Leadership in an Uncertain World


“It is just not possible to set the criteria for what makes a good leader”.

Dr Tom Vine, EMBA and MBA Course Leader, was at his academic best at the second University of Suffolk Executive MBA Mini Masterclasses. Today, there is a great deal of focus on leadership, and in times of crisis there are often calls for strong leadership. From the Premier League to Brexit, strong leadership is vital to bring about success after adversity. However – and this is big – when you look at the wider picture of our leaders, even strong ones are largely ineffectual. The UK has an economic lead in the Exchequer, however their ability to have a meaningful impact on the economy is relatively non-existent. Really, a leader only controls staff, and even this is only to a point. Political, Economic, Social, Technological (PEST) factors (which can be extended to include Legal and Environmental) all exert control on an organisation as it is part of a system. Moreover, it is part of a chaotic system and there is a need to recognise this.

Figure 1
PEST Analysis, courtesy of Dr Tom Vine

None of this, however, means that leaders are a waste of time; our expectations of them perhaps just need to be redefined.  What’s more our understanding of followers needs to be enhanced. ‘Followership’ goes hand in hand with leadership after all, but what does it mean to be a follower? Do we need leadership and do we need reassurance? We divide the world into leaders and followers, employers and employees, but in reality with our layers of management most staff are both employees and employers at the same time. Theory holds that this position suits most people as we simultaneously like to be controlled and to have control. One area where leaders are perhaps most identifiably differentiated is with sacrifice, and from culture to culture there is an understanding that grave errors, even ones clearly outside the leader’s control, must be answered for with sacrifice from the leader to be resolved satisfactorily. What this does is promote the importance of the follower, of the company, above the leader. As well as this is the idea that the role of the leader is to co-ordinate change, most importantly to ensure the successful continued working of the follower. Different scenarios, different environments therefore call for different qualities in leaders and followers and it is impossible to create a single set of criteria for either.

Figure 2

The attendees from the business community found themselves more than up to the challenge. If a good leader can’t be defined then surely a bad leader can? There are clearly things which are ‘not helpful’ for a leader to engage in? Dr Tom Vine was buoyant. The best project managers have the highest failure rates because they are the ones who tend to get the most difficult projects. This does not mean however they are bad at their jobs. Surely then, came the response, that a good leader addresses the  organisational strategy as they have the widest view of activity? Surely the technology available gives leaders the best array of information to make good decisions in a way not seen before? Aren’t there management teams which enforce checks and balances and ensure good practice at the top?

Dr Tom Vine leads a suite of MBA programmes at Suffolk Business School. He can be contacted at t.vine@uos.ac.uk.

The next Executive MBA Mini-Masterclass takes place on 20 September, 18:00-19:30, at the University of Suffolk Waterfront Building.

The topic for this session will be Corporate Shared Value and we are delighted to announce that Oliver W. Olson, Director of Global Education Programmes and Senior Lecturer in Marketing and Strategy at the Maastricht School of Management.

This is a free session and part of the University of Suffolk’s Maastricht Suffolk Executive MBA Mini Masterclass series. For more information and to book your place please contact Laura Messer on on 01473 338616 or email l.messer@ucs.ac.uk

Further reading on leadership:

Grint K (ed.) (1997), Leadership: Classical, contemporary and critical approaches, New York: Oxford University Press

Hannan M & Freeman J (1977), ‘The Population Ecology of Organizations’, American Journal of Sociology, 82

Meindi J, Ehrich S, Dukerich J (1985), ‘The Romance of Leadership’, Administrative Science Quarterly 30

Pfeffer J (1978), ‘The Ambiguity of Leadership’, in McCall & Lombardo (eds.), Leadership: Where else can we go?, Durham NC, Duke University Press

Pfeffer J & Salancik G (1978) The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective, New York: Harper & Row

Stogdill R (1974), Handbook of Leadership, New York: Free Press


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