Business is often characterized by its desire for the new, whether it be in recognition that innovation is key to remaining competitive or (with a comparative shallowness that would shame a pancake) merely to present glittering new jeejaws to one of nature’s greatest magpies: us. But, to use a sentence that will make more sense to geologists and archaeologists than grammarians, this newness is older than it seems. A quotation might help to explain:

For about 94,000 of the 100,000 years of human history, people lived and organised themselves as hunter-gatherers without a centralized leadership apparatus.”

The words are those of Peter Gronn, from his inaugural lecture as Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, “Leadership: Its genealogy, configuration and trajectory”. As he makes us aware, the idea of having leaders is – in the greater scheme of things – as much a fascinating novelty as this year’s “must-have” desk toy or mobile communications widget. Leadership being as much an aspect of how we organise ourselves and our societies just as much as of how our organizations operate, it’s interesting to read Professor Gronn in the lecture overview on the emergence of leadership from leaderless groupings:

[…] leadership plays a part in the ordering of human endeavour due to the desire and willingness of people to co-ordinate their intentions and plans for the purposes of decision-making and problem-solving.”

Despite our poor track record in prioritising – we are a species with longer waiting lists for allotments than for burial plots, despite the drastically diminished dietary requirements of the deceased – leadership is a facet of our lives that has emerged to meet one of our base desires: a semblance of order, planning and co-ordination rather than chaos. (Which may explain why “anarchy” – a word meaning “with no ruler” has come to be a synonym for chaos and (violent) disorder. “Who’s in charge round here?” is like the adult version of a child’s “Why?” – an attempt to grasp a clearer understanding of our pressing circumstances.)

Although Gronn is also interested in other aspects of leadership – and especially distributed leadership as “the most prominent current post-heroic leadership alternative” – one element of the published synopsis of his lecture grabbed my attention:

There may have been nominal or incipient chiefs and leaders, “sometimes women but usually men” and usually adult heads of households, but these were kept in line by a strict regime of scorn, ridicule, criticism, irony, intimidation, ostracism, disobedience, desertion, expulsion and even killing. A wise hunter with pretentions to lead, therefore would learn to sit quietly with the other men, and “[allow] the blood on his arrow shaft to speak for him”. […] In practice a headman or an informal leader might step forward to make decisions only “as long as the band welcomes him to do so”, with bands having a series of such individuals “who come forward when their particular expertise is needed”.

Early leaders, it seems, emerged on a consensual basis. Given what we generally acknowledge about the importance of trust, our ancestors appear to have used it as a starting point – “now we know we can trust you, you can lead on occasions” – but there is also a sense here of leaders being mandated. (We hope Gordon Brown is too busy dealing with “a strict regime of scorn, ridicule, criticism …” to be reading, but it’s interesting to note the possible relevance of a lack of direct mandate in a leader’s struggles.)

Professor Gronn’s words grabbed my attention because I’d recently read Gary Hamel’s Nine Ways to Identify Natural Leaders at his Wall Street Journal blog, Management 2.0. We may, as the old joke runs, have put men on the moon before we thought to put wheels on suitcases, but we have “travelled” since our spear-carrying days. Our organisational structures, like the rest of our lives, are far more complex, rule and protocol bound, and sophisticated. Indeed, a concept of leadership is integral to most of them. But how do our coming generations of leaders now emerge? Hamel posts an interesting set of questions to identify ‘natural leaders’:

Whose advice is sought most often on any particular topic?
Who responds most promptly to requests from peers?
Whose responses are judged most helpful?
Who is most likely to reach across organizational boundaries to aid a colleague?
Whose opinions are most valued, internally and externally?
Who gets the most kudos from customers?
Who’s the most densely connected to other employees?
Who’s generating the most buzz outside the company?
Who consistently demonstrates real thought leadership?
Who seems truly critical to key decisions?”

Hamel’s suggestions for how we might go about answering these questions, however, seem to have mixed with a mixed response. He argues that “A lot of the data you need to answer these questions is lurking in the weeds of your company’s email system, or can be found on the Web” and proposes scoring systems for emails that draw on analogies like customer ratings at Amazon or the meta-moderation workings of Slashdot.

My own overtaxed 21st century brain convulsed at the logistics of analysing every email and every blog-posting and so on – and everyone’s reaction to them (if they had the hours in the day and the inclination to make them, of course). The quantity of data would defeat human interpretation, and – while natural language computing has progressed – do we really want imperfect software determining who we should promote next? Online multi-user rating systems are very “now”, but that doesn’t in itself make them the ideal new model of democracy (or of anything else). There’s a human danger of being tempted by all that glittering newness here, surely?

I had another problem here too. Even if we could all rate everyone else’s emails, blog posts, tweets and god knows what else, all this additional work will make our communication ever more gnomic, won’t it? (Quite apart from it seemingly becoming compulsory to record every though and opinion in digital format just so the machines can pick the next office hero, which becomes a more worrying thought every time I contemplate it.) Twitter already restricts us to 140 characters. In a busy world, that can be good, but ultimately the less you say, the less you say. Nuance is important. It’s very witty to rewrite Hamlet as an SMS message, but plot summaries aren’t the whole story.

Those commenting directly on Hamel’s blog were often less idealistic. Here are some examples that will give you a flavour (but go to the original blog posting to read more):

You need deeper insight than how people rate email responses or write wiki articles to find leaders. This system is structured to benefit the kiss asses. “

The winner of this game is a chatty politician who has tailored their job to make themselves indispensible. Hardly a leader. Good leaders on the way up obsolete themselves in a position, bringing others up to speed and putting processes in place so that their skills are no longer required. How to find the upcoming leaders? Forget IT solutions; just talk to people. It’s probably the easiest trait to identify.”

This is computing and management at its worst. Who has the most friends? Who is getting the most “recommendations?” Who is getting the most good grades on emails? The only thing dumber than this idea is implementing it.”

Interesting, the last one of those was posted by someone identifying themselves as Bill Gates. Who knows, it may have been – this is the Wall Street Journal. But if software-driven pseudo-electoral systems aren’t the way forward on selecting the next generation, how can we do it?

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