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Phil Higson and Anthony Sturgess on Uncommon Leadership

6th November 2014 | Phil Higson, Anthony Sturgess

Phil Higson and Anthony Sturgess explain how their new book Uncommon Leadership came about and ask just how common ‘common sense’ is

1. What first prompted you to write Uncommon Leadership?

Two things – firstly, an insight from Charles Handy that made us change the way we ran our workshop sessions. We were both very taken by his distinction of what separated thought-leaders from the rest. Thought-leaders, according to Handy, are special because they find the sense before it becomes common sense.

Then secondly, as we ran these workshops differently, we found they really struck a chord, prompting us to think that this approach might be helpful for a wider audience. We were discovering that using uncommon ideas about leadership both prompted what our delegates called ‘radical thinking’, and that they said it left them ‘keen to put into practice’ what they’d found. But in listening to how they cope, adapt and succeed, often in very difficult situations, one thing stood out. Leadership may be important and rewarding, but it’s also hard work. We were impressed with the response to our approach from delegates so we asked ourselves how we might be able to help other managers. And the result is this book!

2. What do you think makes this book different from the many other books on leadership?

The most obvious answer is that the book is structured around our own framework which addresses 5 relatively common leadership themes. But what’s really distinctive is that each of these explores an uncommon insight, designed to help leaders think differently, and to help them build a competitive advantage.

Although perhaps the real question should be: did managers and leaders find the book different and if so, how? Well, in time-honoured fashion we’ve tested it on a few managers before committing it to print, and here’s some of their feedback:

The cases and examples were singled out as especially helpful.

The balance of scholarship and practical toolkit that we intended has worked for readers so far.

A Harvard academic described the book as ‘a tour de force of the experiences and lessons learned from seasoned, successful leaders all integrated into a fascinating intellectual package’. (We’re proud of this one!)

One manager even said she couldn’t put it down … (we’re even prouder of this!)

So now we think the book is ready for a wider audience and would love to continue to hear from readers.

3. How is your 5-S Framework different from any other leadership theory or model?

Whilst techniques, tools and theories can be useful in leadership development, if we lean on them too much they can end up being counter-productive. What organizations really need are leaders who can help them gain advantage by thinking differently. So the 5-S Framework is designed to support this with 5 key leadership themes: seeing; showing; shaping; serving; and sharing.

But this book is not just about leadership, it’s about uncommon leadership. So each theme also relates to an uncommon insight:

Seeing – finding the sense before it becomes common.

Shaping – making good sense into common sense.

Showing – doing the common things uncommonly well.

Serving – having the common touch.

Sharing – making uncommon leadership more common.

4. Isn’t much of what you say in the book just common sense?

Well, it’s often said that the trouble with common sense is that it’s not that common! Whether or not that’s true, we believe it’s certainly not commonly practiced. And if so, then ‘just’ applying common sense could give you an advantage. As the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once reflected: ‘Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.’

But in actual fact, the book is about much more than common sense. A key message is that leaders find the sense before it becomes common sense. This means not just the ability to see the uncommon sense, which is hard enough, but to see it before it becomes common sense.

5. “Finding the sense before it becomes common sense” sounds good, but how can leaders actually do that?

Yes, our thought exactly! This is the question on our lips when we first came across Charles Handy’s quote. And in asking it, we found ourselves looking for examples of what leaders did to achieve it. These weren’t immediately obvious but as we began to find some, some key themes began to emerge. Three particular stories (which you’ll find in chapter one) offered some surprising insights:

Save the Children workers Jerry and Monique Sternin were short of time, short of money and faced with an intractable problem, yet achieved a remarkable turnaround in helping malnourised children in Vietnam.
Bill Bratton, whilst head of New York’s Transit Police, turned a poor performing organization around with some unconventional wisdom.
Well known Steve Jobs, on his successful return to an ailing Apple Corporation, was faced with just two months to save an iconic business from bankruptcy.

6. The book is full of interesting stories, but do these really help managers and leaders in their everyday work?

There is a wealth of evidence to illustrate the effectiveness of story-telling in leadership and management development. But the importance we place on stories is perhaps justified by the feedback we’ve received from both our clients and from the leading professionals who have helped inform the book. In fact their comments support our view that the case studies and examples really help reinforce and bring alive the 5-S Framework. One went so far as to say they helped her see how different ways of thinking can have a “massive impact on results” with people, customers and performance

This last point is something else we feel strongly about, and is a key focus of the book. Often it’s only by looking at something differently that we gain the fresh perspectives and renewed energy to make a real impact in our organizations.

Here’s how we do it. At the beginning of each chapter we introduce what we call a signature story, designed to illustrate ready-made practical approaches to adapt and apply.

7. Are there any other ways you can help to encourage uncommon leadership in organizations?

Yes, we believe so! The companion website for the book contains some great tools designed to support managers and leaders to develop their own skills, and to lead, manage and develop teams. We also provide resources for educators and students, especially those on MBA programmes.

You’ll also find our blog where we’d love to hear your views and respond to your questions.

And we’d welcome requests for speaking engagements and workshops – just get in touch!

We hope that if you’ve read this far you’ll go on to read the book and share our passion for uncommon leadership. Special thanks should go to all those managers and leaders who have shared their experiences, helped us hone our ideas, and spurred us on to write the book with their feedback. We wrote this with them – and you – in mind!

Uncommon Leadership is available from www.koganpage.com. You can also follow the authors on Twitter at @TheHappyManager.

Anthony Sturgess has a proven track record in developing award-winning programmes with his clients. He has been a manager in a large, private sector management development consultancy, and has served as Head of Executive Education at a UK business school. After setting up his own business, Apex Leadership, Anthony has recently returned to university life at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School to further his interest in teaching and researching leadership.

Phil Higson has over 30 years' experience as a manager and management educator, in small and large organizations in both the private and public sectors. In addition to this practical experience, he is a former Head of Business at a UK university, and co-founder of Apex Leadership. He continues to teach, examine, consult and write on various subjects, including strategy, marketing, services management, and tourism.


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The Kogan Page range of management and leadership books combines leading authors, practicality, detailed case studies and best-practice methodology. Our books are used by managers and leaders worldwide to make informed decisions based on the latest business thinking. Follow us on Twitter @KPMgmtLeaders.

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