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Why is leadership still important? A simple definition of leadership is that it is ‘Doing the right thing.’

We live in a world where a lot of people, especially those at the top of countries, societies, organisations and companies demonstrably do not do the right thing. They look after themselves, they look after each other, but they don’t concentrate on doing the right thing for their country, society, organisation or company. To be a better, more effective world we desperately need more good leaders. As we start the Third Millennium we need good leaders more than we ever have.

Leadership is not about knowing beforehand that you have all the answers, the path to take, the solutions to apply, the actions which will save the day. Leadership is not about prior certainty.

Leadership is about working creatively with prior uncertainty. Leadership requires taking informed risks. It is about grasping the nettle, seizing the moment and doing something when it most needs to be done.

Leadership requires spontaneity, bravery, willingness and ACTION.

Thinking is important, but so is conviction, imagination, intuition.

Almost anyone can be a leader . . . but not many will.



Leadership at Dropping the Pilot

Dropping the Pilot approaches leadership in a practical, behavioural, experiential way: most people learn best and fastest by DOING, so we DO leadership.

People practice leadership, get feedback on how they did, then they try it again, with behavioural changes. This incremental learning is safe(ish), challenging, thought-provoking and it produces results. Reviewing performance reinforces those results.

Individuals and teams have the opportunity to experiment with leadership approaches under relatively low-pressure circumstances and receive feedback from others on how their performance was perceived, with suggestions for improvement.

By doing leadership, rather than just studying it or discussing it, individuals acclimatise themselves to being the one who takes the reins when the horses require direction and a firm hand.

It is what Kolb described in his work on experiential learning:


DO      REVIEW       LEARN       APPLY

Kolb DA (1984), Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development
2nd Edition, Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall

What is Leadership – An Introduction?

‘In 1986, before I first began to study leadership in a serious manner, my knowledge of it was complete . . . I should have stopped then, because ever since that time, my understanding has decreased in direct proportion to my increased knowledge . . . except for one banal truism: successful leaders are successful.’ 

Keith Grint in The Arts of Leadership

Questions immediately arise from this quotation and may include:

a) I manage a group of people at work but I’ve had no training in leadership so I’m sort of guessing where I should go next each time a leadership issue comes up. Are there a set of skills I need to learn and are they different from the skills of management?

b) Are there things which always contribute to good leadership, for example leading from the front? Or is each potential leadership opportunity contextual or unique?

‘One sees then the appearance of calm sureness and rightness, as if they knew exactly what they were doing, and were doing it wholeheartedly, without doubts, equivocations, hesitations of partial withdrawal. There are then no glancing blows at the target or softened blows, only full hits. The great athletes, artists, creators, leaders and executives exhibit this quality of behavior when they are functioning at their best.’

Abraham Maslow in Toward a Psychology of Being


This quotation from 1968 reflects the more recent work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow but again raises questions:

c) I recognise good leadership when I see it but can’t define it easily, let alone reproduce it myself. How can I make my performance look like that?

d) Is getting to that level in leadership something to do with practice as it is in sport or art?


‘Being a born leader, he had to lead in the position of most danger, difficulty and responsibility. I have seen him turn pale, yet force himself into the post of greatest peril. That was his type of courage; he would do the job that he was most afraid of.’

Frank Worsley in Shackleton’s Boat Journey

e) Are leaders born and not made, so if I don’t have the natural skills should I stop pretending to be a leader now?


A Short History of the Study of Leadership

From the introduction, it’s clear we’re already in difficult territory. Traditionally, leaders were men (Oh, yes they were)! who were wise, brave and strong and who wore armour and owned famous swords.

(What about Artemisia I of Caria, Boudicca, Zenobia, Trieu Thi Trinh, Tomoe Gozen, Jeanne d’Arc, Grace O’Malley, Nakano Takeko or Lozen . . . to name but a few? Ed.)

They helped the weak, under certain conditions, and shared their wisdom freely. In those days they were easy to identify (largely because of the swords, but also because they were extremely handsome) and they almost always triumphed in adversity. On the rare occasions when this didn’t work out they died heroic deaths without much fear or pain. The most recent of these was either King Arthur or Henry V, whichever was the later, but with a notable lineage including Achilles, Horatio (not Nelson), and William Wallace (except for the pain-free death).

