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René Van Someren

Can excellent leadership be imitated?

Posted September 29, 2016

“When John studied management at university, he found it very difficult to grow an appreciation for Henry Mintzberg’s work. This had nothing to do with Mintzberg himself, nor with his work. Instead, Johns’ feelings were brought about by the, in his opinion, irrational worship of Mintzberg by John’s professors. To John, it seemed that this worship was primarily based on a distorted view of Mintzberg’s doctoral thesis The Nature of Managerial Work (Mintzberg, 1973).

In that thesis, Mintzberg had reported how five managers in virtually equal professional positions, located within a certain geographical area, social and cultural environment behaved during one week.

John found his professors’ veneration of Mintzberg irrational and unwarranted, since those professors concluded that studying that thesis was essential to learning about management.

John strongly disagreed with his professors and argued that this particular research of Mintzberg had low external validity, and that, without knowing the purpose or outcomes of the observed managers’ behaviour, the educational or scientific value of Mintzberg’s report to the field of management, was low.

John’s professors brushed aside John’s criticism, referring to the high number of citations of Mintzberg’s work, which they took as validation of their veneration by the academic community as a whole.

John felt that his professors meant well. He believed that, to most of his professors, leadership was little more than an academic concept, which they could not relate to the real world, even though they seemed blissfully unaware of this inability.”

In this article, I neither intend to go into questioning who was right in this matter, nor into questioning whether John’s professors may have been blinded by author-level metrics that affected their judgement of a researcher’s work. Instead, I aim to touch upon the questions:
  • To what extent does observing managers teach one about management?
  • To what extent can one become an excellent manager, by observing and imitating excellent managers?

Literature and other (social) media seem to suggest that, generally speaking, there is a much stronger ambition to become (acknowledged as) a leader than to become a manager. Since the questions mentioned apply to management as well as to leadership, next, those words will be used alternately.
Some believe firmly that one can become a great leader from looking at the focus, characteristics or skills applied by individuals who are acknowledged as excellent leaders, and subsequently trying to imitate those leaders, based on those aspects.
One major flaw that many of those observers demonstrate is completely detaching the pertaining leader’s focus, characteristics or skills from the specific situation, challenges and circumstances that those leaders were facing at the time.

Excellent leadership is not ‘what excellent leaders do’


Still, in literature and elsewhere, we are confronted with a persistent tendency to propound, as by definition, that leadership excellence spontaneously arises from applying specific skills (e.g. inspire), from demonstrating certain characteristics (e.g. authenticity), or from a certain focus (e.g. an organisation’s culture).

Doing so with total disregard for context, circumstance and specific demands, suggests that all leadership challenges are standard, alike and invariable and that distinct solutions and approaches are universally applicable.
Some may be disappointed to learn that this is not true: leadership challenges can be diverse, on occasion extremely complex and complicated, on other occasions amazingly easy and straightforward, and anything in between.

Specific skills, characteristics or focus do not make excellent leaders.

Appropriate skills, characteristics and focus, relative to actual context, circumstance and specific demands, do.


  • Different challenges require different approaches;
  • Different approaches require different knowledge, skills and personalities (attitudes), which in turn are often incorporated in different individuals;
  • Consequently, different types of leadership challenges often require different leaders.

Excellent leaders are not just those, who possess and apply the right aptitudes and attitudes at the right time, but also those, who know and acknowledge their own limitations and concede leadership responsibilities to someone with more fitting aptitudes and attitudes when specific challenges, context or circumstance so demands.


Leadership development based on reduction of leadership to a set of characteristics or skills, or to a certain focus is underdeveloped leadership.


Even though the pertaining characteristics, skills and focus may lead to success in addressing certain challenges, under certain conditions within a certain context, in other cases they will be less appropriate, or even lead to complete failure.

One can learn quite a lot from observing others, provided that one understands those observations. As such, one can learn from observing failures as well as from observing achievements.

Understanding observations can only come about when those observations are correctly placed in the full context of the observed behaviour.

Even with such understanding, excellence requires the appropriate attitude and aptitude (skills, competencies) that suit the specific demands and circumstances at hand.

This attitude and aptitude cannot possibly come about by merely observing and imitating others.

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