• May 2013

Oxford University's David Pendleton Teaches Us "All You Need to Know" About Leadership

David Pendleton is an associate fellow at Saïd Business School and of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. A chartered psychologist, he specializes in leadership—assessing and coaching senior executives and developing their abilities to lead change and create high performance cultures.

He co-directs the Oxford High Performance Leadership Program with Tim Morris, and has made a major contribution to the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Program, including a session on leadership and personality that teaches how—using psychometrics—to assess the potential helping and hindering personality characteristics for leadership.

His most recent book, written with Professor Adrian Furnham of University College London (UCL), is “Leadership: All You Need to Know,” which was published 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan. It highlights the key role played by teams in complementing leaders’ capabilities. That’s what we talked to Pendleton about in March 2013 when he was a visiting professor at the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University in Washington, DC.

Following is our Q&A with this expert on leadership.


Be Inkandescent: In your book, “Leadership: All You Need to Know,” you say that the successes and failures of leaders are in the media every day, that we are in a global political and financial crisis, which is changing how we think about our lives and our futures. You present a leadership model for the future that creates the right conditions for people to thrive, individually and collectively, and achieve significant goals. Tell us about that model, and how it applies to entrepreneurs.

David Pendleton: First, let me explain that the book was born of my frustration with most approaches to leadership and leadership development. My co-author and I wanted to put together an understanding of leadership, which includes the strategic domain (which is all about the possibilities), the operational domain (which is concerned with practicalities), and the interpersonal domain (which is all about which people are going to be with us on the journey).

If you arrange them as a Venn diagram, as three overlapping circles, you begin to understand that although there are differences among the three domains, they overlap at many points. But no one leader is likely to be equally good at all three domains—unless that leader is happy to be mediocre. If you want to be world-class at any one area, you have probably got to really focus on a single aspect and excel at it.

Be Inkandescent: What sets your theory apart from other books on leadership?

David Pendleton: Good question, because I’m sure your readers and listeners to our podcast will be thinking well, of course, that must be true. Most people think of this Venn diagram as intuitively correct—but most approaches to leadership suggest people work through their limitations in any of the three aspects they aren’t shining in so that they can become a much more complete leader.

I stand in the opposite corner. I say that only on some of those limitations are you likely to make any progress, because on some of them your personality is working against you. I want to go vertical. I say, give me a strong team of leaders and we’ll work on accomplishing great leadership as a group—because we need each other to be complete. In a nutshell, my ideas about leadership are this: You have the possibility of creating complete leadership, but we’ve got to put that together with incomplete individuals.

Be Inkandescent: Very interesting. And this theory—Incomplete Leadership— is the concept you have coined.

David Pendleton: Yes. If you look at all the capabilities that leaders are required to cover, and you look at the way people come together in packages, the group will excel as a whole. That’s because no one person can stretch and change and morph into every aspect of leadership that an organization needs. So I’m likely to be incomplete if you compare my capability set against the full set that leadership requires. That makes me an incomplete individual. But put me with the right people who have complementary differences, and together we can provide complementary leadership.

Be Inkandescent: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a leader?

David Pendleton: I’m no good at planning and organizing. And I’m here today for our interview with my colleague Sean Coleman from Webster University. The good news is that he’s very, very good at planning and organizing. So together, we can be dangerous. But on my own, I’m a bit of a damp squib when it comes to organizing things.

Be Inkandescent: So how can organizations, especially small businesses, be more effective using your principles?

David Pendleton: You’ve got to embrace this idea: “I am on my own, unlikely to have everything that I need to lead well.” So, the first thing I’d say is, understand what you bring to leadership. The ideas in my book on leadership simply provide a checklist of the things that you need to be able to do well.

Be Inkandescent: Can you give them to us in bite-size bullets?

David Pendleton: Indeed. I can say them in seven simple lines.

1. Set strategic direction.
2. Create alignment.
3. Plan and organize.
4. Build and sustain relationships.
5. Work effectively in teams.
6. Always deliver results.
7. Cope well with pressure.

If you think about those three overlapping circles of the Venn diagram, the one in the middle is balancing the other leadership contributions. Coping with pressure sits outside all of these, because it’s the pressure that acts on us that sometimes causes us to buckle and break. So, be very realistic about the leadership qualities that you bring to the company, then hire other people that can do the other things.

Be Inkandescent: How does this play out in your own business, the Edgecumbe Consulting Group.

David Pendleton: My consulting firm is a very niche firm, which applies psychology to the world of work. There are only 23 of us in the firm, so it’s not a big organization. The majority of my planning and organization is done by my personal assistant, and she’s terrific. She’s a very, very smart and sunny lady who always has a smile on her face, which I love. But the great thing is that when it comes to planning and organizing, you’d wonder who was the boss, because she tells me what to do. I set the direction, and I say, “within that, please sort this out,” and she tells me what I must do in order to make the plan work. And I’m comfortable with it.

