Leadership – are the traditional models serving us well?

Brian Howieson

Still fresh into his role as Head of the Business Management subject group at Edinburgh Napier University, we sat down with Professor Brian Howieson to discuss the challenges ahead for business leaders, and the distinctiveness of a business education fit for the fourth Industrial Revolution.

What shapes your approach to management?

There are two kinds of Business School, those that focus on research about business and those that focus on education for business. The latter are more responsive to what practitioners need in today’s rapidly evolving marketplace.

I moved into academia in 2010, so I know that the focus we have at The Business School – where our Faculty reflects academics who bring direct management experience – is a strong fit to what practitioners want. In fact, that’s invaluable.

The World Economic Forum, held in Davos in January, highlighted that we are entering the fourth Industrial Revolution – which will be characterised by the impact of robotics, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and a focus on the Circular Economy. The skills and attributes that business leaders need to apply will need to evolve if they are to lead businesses successfully through the challenges of the next decade.

Can you expand on that?

Let’s start by asking: are traditional leadership models serving us well?

In academic terms, these models are relatively young concepts, introduced in the 1930s and based almost exclusively on western, industrialised and USA-centric thinking, where the focus has been on profitability and leadership was hierarchical.

In my direct experience, one of the most participative organisations is actually the modern military, where the focus has been on Mission Command since the 1980s. From day one, with a 16-year old recruit, the focus is on individual leadership. The team is most effective when everyone knows the goal and, as everyone is clear on the plan and priorities, anyone can take the lead as circumstances change.

We see that in sport, with Eddie Jones’ approach in international rugby delegating decisions down to the captain and team on the pitch. That approach is impacting the largest corporations now, with the likes of Diageo operating under a Mission Leadership model.

Traditional leadership models tended to favour a strong individual leader who often ended up suppressing ideas and innovation from others. Businesses can no longer afford to have that happen. The future will require successful organisations to be far more flexible and responsive.

How is that impacting on course content now?

I sit on the committee of the Chartered Association of Business Schools, which is reviewing what education is required. Edinburgh Napier University has always had reputation for engaging well with the practitioner market, working closely with its industry partners, and The Business School is already good at developing graduates who are strong critical thinkers, comfortable in abstraction and complexity, who can deal with complex public delivery. Those skills are very important, and will become more important. One of the opportunities we have is to develop courses for mid-career practitioners, who want the latest thinking that they can apply immediately to their own businesses.

Tell us a bit more about your own career path?

I joined Edinburgh Napier University in December 2018, moving from the University of Dundee, which I joined in 2013 after completing a 4-year Senior Foundation for Management Education/Economic and Social Research Council Fellowship at Stirling Management School, the University of Stirling. Prior to this, I had a 23-year career with the Royal Air Force (UK Ministry of Defence Fellow (2002)) and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

How has your career influenced your academic focus?

My research interest spans the broad spectrum of leadership, including its history and the current state of the field. I’m particularly interested in leadership as a public good (drawing on the work of John Dewey) and its relationship to sustainability and social movements; leadership in mutuals and cooperatives; and developing contemporary models of leadership, particularly in the areas of mission leadership and empowerment.

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