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09 December 2023

Decisive skills mark bold leadership

By Martin Baker

Imay have mentioned this before, but one of the great pleasures of my working life is my studio office and writing den – a small warm box which overlooks the river Thames. Having constant sight of flowing water is good for the soul, although the solitariness of it all can have strange effects on the personality (writing book manuscripts and interminable re-writes of screenplays is always stimulating but always, always solitary).

So when I find myself talking to the two herons who hunt as a pair on the north bank of the river (they are already nicknamed the Brothers Karamazov), I know it's time to get out of my box and do something that involves interacting with other people.

So it was with keen anticipation that I bought train tickets to Cardiff – the capital city of Wales is a mere 200 kilometres or so from London, but it represented the Outside World. I was all set to deliver a talk to a collection of that city's businessfolk. It's a speech that seems to go down well, and is titled Leadership From the Outside.

It calls upon my experiences of meeting the allegedly great and good, and recounts a host of incidents – from profiling the Aga Khan to lunch with the UK Prime Minister at his country residence, Chequers, to a week spent in the company of one of the English Premiership's most revered and senior football managers. All in all, I've had plenty of opportunity to observe leadership skills from a close but distanced (ie, objective) viewpoint.

Unfortunately, events outside my office finished off my chances of doing Leadership From the Outside. We Brits have had a bit of weather. It's called snow, and happens regularly in the North of England (roughly 250 kilometres up the map from here) and in Scotland. You'd have thought we wouldn't be surprised by it. We have a season called winter quite regularly – once a year, in fact - and snow is a frequent part of it. But when snow falls anywhere south of the parameters I've just indicated, you'd have thought it was a major natural disaster.

The train to Cardiff was cancelled. The motorways were no longer thoroughfares, more a fantastically hazardous, linear ice rink. The event was postponed. All of this provided much amusement for my neighbour - the chap who rents the studio office next to mine. He is Swedish, and while we English were moaning about an outside temperature of 0C or -1 Celsius, his hometown in the hinterland of Sweden was recording a nocturnal temperature of -41C. The local mayor said it was OK for the locals, but a bit of a shame for the tourists, who weren't used to such conditions.

The Swedish roads, needless to say, remained open.

So, in lieu of recounting my experiences of the fair city of Cardiff, and my impressions of the semi-devolved country of Wales, I offer readers extracts from the lecture I never delivered (at least not in Wales). I happen to believe that a new asset price bubble has already begun (it may be difficult to imagine as you look at the state of the local housing market, but it's coming up fast in Europe, believe me). If I am right, leadership skills will be at a premium come the second correction – around 2012, I believe.

So – Leadership From the Outside starts off with a bit of a cheap shot – aimed at the largest and softest of targets, former United States President, George W Bush: "I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together."

President Bush said this in Bartlett, Tennessee on 18th August, 2000, apparently.

Then I look at some of the characteristics defined and demonstrated by the likes of the Irish Finance Minister (later to be Premier) Bertie Ahern, and leaders in the public sector who are trying to wrestle with bureaucratic octopuses such as the UK's National Health Service.

Perhaps the most interesting observations on leadership came from the football manager, and a senior British Army officer who is actively involved in training leaders and decision-makers whose thinking becomes a life-or-death issue. His words are a trenchant example of what I believe will be needed in the testing times ahead (not immediately ahead, but in 2012 or so): "We do not look for 'natural leaders'. Instead we look for a base that can be built upon and that can be moulded into a leader. I am sure that this is the same for business; some trait is identified which allows the company to focus its effort on leadership development with the eventual aim being to produce the future leaders within the company.

"We look to gradually develop those young men and women who can stand up in front of – often people their own age if not older – their soldiers and instil in them a sense of confidence that they have a better chance of survival with you than without you.

"I think the greatest leadership tenet is about the importance of making decisions. Perhaps the greatest lesson we tried to impart to cadets used to be, 'right or wrong – do something'. By this I mean that it is indecision and mental paralysis which more often than not has lost battles and ultimately wars, and this far outweighs the number of military disasters caused by bad decisions."

This is chimes in perfectly with the leadership skills I have observed from the outside over the past couple of decades. There is no particular art or science to leadership as far as I can see. Instead there is a blend of intelligence, reasoning, common sense, intuition, drive – and ultimately decision-making – which some men and women use to great effect; while for others they lack the confidence, courage (moral rather than physical) and the ability to do something.

As Nietzsche said, to do is to be bold. And bold leadership is what will be needed in the decade to come.

The writer is an author, journalist and commentator on international business affairs


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