The I has it

In his new book, The I of Leadership (published by Jossey Bass), Nigel Nicholson offers a unique perspective on leadership.

In his new book, The I of Leadership (published by Jossey Bass), Nigel Nicholson offers a unique perspective on leadership. He explains how and why to Stuart Crainer.


Let’s start with the obvious question; there’s hundreds of books on leadership, why should everyone read yours?

I think I have a different take on leadership and it’s one I’ve developed from my years of working with executives at London Business School and outside the school.  I think it’s very practical and it de-mystifies leadership to some extent because there’s so many books out there that contain shopping lists, recipes, war stories and all that kind of thing.  I have plenty of stories in the book but what I’ve tried to do is to provide a universal framework analysing why leadership has taken many forms at many different times.

I’ve taken a very broad sweep across the entire scope of human history, and indeed beyond humans into other species, and looked at the meaning of leadership from a biological point of view -- what’s the function of leaders in social and biological systems? Then, historically, I ask what have leaders done?

And the answer?

Leaders have transformed the world and, of course, the world transforms leaders.   You find leaders popping up to meet the challenges of the times.  And I think that shows you leadership is not a single thing.

At its core is what I call the leadership formula – it is about being the right person at the right time and place doing the right thing.  Now, you might think that’s simplistic -- indeed it’s supposed to be simple -- but when you actually work through it you’ll see that it contains quite a few wrinkles.

The biggest wrinkle, of course, is the right time and place. How can any individual leader make themselves more adaptive and, as a result, more effective? There is a duality at work here -- leaders either change the world to fit their vision, or they change themselves and their behaviours to fit the world.  Leaders either shape reality for themselves and for other people, or they help people to acquire and develop the new skills and attributes required to dance to the music of the times.  This duality between adaptability and shaping is at the core of being strategic.

So, you must shape events and allow them to shape you?

Yes, strategic leadership means are you going to change the world or are you going to adapt to the world?  Often you will be doing both. The prerequisites for that are an ability to read the world and understand those bits that you can and can’t manipulate, as well as reading yourself and knowing what you can work with and what you’re going to struggle to work with, and when you need help and when you won’t need help.  The crucible for this is the self.  There’s lots of things you can change and there’s lots of things you can’t change, about the world and about yourself.   It’s very hard to change character and attributes, but you can change your vision.

Leaders can change. They can lead as colonels or chameleons?

And often both.  High profile leaders tend to be more easily described as colonels; the low profile leaders who do the every day jobs unrecognised in society are often more like chameleons. The more flexible, adaptive leaders are not often the stand out leaders but they may be just as important to society as the colonels.

What first got you interested in leadership in the first place? 

Working with leaders and also my own experiences of leading. I became very intrigued to see how leadership works. Often you don’t know yourself as a leader until you try and lead, it is a process of discovery.  I learnt a lot about myself when I headed a department. First time around I didn’t like it very much!  Second time was quite different.   I had figured out what I needed to do and what kind of leader I thought I could be. I’m what I call in the book, a Narrow Bandwidth leader, the sort of person who will lead under certain circumstances but otherwise wouldn’t be interested. I think there’s quite a few of us like that out there.

Corporate patience for leaders is limited. They don’t really have the patience to give leaders the space to discover themselves in the job, do they?

You’re right, they don’t.  I also think that leaders themselves are probably not paying enough attention to the nature of the leadership challenge. They accept the demands put upon them without pushing back and questioning them.  You need to go and figure, rather than just accepting the definition of your situation as it’s presented to you -- and also pay attention to how it might be changing. A lot of leaders come in with their fixed model and if you come with a pre-formed view, you’ve kind of failed already.

What’s the alternative?

The best thing is to say, I’m ready to be versatile, but I’m also ready shape reality as the needs arise, I’ll draw in the resources that I want as I need them.  To do this, it is imperative you have a correct reading of the world rather than the one simply presented to you.

But leaders can become stuck with football manager’s syndrome - too many analysts breathing down their neck, the results coming in every week.  In such cases where they lose their jobs, there is a great deal of false attribution to the leader, even though he or she hasn’t actually had time to do what they are capable of doing in that situation.

My experience with family firms very strongly supports the view that when people are there for the long haul and nobody can remove them, if they are smart they surround themselves with good people and are genuinely adaptive.  

The strange thing is that while there’s a deluge of leadership programmes if you go into corporations you will hear the complaint that there are too few leaders.

Yes. In the PLC world there’s often too many managers and not enough leaders, while  in family firms you can find it the other way round:  too many leaders and not enough managers.  I think that’s partly a systemic issue. Organisations hem in leaders with so many constraints that it’s hard for them to think of themselves as leaders. They spend their time operating within frameworks rather than challenging them or thinking in a more open way.

The other thing that happens is the process by which people rise to positions of leadership in organisations. The people  with vision or ethics can be discouraged, or worse, bundled out by the competitive tournaments that take place in the middle ranks of organisations.

That’s a problem of hierarchy. With more flexible and fluid models, leadership becomes something that’s shared within the organisation.  People aren’t afraid of leadership but neither are they invested entirely in the individual. The best leaders, to some extent, are people who enable leadership processes to unfold in a rather natural way -- the theatre director or the jazz band leader. Think of the jazz band model where you get people to improvise, yet they blend and make a beautiful sound. This works only so long as there is  a good harmonic framework, clear direction and everyone recognises the talent that surrounds them.  I think that’s more a model for our times.

