Fellows to follow
While I was a headteacher, I spent some time on secondment to a car component factory, learning about management and leadership in industry. The factory manager obviously thought I was a total wimp. When I asked about consultation with his staff, he looked at me as though I had offered him a year's free membership of the League of Marxist-Leninist Ballet Dancers.
"There are two ways of running any organisation," he boomed, zooming backwards on his swivel chair. "You can pull it from the front, or drive it from behind. I prefer the second method."
I have been trying to fathom the meaning of this ever since.
Was he a good leadership role model? Well, his people were clearly terrified of him - but at the same time, like the punters at Alton Towers, they quite liked being scared. He wasn't the mentor I was after, and I managed to stagger to the end of my headship without modelling myself on anyone - with the possible exception of the chief superintendent of the Keystone Kops. Now, though, there's a bit of a fad for seeking out effective leaders and learning lessons from the way they worked.
Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, for example, in 1916 brought all of his men home safely after a series of heartbreaking setbacks that included the loss of his ship and an 800-mile ocean crossing in a tiny lifeboat.
Known as "the boss" throughout his career, Shackleton displayed qualities that, according to authors Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, continue to inspire others. In Shackleton's Way (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £14.99) they tell how Michael Dale, president of Jaguar North America during the car importer's dark days, learned about optimism from Shackleton. "He never gave the slightest sign, no matter how bad things got," said Dale, "that he wasn't going to survive."
Similar attention is now being given to England soccer coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. Even football-phobes must have noticed not only that the national team is doing quite well at the moment, but that this is also being achieved under a manager who neither rends his clothing in foaming hysteria nor swears at the referee - even at the height of overwhelming interest in his off-pitch activities.
At least part of the explanation, according to consultants Julian Birkinshaw and Stuart Crainer, authors of Leadership the Sven-Goran Eriksson Way (Capstone, £12.99) lies in Swedish traditions of management, to do with qualities such as openness and accessibility, combined with caring and nurturing.
That, say Birkinshaw and Crainer, is a recent development. Leaders in the Eighties were high-profile go-getters - such as Lee Iococca at Chrysler and John Harvey-Jones at ICI - heroes, if you like, who led from the front, fuelled by a public brand of charisma. Eriksson is from a different mould - low-profile, shy of publicity, focused on the team and the task, determined yet not ruthless.
Shackleton, then, was a modern leader. His determination to pick the right team for the Antarctic led him to adopt a selection process we could all learn from. He wanted optimists, because they are likely to be good team players. He looked for hard workers who would take their share of the dirty jobs, and he wanted people who could do those tasks that he couldn't. Above all, of course, he needed the right deputy - resourceful, with a similar vision, and unfailingly loyal - and he found him in the superb Frank Wild.
To achieve the right mix, he asked applicants if they could sing, because he wanted people who would take part in morale-lifting evenings in the Antarctic winter. So when you look at Frank Hurley's expedition photographs, you're struck how many show the men enjoying themselves - all laughingly having their heads shaved on a whim, or toasting "sweethearts and wives" after an evening meal. If you worked for Shackleton, you trusted him, and that made you comfortable enough to relax together. Some staffrooms are like that, just as others are miserable ones where people jump when the door opens in case it's the head.
How far can you go in searching for leadership role models? Maybe you should simply head right to the top, like business consultant John Adair, who's advised the Church of England on "strategic leadership".
Adair has just given us The Leadership of Jesus, and its legacy today (Canterbury Press, £12.99). Like Shackleton and Eriksson, it seems, Jesus was a team-builder. Adair suggests that despite the familiar metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep, Jesus brought his people on to be partners rather than followers.
"No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing: but I have called you friends, for all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15). In a sense, though, it's all down to interpretation. As Adair points out, Nazi theologians used Jesus to extol the virtues of blind obedience. And Shackleton was not without faults - in the early days, he showed indecision and a reluctance to tackle unpleasant issues with his men. Step forward anyone who hasn't gone through that stage.
My own leadership hero figure? I'm still looking, but I think there is a lot to be said for Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko. ("Trust me men, we're all going to be rich!") He'd have won the South Pole in a poker game and presented it to a grateful nation - on a leaseback arrangement, of course.