A survey on leadership suggests the industry is looking backwards rather than to the future. But maybe we can’t see our leaders for looking at them

Who are the influential leaders who will set the direction of the industry through the coming downturn and out the other side?

According to the results of a new CIOB online survey on leadership, they are the author of a report written in 1994, the architect of a worthy-but-unworkable efficiency strategy that’s a decade old, civil servants in government bodies, and Ray O’Rourke, the veteran chairman of Laing O’Rourke.

These nominations, the four most frequent from the sample of 665 construction industry professionals, appear to indicate a worrying dearth of strategic, charismatic, visionary leaders. When the industry needs new ideas more than ever to rise to the economic and environmental challenges, we’re turning to yesterday’s men and anonymous officials.

But then the respondents’ criteria on leadership were tough. Nearly four out of five (78.5%) expected that construction’s leaders should be able to lead another industry, and their templates for leadership included the acknowledged all-time greats such as Sir Winston Churchill and Bill Gates.

In fact, training organisation The Leadership Trust argues that the results reveal more about the psychology of perception than the parlous state of leadership in the industry.

‘I’m not too surprised by this,’ says George Telfer, international programme manager. ‘People tend to look outside their own industry, and there’s also a “halo” effect. If you think about Tony Blair, he had a very different image on the world stage and domestically. And how we perceive Richard Branson may be very different from how staff at Virgin do.’

Vanessa Robinson of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development also says we tend to look for good leaders in the media, overlooking examples closer to home.

‘We might not recognise great leadership at the time, it’s only with hindsight that you realise your company’s been successful for five years or has won loads of awards,’ says Robinson, the CIPD’s head of operations, research and policy. ‘It’s not all about being up on stage – there are a load of different attributes to being a good leader.’

With these reassuring thoughts in mind, other results of the survey suggest the industry is developing its fair share of leaders. For instance, three out of five respondents (60.6%) said that leadership was present at all levels of their organisation.

Rating the effectiveness of leadership at project, company and UK level on four issues, respondents judged their employers as being in positions of strength. On business ethics, 59.2% saw adequate leadership at company level versus 28.5% on the national stage; on education and training, the figure for companies was 60.6% and the national rate was 36.2%.

But asked how leaders are developed in their organisations, one fifth (19.l%) bluntly answered ‘they’re not’. On the barriers to the creation of a new generation of leaders, the most frequent response (24.6%) was lack of opportunity, while ‘organisational culture’ was selected by 23.7%.

However, the CIPD’s Robinson takes issue with that finding. ‘Leaders have an important role in making sure organisational culture is as effective as it should be,’ she says. ‘They have a responsibility to shape the culture to make it one where everyone performs well.’

Finally, asked what the CIOB could do to attract or develop leaders, half the respondents (50.1%) wanted the creation of a specialised leadership development programme, and over a fifth (22.4%) saw the need for more work on promoting leadership. Such measures would undoubtedly help the industry train a rising generation of leaders. But given our skewed perceptions of what constitutes good leadership, their benefit would lie in shining a PR and publicity spotlight on emerging leaders as much as their inherent value.