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“Leadership qualities are essentially personal qualities”

Interview with John Adair, author, teacher and leadership expert

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European Business: You became the world´s first Professor of Leadership Studies. What does leadership mean to you?

John Adair: Leadership for me is essentially the ability to enable free and equal people to work together and achieve great results. For me, leadership is not a value-free term. I resist the notion that Hitler was a good leader who just happened to be pursuing evil ends. For I see leadership as being essentially ‘good leadership and leadership for good’. Not all occupants of leadership roles are leaders by that criterion. They are best classified simply as misleaders.

European Business: In your book, you write that one brief report of one of your lectures appeared in that school magazine: “Although leadership may change in its aspect from age to age, the qualities of a leader are the same.” What are the qualities of a good leader?

John Adair: I believe that it is substantially true that leadership qualities remain broadly the same over time. For human nature shows little signs of change over the centuries, and leadership is about what works with the grain of human nature.

Top of my list is enthusiasm – you can’t light a fire with a damp match. Then integrity – the quality which makes people trust you. Leaders also need to be tough or demanding but fair. That isn’t incompatible with the next key quality: humanity and warmth. Cold fish don’t make good leaders. Last but not least, humility – freedom from arrogance in all its hydra-headed forms.

John Adair
Top of my list is enthusiasm – you can’t light a fire with a damp match. John Adair

European Business: In the past, many leaders were male. This is changing today as more women take on responsibility on an economic, political and social level. What qualities do women have that men don´t?

John Adair: Not so long ago, leadership was commonly and unconsciously assumed to be male, military and western. There is an element of truth in each of these three assumptions but not much!

We are – each and all of us – individual embodied persons. As individuals we are unique, in a 'world class of one’, as W.H. Auden once put it. As embodied humans, we share our gender identity with about half the human race. But as persons we are all free and equal, sharing the same nature and significance. Leadership qualities are essentially personal qualities, so they transcend individual or gender differences. Moreover, leaders are essentially persons with a special ability for leading other free and equal persons. All the rest is secondary.

Although opinions about distinctive female leadership qualities are quite frequently offered, they are not so far supported by any compelling evidence.

We are – each and all of us – individual embodied persons. As individuals we are unique, in a 'world class of one’, as W.H. Auden once put it. John Adair
John Adair

European Business: You quoted the English proverb saying “Leaders are born, not made” and wrote that you believe leadership can be developed by training. What aspects does this training include?

John Adair: There is a generic role of leader underlying all the more specific forms and levels of leadership. It is summarised in the Three Circles Model: achieving the task, building the team and developing the individual.

Effective leadership training begins with introducing new leaders to this role model. Then they need to be given the practical opportunities to observe and practice the key functions that leaders need to be able to provide with skill if the three overlapping and interactive areas of responsibility are to be met.

Leadership development, however, should be a lifelong affair: a slow but sure grasping of what a leader needs to be (qualities), what a leader needs to know (authority) and what a leader needs to be able to do (skills). And this learning should accompany the individual on their personal leadership journey. For each level of leadership – team, operational and strategic – brings with its new challenges and calls for new skills.

John Adair
Leadership development should be a lifelong affair. John Adair

European Business: Who is your favourite entrepreneurial leader, and who could be seen as a role model for young managers who will become leaders in future?

John Adair: As for entrepreneurial leaders – or any other sort for that matter –  I have no favourites! All leaders are mixtures of strengths and weaknesses, and each of them has something to teach you – even if it is how not to do it!

So, my advice to you is simply expressed in an old Chinese proverb: Pluck a feather from every passing goose, but trust no one absolutely.

Interview: Vera Gaidies | Photos: Bloomsbury Publishing