The all-seeing ‘I’ of leadership

The all-seeing ‘I’ of leadership

Earlier this year I was at the London Business School attending a reunion. Among the various speakers was Nigel Nicholson, the not so young ‘enfant terrible’ of the organisational behaviour department. Naturally, as all good business school lecturers do, Nigel spruiked his latest book, The ‘I’ of Leadership

Nigel has spent a lifetime studying leadership and the scope of this book is truly amazing. There are 552 footnotes to the 16 chapters! Yes, a number are ‘op. cit.’ and ‘ibid’, but the range of material that Nigel sources is a stunning example of scholarship and reason enough to buy the book.

The insight that really resonated with me was critical leader relationships (CLRs).  Nicholson argues that these are the people who help leaders with their most difficult decisions. In organisations they can be upward, downward and lateral, but Nicholson argues that perhaps the most useful are external, be it a spouse, personal coach or advisor. According to Nicholson most leaders take CLRs for granted, but successful leaders typically have CLRs that provide:

  • Help – Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in the early years of Microsoft
  • Insight – Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger
  • Challenge – Walt Disney Company’s Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, while in Australia Leighton Holding’s Wal King and Dieter Adamsas were a formidable pairing
  • Feedback
  • Ideas – Steve Jobs was always on the hunt for creative intellects
  • Support – Margaret and Dennis Thatcher

Nicholson suggests that one task leaders should undertake at least annually is an analysis of their CLRs, and makes reference to one of Australia’s more successful CEOs, Flight Centre founder Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner.

According to Nicholson, Turner read a paper by him on evolutionary psychology and business published in the Harvard Business Review. The paper caused Turner to reorganise Flight Centre into units of families (stores), villages (clusters of stores) and tribes (aggregates of villages totalling no more than 150 people, which is known as Dunbar’s number and is the size below which self-management can be maintained).

The two key messages of the book stem from its title. The first is a pun on ‘I’.  Leaders should use their inner eye to become self-aware and be able to answer authentically the question: Who am I and why am I here?  Good leaders are self-aware.

The second key message focuses on a new word, ‘decenter’.  Many leaders suffer from an overuse of the word ‘I’: ‘I did this’, ‘I do that’, ‘I make the decisions’. The first person punctuates their conversation. According to Nicholson, good leaders get inside the heads of other people and use that knowledge to build successful relationships, particularly CLRs.

Of course these are the first principles of emotional intelligence and Nicholson, like so many writers on this subject, suffers from the same problem. The exhortations to be self-aware and empathetic are all well and good, but my belief is that unless you have a theory of temperament such as the Humm-Wadsworth, the exhortations will soon be forgotten.  I call it putting on the ‘Humm’ glasses in my workshops, and once you have put them on you never look at yourself or other people the same way again.


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