‘How to Grow Leaders’ (John Adair)

Posted: November 22, 2012 in Book Reviews, Missional Leadership
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I just love the way John Adair begins his book by setting the parameters of his personal understanding of leadership. It is as if he invites you on a journey into the unknown, and explains the way you are going to get there. “It is the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action; the art of controlling them, directing them and getting the best out of them. A major part of leadership is Man-Management

‘How to Grow Leaders’ is an experiential story of Adair’s “personal odyssey” in his discovering of leadership. With many years of experience and often referred to as “one of Britain’s foremost authorities on leadership in organisations”, Adair recently received the title of Honorary Professor in recognition of his ‘outstanding research and contribution in the field of Leadership’ by the People’s Republic of China. Being the first professor in Leadership Studies at the University of Surrey, he has been the author of more than 30 books on the subject of leadership.

With the book divided in two parts, namely ‘Exploring Leadership – A Personal Odyssey, and ‘How to grow Leaders’, Adair explains the different approaches taken in understanding leadership before giving seven principles, each with its own case study in order to develop leadership.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. In Part 1, the on going debate continues as to whether a leader is born or whether he/she can be developed. Adair defines what a leader has to be, has to know, and has to do. Knowing that certain people just naturally take the lead in certain group settings, Adair is also aware that many of the skills can be learned over time. Quoting from the studies of Ralph Stogdill, it is also not uncommon in a group setup for different people to take the lead in a specific situation; “leadership is a relationship that exists between persons in a social situation, and that persons who are leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations.”

In Part 2 of the book, Adair focuses on the more practical side of ‘How to Grow Leaders’. Taking the reader through seven principles he emphasize the understanding that these principles are not rules but “general statements that are universally or widely considered to be true and fundamental”. Knowing that in many cases people are continuously searching for the ‘quick fix’ solution, Adair warns against not giving enough merit to deep thinking, asking the right questions and weighing the possible solutions or courses of action. These seven principles are:

  •   Training for Leadership
  •   Selection
  •   Line managers a leadership mentors
  •   The chance to lead
  •   Education for leadership
  •   A Strategy for leadership development
  •   The chief executive

“Leadership is an immense subject. Nowhere is it more important to teach it than at Sandhurst and in our universities; in fact to the youth, since it falls on dead ground with the older generation”. Throughout the book Adair quotes many people and he builds his concepts from some of their statements. One of my favorite, and because of my personal involvement with university students, comes from within the chapter on ‘Education for Leadership’. Adair expresses the value for leadership development within educational institutions and explains through the case study given how a headmaster of a school realized the value of leaving his office to walk around the campus, listening to the pupils and try to see the aspects of problems. “It is our values that gives us the stars by which we navigate ourselves through life”.

In closing, if you can look past the egotistical tone of the author and the slight overuse of military examples, this book is a valuable read for people involved within organizational leadership, team leadership, operational leadership, and strategic leadership. It covers a good understanding on the basics of leadership qualities, roles and skills; providing the reader with tools and techniques to excel as a leader.

John Adair concludes the book with a very fitting quote of John Buchan, “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.”


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