Leadership Lessons from 1982 and 2012

12 Dec

I write this article in collaboration with my colleague, the psychologist, Matt Slater. Matt’s been conducting insightful research into leadership, particularly around how leaders maximise the potential of teams. In this article we share our views and research to discuss the relationship between leadership and autonomy.

Way back in in 1982 Tom Peters and Robert H Waterman published the best seller In Search of Excellence, which is to date the biggest selling business book of all time. The book focused on explaining the 8 characteristics (identified by Peters and Waterman) which excellent performing businesses (at the time) exhibited. Despite the book’s over simplification of business practices taken from temporary market leaders it inspired a lot of people to action, and got individuals, teams and organisations trying different things. The book is now quite dated; however, there is one part of it that particularly stands the test of time- the relationship between leadership, values and autonomy.

Peters et al (1982) argue that if leaders promoted no more than four values and then communicated these values clearly, then decision making could be diffused widely throughout the organisation. It could be diffused because these values would establish boundary conditions for the framing of decisions, a context in which to make sense of situations and define choices. As long as the values were transparent, then talent, initiative and innovation would flow in the right direction. Moving on from 1982, it’s possible to argue that Peter’s et al style of thinking on values, deliberately or coincidently, made a significant impact 30 years later in London. There is possibly no sharper example of a team made up of talent using values to realize the potential of that talent than Team GB in the 2012 London Olympics, an area Matt has researched significantly.

Bringing the group together to work as a collective entity is at the crux of leadership. Indeed, the effectiveness and longevity of leadership hinges upon leader’s capability to galvanise the group’s energies and abilities to collaboratively achieve an established vision. One prominent approach in which leadership can be optimised in this way concerns the creation of a shared team identity.

In one of our leadership studies we examined prominent leaders (e.g., performance directors, TeamGB Chef de Mission) at the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was clear that successful leaders created a collective vision with their team that is achieved through strong team identity and shared values. Here’s an example from Sir David Brailsford (TeamGB Cycling performance director):

I think we should be proud of the crazy attention to detail that this team will go to in preparation for the Games, for the innovation that we will try and show and when we are really really under pressure and the guys have got their backs against the wall, they’ll come out with that true British spirit and fight.

This shared sense of identity centred on preparation, innovation, and British spirit results in a feeling of oneness, where the team feel that they are part of something bigger; a higher purpose, a collective vision they are contributing to; a legacy. Such teams are more resilient because personal fulfilment and achievement is now attached to team fulfilment and achievement meaning individuals wholeheartedly give themselves to the group cause. Further, leaders who create a shared team identity are empowered with the responsibility of shaping group members’ attitudes and behaviours. Speaking to this point, research in our laboratory has demonstrated that when individuals feel a sense of belonging to the group their thoughts and actions align with group values. At London 2012 leaders discussed values including preparation, innovation, and accountability, and challenged their athletes to epitomise these values to achieve performance excellence on the Olympic stage.

So what lessons are there for organisations from 2012 and 1982? The core remains identical- Leadership expresses values, values direct talent, talent creates a culture and the culture defines the identity of the people who are part of it. The lesson from 2012 is the acknowledgement that talent and autonomy alone are not enough. Yes, giving talented people the space to innovate and develop is essential, but that space can be suffocating without the values and the corresponding sense of identity to give it meaning. Values create an “at hand” contextual framework people in an organisation can apply to make sense of situations. Without this framework, people can put significant energy into projects and ideas but suffer the anxiety of never quite knowing if they are moving in the right direction, or their efforts are appreciated.

One strategy for leaders to communicate values explicitly and work through, rather than over, teams to develop and embed these values. Leading through groups empowers employees and aids clarity in what’s asked of them in a way that reduces unhelpful stress. Further these values as the framework for employees’ behaviour should align with where the group is heading; the collective vision. In other words, day-to-day mobilisation within the shared values framework progresses “us” towards our vision. An additional strategy that has been implicit throughout the discussion so far is the use of use collective language. In our study it was clear that the successful Olympic leaders bestowed the remarkable achievements of TeamGB on the collective, they used language such as “us” and proposed that “we” had created history. This functions to further strengthen the group bond.

The use of language to link action to a higher purpose is demonstrably effective, and can be used to communicate a maximum of four values across the organisation. Leaders must exemplify these values; they must be consistent and not contradicted. Once the values become embedded as norms it will provide people with the confidence to act, particularly when they are given autonomy and the space to use their talent.


Slater, M. J., Coffee, P., Barker, J. B., and Evans, A. L. (2014). Promoting shared meanings in group memberships: A social identity approach to leadership in sport. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 15 (5), 672-685.

Slater, M. J., Barker, J. B., Coffee, P., and Jones, M. V. (2014). Leading for Gold: Social identity leadership processes at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health, e-pub ahead of print, doi:10.1080/2159676X.2014.936030

Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Warner Books, 1982), pp. 223-24, 286

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