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Boosting leadership in a knowledge economy

by Bonnie Wu

Chris Mabey, director
Centre for Leadership
The University of Birmingham
Photo: Edde Ngan

Effective leadership requires management ideologies to be put into context. In a knowledge economy, companies must replace old hierarchical models with ones that can adapt to rapidly changing, complex corporate environments, with an approach that looks at the long-term company ethos and celebrates diversity.

While the shift is already happening in the UK and the US, Chris Mabey, director of the Centre for Leadership at the University of Birmingham (CLUB), senses it is starting to strike a cord with people in Hong Kong. "There's a general realisation here that conventional models are outmoded and no longer working," says Professor Mabey.

Today, most organisations operate within a network of suppliers, subcontractors, clients and agents. This is vastly different from the structure of companies 10 years ago, where it was assumed that leaders were the apexes of the organisation. According to Professor Mabey, hierarchical leadership worked within a more stable marketplace, with a compliant workforce and a well-understood product. Since then however, the variables have changed and conventional assumptions are being challenged.

Professor Mabey, who has been researching leadership development for the past eight years, advises knowledge-based organisations to adopt a leadership style and approach that creates conditions whereby knowledge is created, diffused and maximised in a way that is commercially successful. The key is to tap collective creativity rather than to suppress it.

"Leadership today is like a baton you pass on in a relay race; no individuals will have a monopoly on it," explains Professor Mabey. He adds that organisations need to move past the idea of leadership being the property of a few people, noting that those below may feel resentful if they're not being listened to.

Furthermore, the new model requires enduring practices that create a consistent and sustainable ethos. "This encourages employee loyalty and commitment, whereas hierarchical management styles result in rebellion," he remarks.

New leadership also celebrates diversity rather than just tolerating it. "If organisations want to encourage knowledge and creativity then they also need to be prepared to be challenged. Upper management must be ready to take note of feedback from below in order to lead effectively," Professor Mabey cautions.

In line with his beliefs in the leadership paradigm shift, Professor Mabey constantly questions his university's MBA syllabus. He believes that leadership should not be formalised or set in stone.

"Leading is active, it's flowing and it is not institutionalised. That's what we aim to teach in our MBA programme," he stresses. "We're not going to be content with conventional theories of leadership. We want to be constructively critical about organisational practice and equip our students with the mental apparatus to question assumptions of these practices rather than just accept them."

Professor Mabey is currently looking at the possibility of bringing the university's DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) programme to the teaching staff of the College of Professional and Continuing Education (SPEED) of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the alumni of the University of Birmingham. The two institutions offer a collaborative executive MBA programme where professors from Birmingham Business School are flown in to lecture in Hong Kong.

Reflecting on the value of having a doctorate degree in business studies, Professor Mabey says: "A DBA is appropriate for MBA graduates with substantial work experience, who want to continue to strengthen their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities."


Taken from Career Times 05 December 2008, p. A11

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