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Our chairman, Sir Angus Grossart, wrote the following piece to stimulate debate at the thirteenth annual international forum of the SCDI in October 1982. On rediscovering it recently, we were struck not only by the wisdom contained in this treatise on leadership – and the call for a climate that encourages those who bear risk to challenge “the protective ambit of consensus” – but by how apposite it remains today. We are pleased, therefore, to publish Angus’s original paper in full, nearly 40 years on. If, after reading it, you feel that a 2021 update from Sir Angus would be a worthwhile read, please let us know and we will prevail upon his good nature to draft one.
A climate of leadership
Written by Sir Angus Grossart, chairman
12 January 2020
It is as true of economic life – as it is of public affairs, politics or the cultural world – that the strength and progress of a country depend on the ability and quality of those individuals who lead it. A country without strong leaders will drift like a rudderless ship; and as it sails through stormy economic seas it may founder for lack of direction on the rocks of accelerating internal change, or be blown adrift in the face of the fluctuations of international cycles.
The identification and analysis of these forces, and of similar macro-economic problems, have dominated policy discussions at a macro level for years. Our proposed solutions to prevailing problems, as we have seen them at the time, have relied on conventional economic prescriptions and, inevitably, on that reassuring but insidious assumption that governments are the masters of economic events and, in consequence, the expected source from which our ills must find their cure.
We have therefore examined our conditions as if we were passive spectators on our destiny; the fine tuning of our commentary has been achieved at the expense of the practicality of our conclusions. We have been a little like the anxious and over-instructed golfer who carefully surveys the hazards which confront him, and having identified and agonised over the rough, the bunkers and the out-of-bounds, freezes on the tee and is unable to strike the ball.
The theoretical basis of our prognosis has dictated the assumption that as individuals, and collectively, we have little practical capacity to influence the solution to the problems we have been examining. We have given no real recognition to the potential effect of leadership by strong individuals as a practical force to improve and progress the economic state of our lives. The evolution of organised society has required the ‘collectivisation’ and control of many individual forces and qualities and it may be that this process, directed to the greater good of all, has seriously eroded the structure and the climate of attitudes within which leadership can flourish effectively.
These comments are more than a reaction to our undue reliance on economic analysis or our acknowledgements of the relative failure of solutions which depend on government. They are prompted by a strong belief that we must re-examine our accepted attitudes to the importance and influence of individual leadership in our society. That need rests on the assumption that there has been a failure in leadership in Scotland, across a wide span of affairs, for many years. If some take issue with that assumption, it may be more common ground that at a time of great change within our country and internationally, it is particularly apt and well timed to consider our need for the major initiatives and inspiring example that can derive from successful individual leadership. If we have had a failure in our standards of leadership, this may be no more than we deserve, for as a nation we appear, at worst, to have lost our confidence in the role of leadership and, at best, to be incapable of responding to it when it does occur.
The challenge with which we should confront ourselves is not merely an intellectual one. It is also a practical challenge which is laid at the feet of all those who hold positions of responsibility and are therefore given a platform for action and influence over others, which should require them to lead in their own fields. But if we are critical of our recent national record in leadership and alert to our collective shortcomings, we should as individuals think positively about our own potential. For here is an area of effort in which we can each aspire to achieve a practical result and where our contribution to a general problem may rest, for once, within our own individual achievement.
What do we mean by leadership? It is that quality of an individual who sees ahead of immediate events and impels others to attain some difficult but worthwhile goal with them. The leader will have discerned clearly where they are going; this will seldom have been an obvious objective to others for the visible and easy challenges will already have been tackled.
The leader depends on other people who are willing to be led by them; a particular factor in successful leadership is therefore the ability to influence others and to draw together their individual strengths to achieve the common objective. This is unlikely to be achieved by crusading vision alone, although that state can transmit a temporary infection. The mature and sustained following of the leader is created more by the leader’s strongly held sense of conviction and by the inevitable force of their ‘will to win’. Their clear sense of direction and commitment of great personal effort – and often risk – encourage the belief in others that they can share in a successful achievement which was beyond their individual grasp. If leadership creates this sense of inspiring others to strive for a higher plane of endeavour, it must always be based on practical strengths. The less tangible ingredients of vision and oratory may have persuasive effect when embraced by a strong personality but they should never be confused with the real thing.
The opportunity to lead is particularly available to those who are in positions of responsibility because that provides the influence and the platform from which they can base their lead. But if they appear to launch their initiative from a cushion of safety it may provide little comfort, as Humpty Dumpty discovered, if they sustain a great fall. In a difficult world it may seem a sufficient test of responsibility to cope with the normal problems which confront us. Where do you find the courage to challenge the status quo or to want to make a quantum step forward? Why go out ahead of the field when you can run securely within the pack?