Be Inkandescent: Has your firm grown using your leadership principles?*

David Pendleton: Indeed. When we were much smaller, we struggled to find the particular skill set that we needed, but having the ideas of leadership clearly defined, that we were evolving, we went shopping very specifically. We developed two shopping lists for our hires: What do they need to be able to do? And what leadership quality do they need to have? So say we needed an accountant. We looked at their resume, as well as their leadership capability set. We we went shopping for one person, looking for things from both lists.

Be Inkandescent: Do you think that people are born leaders, that it is a skill that can be learned, or are some people team players by nature, and they don’t want to lead?

David Pendleton: The evidence shows that leaders are usually both born and made. If you’re not an extrovert, if you’re an introvert, then in order to lead you’ve got to emulate some aspects of extroversion. Extroverts most naturally spend time with people, they like to network with people, it’s natural for them to do so.

Extroversion is associated with assertiveness; it’s also associated with optimism. And these things don’t come so naturally to the introvert. Now does that mean introverts can’t lead? No, it doesn’t, but it means they’ve got to invest an awful lot of energy and focus; they’ve got to stretch to find those characteristics. Can leaders improve their quality of leadership? The answer to that is yes as well. There are all sorts of ways in which they can do that, not least by getting good people around them.

Be Inkandescent: And do you think some people really enjoy being a part of a team as opposed to being the leader?

David Pendleton: Yes, particularly in the world of work. But look at a lot of moms who don’t live to work; they work to live. There are dads like this, too, but I think still slightly more women come into the workplace because they want to take fantastic care of their family—and also earn some money to help them do that well. What ends up happening is that they wear a leader hat at home, but they don’t want to take on that responsibility in the workplace, they’ve got enough going on.

These types of people may be the mainstay of the parent-teacher association at school; or they might be a local counselor, but when they get to the office every day, they just haven’t got any libido left to invest in leading in the workplace.

Be Inkandescent: That segues beautifully into something we were discussing before the interview, about your belief that this is the millennium of the future, that women are the leaders of the future.

David Pendleton: Yes! There is a famous saying that “The 19th century belonged to Britain, because the British Empire turned the world’s atlases pink, and the 20th century belongs to the United States as its economic dominance was established. And therefore, it goes without saying that the 21st century belongs to China.”

I believe actually that the 21st century belongs to women. The reason for that is I think the world has experimented for an awfully long time now with simple, naked, bald competition. That’s still very much more the province of men than women, certainly in most OECD countries, where women are brought up much more to be collaborative rather than competitive.

I still remember a lovely soap opera in my country in which men and women sat around discussing the women’s book group. The men, the husbands in the group, said, “We are going to start a book group as well, so tell us how to do it.” And one of the women said, “We all sit around and decide what book to read,” and the guys said, “Yep, we’ve made a note of that.”

Then she said, “We all read the book,” and they said, “Yep, made a note of that,” and she said, “Then we discuss the book.” “Yep, got that.” “And then we choose another book.” And the guy says, “Wait a minute—nobody wins?”

It just seems to me, what we need increasingly are words like partnership, collaboration, nurturance, and growth, and these replace an old vocabulary about competition, win-lose. Permeable, corporate structures need to be more fluid, and organizations need to find ways of collaborating—not just to cost-share, but maybe to capabilities-share as well.

Be Inkandescent: Can you give us an example of a situation you are tracking?

David Pendleton: At the moment there is a a big debate about a program that we’ve started between Oxford and Harvard universities. It’s a very unnatural thing for these business schools to collaborate with each other. And every now and again, we find someone who hates the idea that we’re doing that, who thinks we need to be complete in and of ourselves.

I’ve been slightly irritating these people, particularly one person at Harvard. He said, “We’re 100 years old and don’t need to collaborate.” I said we used to have that view at Oxford, and when we got to about 500 or 600 years old, we decided we could relax a little.

Be Inkandescent: Ha. That’s great. Before we let you go, can you talk a little bit about the next generation that’s going to take over the workforce: the Millennials?

David Pendleton: What I’m hopeful for with the next generation is that they are helping accelerate the pace at which old assumptions are being questioned, and the pace at which old structures are being changed. Clearly, any organization, or individual or team, that wants to succeed in the 21st century is going to have to embrace flexibility. It has been said before, but the only thing certain about the future is that it will continue to change at an increasingly fast pace. So hold on to your hats.

Thank you so much for your time, David. And thank you to Sean Coleman, our friend at Webster University, for introducing us to this incredible Oxford scholar. It has been wonderful learning about your theories on leadership, and we look forward to sharing them with our Inkandescent readers and listeners.

For more information about “Leadership: All You Need to Know,” click here.

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