But it takes confidence to led in this way, and when I’m working with executives in the class room, the problem I mostly see is confidence only on the surface; there is an deeper underlying lcak of conviction.  One of the exercises that I think is really important is to get people to stand up, and tell the story of this  who am I andwhy am I here.  For many executives this is a disturbingly hard  thing for them to do. They’ve never really had to do that.  They feel their job is to implement a plan or a strategy, rather than portraying themselves as someone whohas a value proportion that’s distinctive, based on the wisdom and insights they acquired in their lives, and how this connects with a real sense of purpose in the here and now. Doing that requires the kind of confidence which tends to be beaten out of people by KPIs and performance management systems.

Where does this sit with authenticity which people like Bill George and your colleague Rob Goffee talk about?

I love their work, but authenticity is not a word I’m terribly fond of because I worry about it being a source of self-indulgence.  My model is one of self-discipline closely tied to self-knowledge.   For me, being authentic,requires a degree of self-contro.  It means  saying I understand there are things that I need to change in order to be more effective.

I think business people use the concept of authenticity in a rather loose and self-indulgent way – I prefer not to use it really.    We have many possible selves and the thing is to find the ones that actually work or the ones that aren’t too far away from what other people think about us and embody our own manifest capabilities.  So this, for me, is actually a way of helping leaders get a deeper understanding of what they need to do. One of the implications is that leaders often need other people – clse confidants - to help them reach broader and deeper insights – people who will challenge, support and help in equal measure.

Once you view this constellation of the self as being akin to a series of games, you can achieve a higher level of insight.   I use the word games advisedly because self-deception is a very powerful human capability -- it’s very easy for us to fool ourselves that because we want something it’s good, or that because we like something, it’s necessary.

To counter this I advocate the practice of what I call de-centring.  It goes beyond empathy for it is a cognitive process of  stepping into somebody else’s shoes, to imagine how their world looks through their eyes.  It is especially valuable with people you have difficult in liking or empathising with.  If you’re going to be effective as a leader, you’d better understand the way people very different to you see the world.

Is there a sense that leadership’s been overplayed, that the actual power of CEOs in corporations is less than newspapers, magazines and themselves would probably have you believe?

Actually if you talk to CEOs they’ll probably deny that they have that much power.  They are often acutely aware of the limitations of their roles. But, it often suits them to believe they’re powerless because that enables them to make wilful decisions and pretend that it wasn’t out of their own self-interest.  That’s a kind of game that leaders may play.

I prefer low power models of leadership. On the whole they’re healthier and you get better results.  Having said that, you have to think about whom you’re leading under what circumstances to figure out what model is going to be right.  That’s my leadership formula again – to be the right person, at the right time and place doing the right thing.

Is leadership based around understanding of the self moving to a more Eastern understanding of leadership?

To a degree.  Some people would say my approach is quite individualistic, about interrogating  the self and so on.  Again, you’re back to my situational leadership model. In the hunter/gatherer world you cannot afford to have people who act like emperors and kings, it doesn’t work. You can’t organise a hunter/gatherer clan by those means, it just doesn’t deliver what you need to survive in that environment.  And that’s the way we need to think about organisations. What’s the eco system? What’s the niche you’re in? What is it you’re trying to do? What’s the leadership model that actually works for this situation? Do you have a supply chain to get you the people you need in that world? 

We have supply chain problems when it comes to leaders. What needs to change?

Our assumptions about leadership need to change. We have a model of fairly rigid and lengthy status hierarchies and, bolted onto those, we have what I call a false theory of meritocracy. This is  the idea that you have successive tournaments to determine who’s fit to move up and who’s not fit to move up.  If you put those together you get a very pernicious, weird and unsustainable model of leadership because it assumes that people who get to the top are somehow better than people than the people who don’t.

But isn’t that what General Electric do and they have been the most consistently successful company in the last century?

A lot of companies have done that. But you can only do it for a certain time.  There’s always going to be a bottom 10 per cent. The danger is you end up killing off undeveloped potential.  It’s not a bad model to turn around an organisation that’s got lots of fat in it, but it’s not a sustainable model for managing a lean and high performing business – it’s a transitional model.

One CEO I worked with stood up in front of his executives and said leadership is a lousy way to run a company.  What he was saying was once you depend on leaders to run the organisation, you’ve kind of lost it really.   Organisations have to be self-sustaining and leaders are there to do an act of service for those organisations and to help them function, not to be the embodiment of everything the organisation needs. 

It’s not a bad test of an organisation to look around and say what would happen if the leader died or suddenlyleft?  In other words, can you make your organisation leader-proof?  At the same time, the leader has to be able to enhance the capabilities of the organisation through their wisdom. That for me is the ideal.  Because we do need leaders, we do need leadership. 


Leadership is a very effective way of coordinating human activity. The reason we should pay leaders more than other people, or reward leaders is not because they are “better”  or “special” but because they are taking on a special responsibility.  So we don’t want to start glorifying our leaders, treating them as if they belong to a tribe of supermen and women. Leadership has to be brought down to earth.  For me, leadership is about taking charge, it’s about saying in this situation I take responsibility for something, I take responsibility for coordinating these people who are also have to think and act like leaders themselves.  Whether we call ourselves leaders or not, we all face the same adaptive challenge of my leadership formula – to do the right thing according to who we are  and where we are.

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