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Leadership (The Cambridge Judge Business Debate podcast series)

What is effective leadership in business and politics, and how can leadership be inclusive rather than divisive?

L-R: Simon Learmount, Thomas Roulet, Michael Kitson

In this episode, joining podcast host Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics at Cambridge Judge Business School, are Cambridge Judge faculty Dr Simon Learmount, Lecturer in Corporate Governance at Cambridge Judge, and Dr Thomas Roulet, University Senior Lecturer in Organisation Theory & Information Systems.

This is the 14th in a series of “Cambridge Judge Business Debate” podcasts featuring faculty and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School and the broader Cambridge community.

This latest podcast focuses on leadership – what it is, can it be taught, and how to be a leader for everyone without carving divisions.

Here is an edited transcript of some of the podcast discussion:

What is “leadership”?

Michael Kitson: “Leadership is a nebulous concept that means different things to different people. It can vary from situation to situation, and it can relate to business leadership, political leadership, or leadership in the community.”

Thomas Roulet: “One key characteristic of a good leader is the ability to have interpersonal relationships with others, as followers need to have a special relationship with their leader.”

Michael Kitson: “But can we teach leadership? Or are leaders born rather than made?”

Simon Learmount: “I like this analogy of whether we can sing or not, what makes a good singer. Everyone can pretty much hold a tune, but with a little bit of training, a bit of development, we can make significant improvements. Some people may have that special quality – but even that person who’s going to be the great opera singer, or Adele, still has to be trained, to think about what it will take to be a great singer or a great leader.”

Good leaders must lead for everyone

Thomas Roulet: “Divisive leaders try to play one group of stakeholders against other groups, and while this might work for a while there are diminishing returns.”

Simon Learmount: “Some people who have been held up as great leaders for a number of years, like Carlos Ghosn in the auto industry, have failed recently, arguably because they’ve focused too much on the power they’ve generated in a narrow area – trying to satisfy shareholders. But what that has done is to take their attention away from other important groups – like employees, local communities, government and regulators to some extent. There are a lot of people who are not being included in the discourse and that’s causing problems.”

Thomas Roulet: “One of the key characteristics of a good leader is whether you’re fair or not – if you favour only one group the other will desert you, and you cannot move forward without broad support.”

Toward a more inclusive capitalism?

Michael Kitson: “You have to change the power relationship, or leaders are not going to change. So are we moving to a new form of capitalism, more stakeholder capitalism?”

Thomas Roulet: “If a firm is benefitting a broad range of stakeholders it will serve the shareholders as well. So there are alternative models being built.”

Simon Learmount: “There does seem to be a difference between those companies which just express that their core purpose is shareholder value and return on equity, and others whose leaders express different values – much more about sustainability, the quality of the service or product being offered, and the value to the customer.”

Truth or consequences

Thomas Roulet: “For both political and business leaders, there are challenges around fighting for the truth. Business leaders have a role in telling employees the way things are, and to give them hope that things will improve without bending the reality. It’s important to give people not what they want to hear but what they should hear to move forward.”

Michael Kitson: “But how do we do that? Charisma seems to be dominating the truth, people telling stories that people want to hear. So how do we deal with the challenge of bringing truth back to the top of the agenda?”

Thomas Roulet: “Leaders need to be able to convince their constituents that they’re supporting a realistic vision, but also a vision that is not dividing the people but bringing them together.”

Simon Learmount: “What we need is leaders who can be more positive about their roles, to bring people together. It’s not about what we say, but about what we do – the tone at the top.”