I am a historian by initial training and I love a good story. Though the great man (gender deliberate) of history approach has had its day there are still things that we can learn from stories of notable individuals. JB Steenkamp’s Time To Lead is the archetype of old-fashioned history-based leadership work. When you think bird you think of a sparrow (not a penguin). When you think leadership book you think Time To Lead. It could be in the dictionary to illustrate old-fashioned leadership book. The stories are a bit predictable but interesting and efficiently told. That said, I would have liked much more depth. It would have been better to discuss fewer leaders and get into more detail for each one. Plus I have a massive concern. What then does the book say about ostriches, eagles, and leadership storytime?
Who Is A Leader?
It can feel a bit 1950s when you read this book. The great man surveys his land. He takes hard decisions. (These usually involve peasants dying but there have to be sacrifices). He basks in the glory that can only come from tenacity, grit, and bravery. Oh, and it usually helps to be the son of someone important.
Interestingly, in one story Steenkamp, the author, tells us how people like him learned not to rely on the state. Instead, they learned to rely on their own hard work to bring success. The robust message is somewhat undercut by his vivid description of his background as the son of a Dutch politician. I may be wrong about the advantages he experienced that set him up for success, beyond what I am sure was also hard work. That said, I got the impression that, compared to Steenkamp, Prince Charles counts as a self-made man.
The Great And The Good?
Steenkamp recognizes the challenge that ‘great leaders’ are often terrible people. This is a tricky one. I would have liked more discussion of the issues this presents for studying leadership. Still, I understand and agree with the idea that we can still learn lessons from bad people.
Interestingly, he talked about how serious scholars nowadays don’t generally come from the great man perspective. He is clearly aware that his approach is a little dated. I was expecting him to explain more why he still uses the old approach. To my mind, he didn’t really do that sufficiently. I think he just wants to do that because the stories are good and such stories probably play well in executive education which helps fund business schools. (To be fair given that I get paid by a business school that sounds like a pretty good reason to me).
Ostriches, Eagles, And Leadership Storytime
Still, at points in the book, I thought he might be doing a Sacha Baron Cohen type takedown of the leadership industry. Below is such a comedic line, there are many more.
Cortes was an Eagle while Montezuma II was an Ostrich.Steenkamp, 2020, page 137
You might have heard of Hedgehog and Fox before. These are used to describe personality types. The point, I have always thought, is that neither are self-evidently better than the other. Steenkamp’s added the Ostrich and Eagle. The Ostrich seems to be the worst bits of the Hedgehog and Fox rolled into one. The Eagle, you’ve guessed it, is the best bits. What do you want to be? (Maybe a Hedgehog with wings would be the coolest but you are supposed to choose Eagle).
If a leader was successful this usually made them an Eagle. This leads to questions about causality. Does being an eagle help a leader do well? Or do we perceive the leader as an eagle after they do well? I’m hoping the latter is the case; because this means that winning gives you wings.
What annoyed me most was that, according to Steenkamp, Margaret Thatcher embracing the nasty fringe of British politics was brave. I’m not one to endorse one-dimensional views of people. As such, though I’m not generally a Margaret Thatcher fan, I agree that there are good things you can say about her. She was after all very impressive at breaking the glass ceiling to become UK Prime Minister. There are definitely many things to learn from her. I have no problem with her as an example of a leader we can learn from.
Furthermore, the Tory grandees who resented her rise were almost certainly sexist and classist when they looked down on her. Yet, to describe her as brave to bring up the issue of immigration in the way that she did is simply wrong to my mind. Steenkamp admiringly quotes Thatcher:
Both Labour and Conservative politicians were afraid to discuss the subject [immigration] out of fear of being labeled racist. Not so Thatcher. In a TV interview she said,Steenkamp, 2020, page 149
“People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture… So we do have to hold out the prospect of an end to immigration except, of course, for compassionate cases.”
Many people didn’t like it when Margaret Thatcher said this. They were upset, I think for good reason. They felt she was wrong, not brave, to openly embrace racist concerns. The UK was a nasty place at the time. (My home in a London suburb was full of racist graffiti in the late 1970s). For Thatcher to use the dehumanizing rhetoric of being “swamped” seemed to give such racist views legitimacy.
Is It Okay To Praise Those Who Talk About Britain Being Swamped?
Steenkamp says of Thatcher talking of Britain being “swamped”:
Regardless of one’s own opinion on the topic, it took courage to speak out like that.Steenkamp, 2020, page 150
Nonsense. It took absolutely no courage at all to pick on immigrants in Britain in the 1970s. Everyone in the pub was at it. It would have been much braver to defend them.
To be honest, I don’t think pandering to the worst impulses of the voters is brave. This is especially true as the rhetoric about being swamped was likely a vote-winner for Thatcher. (Steenkamp seems to imply as much right afterward). Thatcher here wasn’t being brave. She wasn’t risking unpopularity speaking the truth. Thatcher’s comment was at best cynical and nasty. It was grabbing votes at the expense of the weakest in society. It represented the worst of politics.
If you want to say good things about Margaret Thatcher that is great with me. Still, praising her for raising the issue of Britain being ‘swamped by people with a different culture’ is just wrong to my mind. We all make mistakes and I don’t mean to say Steenkamp has made the worst comment I’ve read this year, or even that Thatcher’s comment was the worst thing ever. Still, racial sensitivities have improved since the 1970s and I’m not sure how Steenkamp seems to have missed that memo. People in leadership positions should do better than this. I think Steenkamp should really know better if he is to give anyone advice on their leadership. I don’t want anyone who has been taught to think racist comments are brave to lead me.
A Profile In Courage
I find it odd to praise Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, as Steenkamp does in his book, if you think Thatcher highlighting racist concerns is brave. It feels like Steenkamp has completely missed the point of their battles against racism. It also shows an ignorance of political reality too. He seems to imply that he thinks you can’t win votes through racist appeals. I wish that Steenkamp was right on that front. But does anyone really believe that?
To be honest, I felt Steenkamp was lacking the knowledge of the world/self-awareness to speak about social matters or about courage. That said, he did give me a good laugh. My favorite bit of the entire book was when he told us why leadership matters.
I also believe that leadership matters because the people I lead matter.Steenkamp, 2020, page xvii
How did he generate the courage to take such a controversial stand? Brave, indeed.
This is a book with some good stories but is it for you? Sure. If nuance isn’t your thing and you want to get back to the good old days of leadership coming from ‘the best men’.
Read: Jan-Benedict Steenkamp (2020) Time to Lead: Lessons for Today’s Leaders from Bold Decisions that Changed History, Fast Company Press