Author: John Adair

Publisher: Kogan Page, 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0749462031, 144 pages


John Adair is a pivotal expert on “strategic leadership” – a term he says he introduced in the 1970s – and he has written some 50 books on the topic. Employing ancient Greek history as his touchstone, Adair presents invaluable information, sharp insights, wonderful quotes and fascinating anecdotes about the history and techniques of strategic leadership in this exceptionally literate treatise. Adair uses clear, simple sentences to get his points across, creating a blueprint to help anyone become an effective strategic leader. Unlike many authors, his efficient, authoritarian – but never hectoring – style conveys every point he makes about leadership. Just as he suggests, a good leader never draws attention to his or her leadership methods. Adair’s elegant merging of form and function makes this a necessary and accessible textbook. getAbstract recommends this solid read to leaders interested in personal development, strategy and ancient history, and to those who simply love great quotes and aphorisms on leadership.

The ancient roots of leadership

Strategic leadership focuses on the future, though it is an ancient concept. Strategy (strategia in Greek) originally referred solely to military leadership. Five hundred years before Christ, a strategos was an Athenian army senior commander, the equivalent of a modern-day general. Athenian citizens elected their strategoi, and merit figured heavily in their election.

The Greek philosopher Socrates contemplated the subject of strategic leadership: He believed that as craftsmen learn their skills, so too can people learn to become capable, even exemplary, leaders. Xenophon, who became a strategos of great renown, was a member of Socrates’s inner circle. He wrote about Socrates’s dialogues with his students, including his discussions of leadership.

According to Xenophon, Socrates believed that soldiers would follow leaders who demonstrated competency and knowledge. Xenophon wrote of Socrates’s high standards for any strategos: “He must be resourceful, active, careful, hard and quick-witted; he must be both gentle and brutal, at once straightforward and designing, capable of both caution and surprise, lavish and rapacious, generous and mean, [and] skillful in defense and attack.” Other leadership qualities the Greeks regarded as necessary include “enthusiasm, integrity…toughness…fairness…resilience and humility.” Intelligence is crucial, as is “wisdom gained by experience.”

The philosophers understood that strategoi might emerge from any organization. The demands of leadership vary little with the task. In a dialogue with the soldier Nicomachides, Socrates noted, “a good businessman would make a good general.” He established similarities between businesspeople and generals: Both must select people for specific tasks, punish wrongdoers and reward the virtuous, motivate others and attain their goodwill, hold on to what they have won and work hard. Socrates held that a meaningful parallel existed because businesspeople focus on profits and detest loss, as any worthy general must.

The “three circles” model

To understand your responsibilities as a strategic leader, picture three interlocking circles: “task, team and individual.” Each circle represents an “area of need” that you must master, and each skill contains performance arenas that overlap with the others. A leader must develop and maintain the team, motivate individual members and ensure that everyone works to achieve the objective. A failure of leadership in any one area negatively affects the other two. To lead others to successful outcomes, consider the “functions” all leaders must fulfill…

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