Leadership is not a transferable skill

Why does my heart sink when I hear that Sir Stuart Rose of M & S has been appointed to advise the NHS?

It’s because I suspect his expertise won’t be directly transferable. That’s not to say that as a bright, experienced and successful man he won’t spot some useful improvements. He surely will. But his success is particular, not general. And the same is true of all of us.

And it’s not just that. You can be successful as the head of a large organisation without being a great leader – you might have exceptional analytical or strategic skills or be an inspired marketeer. You might be just what your organisation needs given where it is in its organisational life-cycle or in the prevailing competitive climate.

If you teach leadership, as I do, you also have to recognise that size matters. Leading 100 people is different to leading 100,000. Very few people can generate the intimacy and personal loyalty that is possible in leading 100 when they have to lead 100,000. And where they do it is more about how their leadership defines and communicates the internal brand and organisational ethos than about the personal relationships they make.

One consequence of this is that leadership in the middle is different to leadership at the top.  If we look at the skills and qualities required it’s clear that many are the same. But context is crucial. So beware your leadership prescriptions unless you really understand the circumstances of your success.

Wisdom is about knowing where to look, not what you’ll find there. So welcome the stimulus of another’s experience but make sure their coat fits before you borrow it.