Beyond Authority: Leadership in a Changing World

The definition of leadership is unequivocal. It is: that others follow you. Often, indeed usually, in the corporate world others follow a leader because they are paid to do so.

The leader's authority comes from his position. The chief executive listens to the Chairman, the finance director to the chief executive. There is a line of command, understood, respected and, therefore, relatively easy to execute for good or ill.

But there is another world of leadership. What happens when you step outside the chain of established authority? How does the chief executive, sitting on another board as an independent director, exercise authority? How does an accountant make his influence felt when, after hours, he or she volunteers to do the local school's books or the Church accounts? Suddenly the authority of the office falls away. A new influence needs to be built.

This is the specific subject of "Beyond Authority", a magnificent book written in clear English and peppered with real examples. No surprise: its author, Julia Middleton, has led the charity "Common Purpose" for many years, its very mission being to break down the boxes in which we work and thereby build a more robust democratic society.

In meeting after meeting across the country "Common Purpose" has brought together business leaders, local politicians, regional police forces or hospitals or universities and said: "get together, lead together, and, by being involved in each other's affairs, build together a stronger civil society." Julia Middleton's own success in leading this endeavour gives her the ability to write with authority.

This is a book for anyone who wants to reach out beyond their little cubby hole in life. Are you a business big-shot creating a portfolio life? Then this book is for you, if you don't wish to come a cropper at your first outside meeting. Or are you as one in four Britons magnificently is someone who wishes, at any level, to be part of society beyond your own, principal employment? Helping out at the youth club, the hospital, a national or local charity?

This is a handbook on how to become influential and useful when you go beyond your immediate circle. And it is a handbook, not a philosophical essay. It is peppered with examples of people who have extended their influence to the benefit of society and, indeed, themselves.

There is much in this book about the Public Sector, which is not surprising since it consumes 43% of our wealth. And the Public Sector needs all the outside influences it can get. But it resists them brazenly. So this book would make a good read for civil servants, who are much to be encouraged to get out of their comfortable inner circles and to test their sense of influence and responsibility and leadership in the tougher, faster moving, private world of enterprise.

But try leading "beyond authority" as a Council member on a university, for example. If your influence were strong and benign and effective, the Higher Education Funding Council would have your guts for garters. The moribund Housing Association movement consists of Boards made up entirely of independents. If they were to (as they should) read this excellent book and use its wise, effective methods, the Housing Corporation would have them out on their ear in no time: initiative is not in its rule book.

Nonetheless society is moving rapidly towards pluralism (even if towards stifling regulation). Ever more people have more than one occupation or interest. That is the formula to a happy, healthy life. Julia Middleton's book will help you to it.

Review by Dudley Fishburn Dudley is a non-executive director of HSBC Bank plc and has been executive editor of The Economist and chairman of the Open University Trustees.