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Deans of leadership: Are you an active leader or a passive bystander?

We were at the business school INSEAD recently at a launch event and symposium for a book we had published. Towards the end of the day, INSEAD’s dean Ilian Mihov popped in. He made an informed comment about the subject under discussion, referenced his own research, thanked us all for being there, made a self-deprecating joke and left. We followed up with an email to him. He replied quickly and helpfully. This is active rather than passive leadership.

Earlier in the same week we had been at Europe’s tallest building, the Shard in London. Warwick Business School was opening its London operation in the building. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, performed the official opening. As we were enjoying a pre-event coffee beside the Shard, we saw the mayor make his own entrance. He did not arrive in some mayoral limousine surrounded by flunkeys and bodyguards. No, he arrived on a bicycle in a crumpled suit. As he dismounted his bike and took off his helmet to reveal his trademark hair, it was clear that everyone noticed him.

So what did Boris tell the assembled dignatories and well wishers? The mayor’s speech at the opening ceremony was entirely in character. He sang the praises of London and cited a welter of stats suggesting that the world’s greatest city was indeed just that. To this he added some relevant references to Warwick and Shakespeare.

The dean of WBS, Mark Taylor, is another active leader. Setting up shop in London’s most iconic new building is a clear signal of intent. WBS could have taken up less lofty (and less expensive) lodgings in another part of the capital. But Taylor has no intention of letting the business school be overlooked, literally or figuratively. After years in the parochial wings, Warwick is moving to centre stage.

None of what Ilian Mihov, Mark Taylor or Boris Johnson did was rocket science. Mihov displayed knowledge of the subject, Taylor clearly sees WBS as a force to be reckoned with, and Johnson knows his Shakespeare. But, what they displayed is the essence of leadership:

Being there — the mundane secret of leadership is that turning up is hugely important. Ilian Mihov is based in Singapore and when we encountered him he was at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. He had back-to-back meetings all day and was popping in and out of those meetings to greet and connect with people. He realised that a few minutes with him in the room is important, a handshake still beats an email.

Taylor, too, understands that if you want to be a player in the financial centre of London, you can’t do it from a campus in the Midlands. You have to be there.

Being seen — for the leader high visibility is essential. We worked with one organization whose leader was nicknamed the invisible man because he was there so infrequently and, when he was, stayed in his office. Boris Johnson is highly visible. You may not agree with his transport policies but if you have seen him cycling in London you know that he must have some understanding of the issues faced by Londoners.

Beating boring — leaders say the same thing again and again. Leadership is boring. Boris Johnson has recited his stats about how multi-cultural London is thousands of times. That is his job. Leaders deliver the same messages time and time again, but they do so with energy and enthusiasm at all times.

Being civil — Leadership is still sadly seen in macho alpha male terms. Actually, the most persuasive leaders we have encountered are courteous and polite. They reply to emails, they say thank you, they are inclusive in discussions, they are respectful and curious.

Being a leader — there is no template for leaders. They come in all shapes and sizes. But what is notable about the most successful leaders is that they have a strong desire to make things happen. They want to help their organisations move forward, guiding them in the right direction.

When we first met him several years ago, Taylor explained that if an organisation or institution is not moving forward then it is falling behind. Contrast this with passive leaders, serving out their time content to try to maintain the status quo. That is not leadership. That is being a bystander not a leader.

The best leaders want to lead. They radiate leadership, there is a kind of force field of leadership, which surrounds — and perhaps protects — them. For them it is not enough to simply stand by and watch. They embody leadership. They live it.

By Stuart Crainer & Des Dearlove

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