This caused observers to wonder about common themes and consider if handsomeness was the key. If it was, then perhaps not much could be done. On the other hand, swords are easily-acquired and the successful twirling of them could be moderately-easily learnt.

This easy dichotomy began the ‘leaders are born’ vs ‘leaders can be made’ debate. Following World War 2 the study of leadership intensified. Initially, it was thought that a certain number of key traits, naturally present or possibly acquired, were essential for success as a leader. These replaced swordsmanship and bravery with things like ‘Drive to exercise initiative in social settings’ and ‘Readiness to absorb interpersonal stress.’

Some studies identified up to 489 individual traits that might be required and this presented some difficulty for leaders when required to switch on one of the 489 traits, not least because remembering each at a fine level of detail was hard. The other difficulty was that ‘Drive to exercise initiative in social settings’ didn’t really inspire people to think that there was very much worthwhile in leadership anyway.

Partly because of these difficulties trait theory was overtaken by competency theories, based on what leaders actually do which, at least, was something which could be developed in individuals and improved over time. This led to a mass of further theory and ultimately to the definition of a series of desirable competences, often based on the psychological needs of followers (remember them)? and to the concept of leadership development in many organisations. That is, one can be trained to become a better leader. Good, now we’re getting somewhere.

‘A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.’

Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching (verse 17)




Leadership Development -
the Last 75 Years

One way to progress is to consider what your team need from you. The second half of the 20th century produced several theories which may push us in the right direction, the names of Maslow, Adair and Garnett (not Alf) are names which should be familiar to experienced leaders and investigated by people about to assume leadership positions.    

But, of course, leadership is a contact sport. In the same way that you don’t actually become a good footballer by playing a lot of Championship Manager or reading Joey Barton’s autobiography, you don’t become a good leader by simply reading about it or by absorbing multitudes of theories. Though reading and theorising do have a place.



Is leadership a naturally-present trait, a question of lengthy theoretical learning and practice, where the mistakes made just happen to not be fatal ones? Or is it a bit more like improvisation or jazz, where music is extensively learnt and practiced and then the rule book is unconsciously abandoned and something else emerges which is full of Maslow’s ‘full hits’?



Action-Centred Leadership

Originally developed by John Adair, it was based on a simple leadership model which anyone can retain in their head when managing and leading people. It looks like this:


Image result for adair's 3 circles


Action-centred leadership immediately does away with the very extensive, and hard to remember, list of traits and competences and replaces it with three things that everyone can pay attention to when in a position of leadership.

The leader is accountable for all three circles and if s/he exercises action-centred leadership with care, awareness and flair then everyone in the team will feel a sense of responsibility across all three areas as well.

Leadership Actions

Adair’s model was further developed by John Garnett who, as a result of working with teams in organisations, produced a leadership training programme which developed ten leadership actions observed in successful teams. Garnett’s actions can be correlated with Adair’s action-centered model.

1          Set the task for the team.
2          Make leaders accountable for 4 - 15 people.
3          Plan the work, check progress.
4          Set individual targets, review at least once a year with each person.
5          Delegate decisions.
6          Brief team together monthly.
7          Train all team members.
8          Where unions are present, encourage participation.
9          Serve and care for those in the team.
10        Walk the job and visit each person’s place of work.

These things are important for the study of leadership because they encapsulate a number of things which good leaders DO, in other words they are the actions taken by successful leaders. Also, they reflect how most followers would like to be treated by their boss.  

Individual Needs

Abraham Maslow is probably most famous for his hierarchy of needs diagram which describes how the peak of human experience, which he calls self-actualisation, is dependent on a series of lower-level needs being fulfilled.

It is worth noting that Maslow was one of the main advocates of humanistic or Third Force (NB Not the Third Way)! Psychologies, which maintained an optimistic view of human psychology, in contrast to many of his well-known predecessors.    


Image result for maslow

It’s important in the study of leadership because a lot of observations of good leaders in action suggest that they are operating in a self-actualising way, more often than most of us are able to manage.

The person operating at the top level of the model will feel more integrated or whole, at the peak of his powers, more creative, and able to perform in an effortless and yet fully-functioning way. This is the peak experience that Worsley, Tao Te Ching, and even Keith Grint, are implying in their quotes above.

It sounds OK to me.

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