This column will change your life: The secret of good leadership

Towards the end of his life, the great organisational thinker Peter Drucker wryly observed that although he'd spent half a century speaking about the mysterious, seductive, much sought-after quality called "leadership", he wasn't sure there was much to be said about it at all. "The only thing you can say about a leader," he remarked, "is that a leader is somebody who has followers." This circularity hasn't stopped numerous gurus presenting themselves as purveyors of the "laws" or "secrets" of leadership. "The true measure of leadership," writes John Maxwell, who has published nearly 60 books on the topic, served as adviser to the US military and now runs a worldwide leadership development programme, "is influence... If you don't have influence, you will never be able to lead others." Um, yes, thanks. Observations about the excretory habits of bears in arboreal settings may spring to mind, but that probably shows you're not cut out to be a leader.

The more closely it's examined, the more "leadership", good or bad, looks like a mirage. In his interesting new book Obliquity, the economist John Kay cites John Sculley, chieftain of the Apple empire in the 80s. (Another secret of leadership: lots of the people involved are called John.) Sculley's reign was a huge success until, suddenly, it wasn't: with profits in freefall, he was forced out. Much ink was spilled over this. Was he a great leader who lost his touch, or a mediocre one who'd briefly risen above himself? Kay suggests a third option: neither. Maybe Sculley just sat at the top while other forces – technological, economic, cultural – determined Apple's fortunes.

Kay quotes the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: "One key reason why the presidents of large corporations do not control the United States is that they do not control their own corporations… When implied organisational skill and power are deployed and the desired effect follows, all that we have witnessed is the same kind of sequence as when a clergyman is fortunate enough to pray for rain just before the unpredicted end of a drought." That's extreme (and hard to square, say, with Steve Jobs's reign at Apple). But it highlights the tautologies and rationalisations that abound. Even assuming that there are skilled and unskilled leaders, "leadership" serves too often merely to re-label the mystery. See also "charisma": it's all very well to describe Hitler, or George Clooney, as charismatic. But what have you really said?

Psychological research supports a related circular conclusion: the people we follow as leaders are the ones who decide they've got what it takes to lead. We chronically mistake bossiness for leaderly talent. Make the most suggestions in a group context, one research team found, and you're likely to be seen as the most competent, even if the suggestions are among the worst. Voice an opinion three times over, another study suggests, and fellow group members are almost as likely to conclude it's the group's prevailing view, as if three different people had voiced it. ("Quantity," Stalin supposedly said, "has a quality all its own.")

None of which means there's no such thing as an effective leader. But trying to identify whatever it is that he or she does as some kind of essence called "leadership" may raise more questions than it answers. What makes a great leader? A certain je ne sais quoi, of course.

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