Jamie Livingston, managing director of Livingston James, executive search consultants
Scotland has always, often against daunting odds, punched above its weight in the cut-throat world of global markets, but it is pertinent and legitimate to ask how well equipped it is to continue to do so.
For anyone concerned with the quality and quantity of executive material within Scotland plc, it is becoming an ever more pressing question: just where is the next generation of internationally-minded business leaders coming from?
It must be made clear at once that this question is in no way intended to denigrate the capabilities of the many talented and ambitious people engaged in the middle to upper layers of corporate and professional management.
Moreover, as the recent Alumni dinner of the highly-successful Saltire Foundation – with its 300 scholars and fellows, internships with 40 host companies spread across 4 continents and its intimate relationship with Boston’s entrepreneurial hub, Babson College -demonstrates, serious effort is being put into nurturing tomorrow’s business leaders. Other organisations, such as Entrepreneurial Spark, also give hope for the future.
But is this sufficient, and can it be denied that many amongst the current business generation have been the victims of a concatenation of circumstances which have conspired to dilute or even deprive them of the hard won experience that drove their seniors to the pinnacles of leadership?
Most insidiously, many people in mid-executive positions at the moment have, until the traumatic past few years, never known anything other than benign economic conditions with, apart from an odd blip, a long upward trajectory of growth since the recession of 1992.
This leaves them in a vulnerable position when a downturn of the brutality of the 2008 meltdown kicks in. They have been compared to the junior officers of a peacetime army, who have never seen action, while their senior officers - the ones in leadership roles at the moment - are battle-hardened veterans.
And, to press the analogy just a little further, many of them are missing in action. One of the kneejerk responses - especially among professional services firms - to the slowdown of 2001 was to slash, or even axe, graduate training programmes.
The short-sightedness of this move is a lesson that firms have learned from and most should be applauded for their efforts to keep people on during the current difficulties - but it means that the people who should now be blossoming into the summer of their careers are just not there.
There is also the question of the generation currently in leadership roles. In the past, they could have been expected to hand on the baton to the next professionals in line with a benign smile and some wise words of encouragement and advice.
But this generation is now rude with health and in many cases determined to remain in the saddle for as long as possible - especially if their pension pots have been decimated and their retirement plans plunged into uncertainty.
As a result, particularly in Professional Services Firms, they are not handing on clients and their juniors - who are technically qualified but without real leadership experience - are criticised for not contributing their expected share of the fee income.
What can they do? This is the difficult question and it is one that quite naturally will exercise the minds of a management tier which previously could have anticipated a smooth upward progression through the ranks.
But if the dead men's shoes model fails, future leaders have to re-evaluate their options, and the first step is to make a candid assessment of their own abilities - and fallibilities - and their prospects with an organisation.
This leads to the distillation of choices for career progression - which can be summed up in a stark but realistic phrase - Lead, Follow or Leave.
Future leaders will know that it is a fundamental of the human condition to rise to the top by working harder and being better than anyone else, and this will qualify them to lead. If it becomes clear that this is not their forte, there is no shame in being a conscientious follower.
But if an ambitious executive is of the temperament and personality where neither of these courses is an option, then the only choice is to leave. There are few sadder sights than those who remain and complain.
This is how businesses are born - by the enthusiasm and vision of people who know what they want, and want to lead others to that goal. I suspect that within the ranks of today's potential leaders - despite the many hurdles they face - we will see a strong cohort which has the courage to take the third way.
Jamie Livingston is managing director of Livingston James, executive search consultants