News from Cass Business School

Leadership and change in challenging times

Centre for Professional Services Firms inaugural discussion forum

Tuesday, 19 May, 2009

The Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass recently held its inaugural discussion forum to debate whether professional service firms hold powerful leadership lessons for all organisations, or will the current economic crisis put their existing model of leadership under unsustainable pressure?

Professor Laura Empson (Centre Director) was joined by John Griffith-Jones (KPMG, Chairman, EMA Region), Tony Angel (Standard & Poor's, Executive Managing Director, EMEA), and over 100 senior professionals, policy makers, and MBA students at the event. 

The discussion was framed by today's economic environment which presents new challenges for business leaders and for scholars of leadership.  While it is natural to hope for heroic individuals to lead us out of the crisis, what happens when yesterday's business heroes become today's villains?  Is it time to develop a more subtle and sophisticated understanding of leadership, which emphasises the power of collective leadership?

Professor Empson argued that professional service firms have pioneered this approach because they have rejected conventional heroic and hierarchical concepts of leadership and have created strong leadership groups of professional peers.  Professor Empson also suggested that business schools were culpable in the crisis:

Business schools are as much at fault as the business press in creating the myth of the heroic leader. Business schools have a vested financial interest in gratifying the vanity of business leaders; and this conflicts directly with our responsibilities as individual scholars to remain scientifically sceptical.

Following on from her examination of the myth of the heroic leader, Professor Empson handed the discussion over to John Griffith-Jones who debated the question: is a leader is really necessary in a firm with a strong culture and a strong governance framework?  He also explained the three key roles for the leader of a professional service firm:

 To be the face of the firm - an embodiment of its values
 To represent fairness to intervene if partners are behaving badly', for example, and to be trusted to act appropriately
 To encourage innovation innovation and strategy should come from the bottom, but the leader creates an atmosphere that welcomes them

Tony Angel's key question was whether recent business failures could be put down to the failings of specific individuals their abilities, education, or personalities.  He argued that, in some cases the success or failure of the organization probably did turn too much on one person, but it did so because of a bigger issuea failure of governance structures within some organisations.

The event was the first of a series of evening meetings to be organised by the Centre for Professional Service Firms which aim to:
 Introduce research being undertaken by members of the Centre at Cass
 Invite senior leaders to present their views on the chosen topic of the day
 Build a community of professionals who want to contribute to the debate.

For a full report of the event please contact Tara Rees-Jones.

Stefan Stern from the Financial Times attended the event, read his article: 'A model of action or agreement'.

Permanent link to this story:

Richard Gillingwater, Dean, Cass Business School, opens the inaugural discussion forum

Laura Empson, Director, Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass

John Griffith-Jones, Chairman, EMA region, KPMG

Tony Angel, Executive Managing Director, EMEA, Standard and Poor's

The forum

Share this article