Dog-walker or flower-checker?

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
David Sherlock takes a wry look at the fashion for leadership courses

If you're over 25 and in gainful employment, you will have been on a leadership course. You will probably not have led anything more than the dog before but someone will have decided you have prospects.

These courses will return you to the same old grind that soaked up all that time meant for jollity at school and university. Instead of basking in the wanton misuse of power over others, you listen to some finger-wagging brute droning on about responsibility, teamwork and motivation.

They start by telling you that leaders are not born but made. It's not who you are ; it's what you do that sets you apart. This is a disappointment.

What's the point if it's not about celebrating your effortless rise to stardom?

The point, it turns out, is that you will show your leadership powers by persuading a team of fellow cynics to build the tallest possible structure, with the fewest possible Lego bricks, without resorting to violence.

Astonishingly, your being subjected to this charade, the equivalent of a key stage 1 test, impresses an employer sufficiently to let you play the game for real.

Otherwise, it's hitting the books for a master's degree. Or you will escape further torment ("The University of Life, old boy. Can't beat learning on the job") until you are really quite far up the ladder. At least key stage 4.

This is when the executive team is sent off to an expensive hotel, with superior soft furnishings, to be "developed" by lecturers from a university management school. The chief executive will not be with you. His task is to ring up every evening, just when the second gin and tonic is approaching your lips, to say that your day job is falling into chaos. The "developers"

will make the mistake you were praying for and ask what causes you stress:

"The bastard who sent us here and rings up every evening to rain on my parade!"

This is followed by the best bit, when you and your fellow victims gang up on the trainers, pointing out that their university job demands four hours'

teaching a week for 30 weeks a year, the rest being spent doing up their retirement pads outside Avignon. They acknowledge this with the smiles of those who had it all sussed before the game began.

The final stage is the subtlest. This is when you are seduced into believing that you are so senior that a course in leadership will consist only of putting you up in a de luxe hotel, with people of similar stripe.

"I am here just to facilitiate your interaction. There will be no formal teaching because you are much too important. Instead, Arnold here will share with you his experiences in dogmeat manufacture, while Richard tells you how he killed 6,000 tribesmen with a nuclear strike. Tonight, Dame Penelope will reflect on oligarchic authority after two-thirds of the population have been submerged up to their armpits by global warming."

I once knew a leadership guru who founded a successful business. He began to feel inadequate when his only job seemed to be checking that the flowers in reception were fresh, ringing in to find out if the telephone was answered promptly, and wandering around talking to staff. He brought in some "real" professionals to run the company. The share price fell by 25 per cent in a month. He went back to checking the flowers.

The writer is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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