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A guide beyond leadership legends and all that jazz

May 1, 2013 3:39 pm

A guide beyond leadership legends and all that jazz

By Andrew Hill

This is the first management book to prompt me to listen to some jazz, specifically two Duke Ellington numbers: his band’s performance at the 1956 Newport festival, which revived Ellington’s reputation; and a poignant rendition of a ballad composed by his close collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Ellington was a master of all three levels of the leadership process, Nigel Nicholson suggests: acts – he was a management improviser as well as a musical one; tactics; and strategies. He prepared for opportunities, such as that Newport concert, shaped unexpected events to a coherent purpose and, critically, adapted to changing circumstances. Ellington’s elevation to leadership role model is one of the rare original examples in this book. Otherwise, Nicholson mines a seam of familiar stories about the flair and flaws of political and corporate bosses: from Tony Blair and George W. Bush to Jack Welch and Steve Jobs.

The lack of more colourful stories will disappoint anyone who enjoyed the cut and thrust of Family Wars, the analysis of family companies the London Business School professor co-authored in 2008. But it is what he does with the well-worn material that is original – and highly ambitious. “The journey of this book,” he writes, “starts with our animal nature, moves on to take in the sweep of human history since the dawn of time to explain the varieties of leadership and their effects, before closing in on the territory leaders inhabit and what it means to be strategic.”He goes on to analyse the mindgames leaders play to justify often flawed behaviour, and shows how they can take control of themselves and improve their chances of success.

As Nicholson rightly points out, the world has an “infatuation” with leadership, and a dangerous crush on leaders in the traditional heroic mould, despite repeated evidence that they can imperil the organisations they head. Heroism is occasionally necessary – for instance, Ernest Shackleton rescuing his men from the Antarctic ice. But the more important trait for leaders is an ability to adjust their approach. “Change is unstoppable – adaptability is all,” Nicholson writes.

For leaders to assume they are prisoners of circumstance, constrained to act in particular ways, is lazy and arrogant, he suggests. I particularly like his attack on the “authenticity” fad: “It is one thing to face up to your weaknesses and fearlessly accept and compensate for them, but there is a thin line that separates this honourable stance from the pure self-indulgence of the leader who gives free rein to all his basest impulses in the name of ‘to thine own self be true’.”

Crucially, though, it is “an equal and opposite failing to turn a deaf ear to the call of one’s identity”. The book aims to help leaders discover this “I” – the kernel of truth and self-awareness that will allow them to answer confidently the question “Who am I and why am I here?” and lead with conviction.

Nicholson’s argument, which weaves anthropological, zoological and evolutionary theory into its management precepts, is at times hard to follow and, in the self-help” section, occasionally hard to take seriously. At one point, he asks readers to stand – “naked or clothed” – in front of a full-length mirror for a self-examination that will free them of image problems. Personally, I preferred the jazz.

Nicholson never quite lives up to his definition of a great teacher, who “changes the way you see things [so] the world never looks the same again”. But his book does stand out from the pack of leadership literature. It brings the bad news that leading people is more challenging than simple prescriptions or accounts of legendary leaders suggest because it involves building, maintaining and often recalibrating relationships with your team, yourself and the world.

The good news is that Nicholson has forged the tools to help would-be leaders rise to the challenge.

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About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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