The media has reported that the beleaguered Trevor Phillips is to remain as head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission after being criticised for his leadership style, which allegedly led to the resignation of a third of the commissioners. The Commission is to be restructured and one option being considered is to have individual board-level commissioners to lead each policy area instead of Mr Phillips speaking on everything.
This story highlights the conundrum of personality-driven leadership. Because leadership is an emotional relationship between the leader and his or her followers it is inevitable that personality plays a part. This does not necessarily mean charisma because some of the most effective leaders have not been charismatic. Probably the most uncharismatic post-war political leader was Clement Atlee who led the most radical social restructuring of the country, which lasts to this day.
We are said to be in the post-heroic era of leadership, precipitated by the failure of personality-driven organisations like Enron and underscored latterly by the failure of the banking sector. The impact of these failures on people’s lives will be felt for years to come. It is therefore not surprising that the days of the individual powerful leader are said to be over with society being much more comfortable with the sharing of power and bottom-up building of communities: in other words, shared leadership.
The problem is that even with a greater emphasis on team or shared leadership there still has to be an overall leader. Leadership – even if dispersed – ironically still has to be led, which takes us back to the issue of personality. And this means that if the overall leader is not up to scratch then the inevitable will happen: the leader, and potentially the organisation as a whole, will fail. So, irrespective of the impact of societal changes on the nature of leadership, organisational leaders still need to be chosen with care.