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Firms should foster leadership skills for growth

Today’s business leaders are facing new scrutiny and unfamiliar challenges as the world economy rebalances in the wake of the financial crisis. They are expected to not only hit the targets in terms of revenue, profit and shareholder value, but also adapt to the changes of a fast-evolving business environment.

No one would say that it’s easy, but there is no reason to think that leading a team, division, or even a multinational requires some special natural aptitude or personal qualities that only a few possess.

In essence, the ability to lead is not in-built. It is all about learning, awareness and adaptability. That’s why companies and ambitious individuals put such faith in the tools and training offered by in-house academies, personal coaches and, of course, highly-regarded business schools.

And it also explains why there is rarely any public sympathy for business leaders who allow their companies to go badly wrong.

That failure often stems from one of two things: leaders lacked adequate training or were too slow to react.

“The key attributes have not changed in the last 10 years,” says Professor Christopher Styles, deputy dean of the Australian School of Business and director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the University of New South Wales.

“But serious global economic issues have certainly highlighted the need for leaders to be ready to deal with unfamiliar circumstances. They also need to be agile, resilient, and able to instil confidence and trust in their employees and other key stakeholders, so everyone will support their vision for the organisation,” he says.

Personality traits give some a head start. AGSM and other schools are very much in the business of training leaders, not talent spotting those who already have that something extra and telling the rest to settle for middle management roles at best.

Indeed, specific academic modules offered by AGSM give an understanding of the nature of leadership and encourage students to reflect on their own leadership style and capabilities.

The objective is to add to strengths, overcome weaknesses, and to emphasise the need for both IQ and EQ (emotional quotient) in situations that involve decision-making and, inevitably, other people – whatever their rank or responsibilities.

Besides, students are put in teams and “real-life” scenarios to practise good leadership. They also have a chance to learn from senior executives in a range of industries, who explain how they dealt with their toughest challenges and how to remain alert for whatever comes next. 

“Importantly, business schools should also build a realisation that leaders don’t – and don’t have to – know all the answers; they need to provide scope for others to contribute,” Styles says. “In future, students will mostly face specific challenges and opportunities that require novel solutions. Therefore, we help them develop the ability to deal with new situations in a far less predictable world and prepare them personally through increased self-awareness.” 

Janet De Silva, dean of the Ivey Business School – Asia, also emphasises that good leadership is all about getting the right capabilities in place. That largely comes down to training and application without, of course, discounting the importance of experience and the occasional measure of inspiration.

“Organisations need to foster skills and develop leadership competencies if they want to achieve market growth and, particularly in China, attract and retain talent,” says Hong Kong-based De Silva.

“Since the financial crisis, we have noticed a change: leaders must be more willing to listen to dissenting views, not just rely on ‘group think’. Our classes and case studies reflect that, so students understand what is changing and can act accordingly in the workplace.

She adds that leadership is one part knowledge – having the necessary macro and micro perspectives; one part asking the right questions in the boardroom and elsewhere; and one part behaviour. In the same way someone can study the essentials of corporate governance or financial management, so too can they learn the techniques and attributes which commonly define effective leadership.

“In classroom discussions, our deliberate intention is to put participants in the shoes of key decision makers,” De Silva says.

“By trying to be controversial, thought-provoking, and triggering a lot of debate, we show what leadership involves and introduce situations students can use in their later careers.”