The answer lies in that essential quality of leadership which raises people above mere responsibility, so that they are willing to challenge the protective ambit of consensus. The creative incentive to the leader is that he or she actually wants to explore, beyond the immediate and accepted span of events. This dimension requires a particular degree of courage in accepting the voluntary test of extra exposure and accountability. For leadership will usually involve the promotion of new policies before they have achieved general support and when the immediate problems – rather than the longer term benefits – are apparent. In that sense, the first steps of the leader are seldom popular and they should not anticipate the endorsement of early success. Leadership can be a lonely experience, as many who have answered its calling have observed.
What is the particular importance of leadership in Scotland at the present time, then? Well, the great medieval trading states like Florence and Venice failed to sustain their early and outward looking trading success. For lack of strong leadership, their collective courage and vision gave way to apathy and introspective dissent and they relapsed into the misguided protection of their supposed privileges. Eventually they were overtaken by the real world and left behind to be remembered as a period piece of mercantile development.
It is equally symptomatic of an economy like Scotland, which is in relative decline, that attitudes become progressively more inward looking and negative. Effort and thinking concentrate on protecting the slice of the existing cake, which is contracting, rather than on the creation of new cakes. It is leadership which provides the outward looking and positive dimension and sets the example which counteracts this trend. It is leadership which points to the viable alternative that can be achieved by individual initiative. It is leadership which draws together similar views which, if not directed towards the common ground, have an inevitable habit, particularly in Scotland, of diverging into counterproductive effort and objectives.
We lack confidence in Scotland in our own abilities to improve our economic condition. This is exemplified by the unhealthy emphasis which we currently place on the ring fence argument. It is ironic that this should prevail in a country which has had a history of international influence and at the very time when improvements in travel and communications technology reveal new horizons of opportunity which can be exploited from a Scottish base.
If, in Scotland, we were able to notice at a very early stage the UK lessons of the 1950s and 60s, that large scale and centralisation do not work, we have conspicuously failed to apply our experience to the alternative solution. But, too often the cry is abroad that it “cannot be done” in Scotland and the constant repetition of that ignorant generality has the ironic capacity to generate its own truth. The trend is continuing and insidious and eventually it produces a terminal condition. It is a vital function of leadership at the present time to promote and encourage the contradictory evidence of success and to elevate our thinking from the ever narrowing circle of our own self-doubt.
We need to be pointed ahead into new standards of endeavour, both collectively and as individuals. An inhibiting factor in achieving that advance is the low threshold of tolerance which exists in Scotland for failure or error. “He’s no good, I knew his faither,” still reflects a prevailing philosophy of disbelief. We seem to have a highly developed capacity to point to the banana skin, after the fall. As a result, only the most resilient feel able to bounce back into the ring and don the gloves once again.
The achievements of a supportive climate for the emergence of risk takers requires a more sympathetic general environment than presently exists. Strong leadership can make a major contribution to that improvement by supportive influence and placing authority and credibility behind those who are aspiring to enterprise. The prevailing panacea of collectivised and institutional efforts to fertilize the seeds of risk taking is only a small part of the process of enterprise and will have little effect if the seed packet is empty.
There will be other examples of the need for leadership which each participant can identify. It is hoped that these may each reflect the need, in a quickly changing world, to encourage the involvement of young people into earlier positions of responsibility; this is a vital resource of flexibility and untainted enthusiasm which we are not tapping. In a difficult economy where new opportunities for responsibility are limited, there is a danger that inertia creates a growing bottleneck of seniority in top positions when we should be moving in the opposite direction and seeking the challenge of new minds. The immobility of labour can be destructive, at all levels. Strong leadership will provide the authority to encourage volunteers at one end, if not both ends of the process.
This paper expresses a starting point which may help to engender a debate. Others will develop and illustrate the theme and set it in a broader context. Each of us should, however, ponder on our own experiences and the characteristics of true leadership which we have seen. We should particularly consider the multiple of influence and performance which it can produce and these examples where the inspiration of leadership at high levels has stimulated the emergence of leadership by others. History tells us that leadership is more often recognised in the past than at the time when it occurs. We should not therefore dwell unduly on the giants of our history, but we can perhaps contrast the major post-war initiatives with the characteristic Scottish experience of recent years. And if the opportunity for leadership and the effectiveness of it increase in relation to the platform of responsibility from which it is expressed, we should not think that the quality of leadership can only occur on the grand scale. It is a dimension of human endeavour which can be found and encouraged at all levels and positions. It is that climate of leadership which we must try to achieve.