of “we” that goes beyond politics and competitive advantage…   I live in hope!

Davide de Palma: Thank you so much, prof. Nicholson.

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