Is Leadership an Art?

The Royal Institution in Mayfair was an impressive backdrop to a leader’s round-table where I was invited to explore ‘Operating at the boundaries - the science and art of high-performing Teams.’

On the panel were participants including a double Olympian and world champion gold medallist plus leaders from the fields of Formula 1, supercars and finance.

The vibrant discussion revealed just how complex performance management is regardless of the industry or backdrop. Dealing with complexity, leaders need to bring to bear a raft of skills and aptitudes, including, but not limited to, data analysis, good judgement, emotional intelligence, moral courage and vision. Effective leadership is a blend of many skills from both art and science, but it is how these skills are utilised that allows teams to reach their full potential, but is this an art or a science?.

During the panel discussion, I introduced some ideas from my world of aviation past and present. In World War Two, the Royal Navy were looking for new fighter planes for aircraft carriers to operate in the Pacific theatre. The question was posed – ‘what are the highest performing fighter planes?’ The response was that the best fighter was the Supermarine Seafire, a modified version of the iconic Spitfire, adapted for operation in the marine environment. However, although the Spitfire was a great fighter plane, it was designed to be operated from large airfields, and even with supermarine modifications, was not sufficiently robust for the rigours of carrier landings. The wrong question had been asked. The right question involved more detail and analysis – ‘what plane is good in the air but has been designed to land safely on ships and for which we could get spare parts quickly in the Pacific?’ That line of questioning led to very different and arguably more suitable answers - American fighter planes like the ‘Hellcat’ and the ‘Corsair’.

So, what enables leaders to ask the right questions? It is a mix of many factors. Experience and intuition. Objectivity and judgement. Clear focus, honesty and humility.

One of the key skills a leader needs is the ability to stand back from a situation and look at it calmly and objectively. As the story above shows, it is also important to see the whole picture. Most situations have a degree of complexity and it is important to weigh up all the various angles and implications. Seldom is it that a decision about performance can be made based on one parameter. It is impossible to bring critical judgement to bear until the whole situation is coolly assessed from multiple angles.

Concurrent to being objective, a leader needs to be able to listen to their own emotions and gut feel. Data and science can provide the information needed to make decisions, but often it is emotion that provides the moral courage to act and to see it through.

I was recently asked to review an organisation in order to troubleshoot business challenges and problems being experienced. Detailed analysis suggested the need for a radical structural transformation including a potential change of leadership. This was of course not the kind of solution they had expected or wanted to hear.  I felt compelled and determined to encourage the business to implement this transformation as I was utterly convinced that the risk of not doing so could be catastrophic to the organisation and the health and safety of their staff. As well as providing the evidence needed for such a complete transformation, my conviction propelled me to push the business to go ahead and implement the recommended changes, despite the many barriers encountered.

There are many situations where a leader needs immense moral courage – and that nearly always comes from the heart and soul, not from information and data.

That is why for me, leadership is primarily an art. It is, however, an art that I believe can be taught.

Throughout my career, I have identified and developed the suite of tools that senior leaders need in order to succeed in their roles.

I am pleased to share these tools with business leaders in a wide range of sectors – and I am even more delighted when I hear back from these businesses that it is making a huge difference to them, their businesses and colleagues.