I in Leadership

Nigel Nicholson explains his formula for successful leadership


Leadership is both instinctive and cognitive — leaders obey the call of impulse and heed the voice of intuition. They find themselves in tune with their times and then fall out of tune with their times —think of Winston Churchill. They snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and stumble miserably over minor obstacles. They can create new worlds and they can self-destruct. In my new book, the ‘I’ of Leadership, drawing on a mix of evolutionary science and business research, I explain how we get the leaders we do, what explains their actions and decisions, and how we can get the leaders we want and need to face the challenges of our times. I argue that the self is the ultimate battleground for all of us — to have the strength of insight, purpose, and honesty to convert the right intentions into the right actions.

Leadership as strategy

What I call the Leadership Formula — to be the right person, at the right time and place, doing the right thing — immediately arouses key questions. The most important one is, ‘Where am I and what do I know?’ It is very easy for leaders to accept the challenges handed to them by their boards and other stakeholders. But they should pause and reflect on the motives and interests of these people, and also the limited purview of their vision. Having respectfully listened to what the charmed circle of advisors and well-wishers say, the leader needs to step outside the circle, and talk to the people whose voices are more seldom heard — to seek to challenge the perception of the status quo and new insights. The leader has to be an insurgent in their own organisation. Steve Jobs did this relentlessly — always pushing back until he was convinced. What Jobs didn’t do so well was to challenge his own presumptions about the world but, of course, this interesting defect is what enabled him to make his vision a reality for Apple and for its consumers. This captures the strategic duality of leaders: when should they shape the world to their vision and when should they adapt themselves and the organisation to keep pace with the world? And, of course, when should they do nothing, and wait to see what transpires? To get this right — and history is littered with leadership failures who got it wrong — requires a smart and active strategy of inquiry and deliberation.

Battlegrounds of the self

It has been said that all the most important battles in life are fought within the self. This goes beyond ‘authenticity’ or any of the other recipes commonly offered. Indeed, the worst thing a leader may do is to ‘be authentic’ if this means acting out of instinct and impulse, without reflection or self-control. The trouble, as psychologists show, is that the self is slippery, self-deceptive and easily fooled. It is easy for leaders to stumble into failure, believing all the while that they are on solid ground. My message is that the traps can be avoided through intelligent reflection. There are five potential battles to be fought, which I call the Leader’s Five Battlegrounds of the Self.

At the top is the battle for control — the conscious control function of the brain’s ‘executive ego’. This CEO of the mind is in reality more akin to a servant than a boss, running hither and thither at the beck and call of many urgent demands of reality and impulse. This is the area commonly called willpower. Are we able to resist temptation, hold to our purposes and be courageous? The battle for purpose is the area of human goals. We are driven by our goals. The trouble is that we can end up following the wrong desires. Leaders have to balance the short and the long term; the interests of one group vs. another; one part of themselves against another. Life is simple if our goals are clear, but what if they need revising or need to be reordered?

The battle for truth comprises our perceptions and beliefs about reality. Leaders have to figure out which aspects of the real world are non-negotiable and which can be shaped to their will. They need to face the possibility that not just they, but their closest associates, are collectively deluded about what is really going on in their world. The battle for identity concerns our ideas and beliefs about who we are. This is the leader’s narrative — their story of who they are, their journey to here, and what drives them now — what is their raison d’être? This is a value proposition — to themselves and to those around them. It may also be an intended legacy proposition. What will they leave behind them of value or impact? When might it be best for the leader to revise her view of who she is in the light of experience?

The battle for performance centres on our knowledge and skills. Leaders can become over-reliant on a stock repertoire. Smart leaders call upon the skills of faithful associates, but there are traps in all of these strategies, and leaders need to know when and how to refresh their capabilities — this is leadership agility or versatility. There are many cases, stories and life histories of leaders that illustrate these and other themes, plus a set of actionable disciplines, which can be condensed into five key elements:

  • Be real: show you understand the battlegrounds of the self and that you act with awareness.
  • Decentre: practice the mental art of stepping into the mental perspective of others; read their psychology.
  • Build ensembles: be like a director in musical or theatrical arts —orchestrate your talent.
  • Scan and scout: step outside and see what others cannot see so you can create an adaptive organisation.
  • Frame the journey: tell a compelling story that makes sense of what you and your organisation are here to do.
  • Leadership is tough. It means taking responsibility and taking charge. People depend on you. The world needs leaders now, more than ever, who can be strategic about seeing, being and doing.

Nigel Nicholson ( is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and author of The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing (2013, Jossey-Bass)

Photo by Charis Tsevis, used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

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