Leadership in Turbulent Times
In difficult times, we become more obsessed about leadership than ever. As the markets crash around us and companies see millions wiped off their balance sheets, through all the acres of comment the same questions keep popping up: who will lead us out of this mess? Who can we trust to do the right thing?
The US has been asking this same question for the past 18 months: who is the best leader for us? The presidential candidates in turn did their best to appeal to the myriad of qualities that their advisers and pollsters believe the American people look for in a leader. They want someone ‘of the people’; they want a hero; they want someone who will take decisive action; they want someone who will take a balanced view. They want, in other words, someone who will be all things to all men (and women).
No wonder we are confused. Good leadership means different things to different people. There is no single answer. But the past few months have taught us many salient lessons about leadership. CEOs of some of the largest financial institutions in the country were, a year ago, lauded for their organisation’s success. Today, they are public enemy No 1. But they have not changed; what has changed is the environment in which they operate. Perhaps, then, the best leader is one that can adapt to changing circumstances.
Over the past few years I have interviewed many leaders in from the world of business, sport and the military. Some of them had led people through incredibly challenging (and sometimes life-threatening) experiences. Their theories on leadership, though, revealed a number of common themes that are an interesting lesson for anyone in a leadership role today, or aiming for one in the future.
The first, and most important, is authenticity. ‘People can spot a phoney a mile off,’ is how Greg Dyke puts it. In terms of leadership, this means that there is no set formula for a leader’s behaviour; all of the leaders I met had their own distinctive style but they were all, essentially, true to themselves. They knew their strengths and their weakness and worked hard on the latter, while playing on the former.
Second, the leaders understand the importance of setting tough but achievable goals, and of celebrating success as well as analysing the reasons for failure. They understand that in order to get the best out of their people, they need to feel involved in and engaged with their company, irrespective of their role.
There is a famous story of President Lyndon Johnson visiting NASA and meeting a janitor who was sweeping the corridor with some enthusiasm. When the President commented that he was the best janitor he’d ever seen the man said, ‘I’m not just a janitor, I put a man on the moon.’. Ron Dennis, chairman and chief executive of MacLaren, makes the point that while the ultimate aim of the team is to win Grand Prix, only a handful of employees attend the races. So after each win, all of the workers are gathered together in the canteen at MacLaren’s headquarters in Woking to hear all of the details of the race and (hopefully) to celebrate the team’s success. His point is that success is down to each and every employee.
The third element of great leadership is mutual respect. I have yet to meet a modern leader – or a successful one at least – that believes it is right to lead through fear or control. Instead, all of the leaders I have met, irrespective of their field, have taken a genuine interest in their followers, and care very much what happens to them. It is this that wins their followers’ trust. Creating this atmosphere of trust brings many benefits and in particular fosters an atmosphere where people are likely to tell their leader when there is a problem, which gives a leader a fighting chance, at least, of tackling it before it gets out of hand.
People need to feel that they know their leader and while this is relatively easy in a small team, the challenges rise exponentially with the size of the organisation. Good leaders of large companies make a real effort to remain visible and in touch – a number have told me that they always, wherever possible, eat in the staff canteen. Many make sure that their office has glass walls and an always open door. The ones that were good communicators made valuable use of email across the organisation, although they acknowledged that there was a fine line to tread between maintaining contact and avoiding information overload.
It was fascinating to learn that it was the military leaders who took this more personalised approach to leadership most seriously. Major General Patrick Cordingley, for instance, who led the Desert Rats into Kuwait during the first Gulf War, says that he always made sure to eat with his men and liked to challenge his soldiers to a game of chess during quieter times. And Colonel Bob Stewart, who commanded UN forces in Bosnia, told me that whenever they set up camp he always made sure that his soldiers’ quarters were looked to first, before the officers’ accommodation. That, he said, was demonstrating to his men that he would always put them first.
They may be men in exceptional circumstances, but there are many important lessons that business can learn from the general military approach to leadership and particularly to team-building. Patrick Cordingley makes the point very clearly that in battle, his men are not fighting for him or for their country; they are fighting for the man next to them. The emphasis on creating a close-knit team means that each soldier does their absolute best for each other and for their leaders, because letting them down is the worst thing they can imagine.
The captains of sporting teams I have met have made a similar point. Martin Johnson, who captained the England rugby team to its World Cup win, said that he knew he had a winning team because the players trusted each other to do their best, and none were prepared to let anyone else down.
Humans are emotional creatures and we perform best as a team if we have a shared dream or common enemy. Good business leaders recognise the importance of uniting their employees and some use an ‘us and them’ approach in order to reinforce the team spirit. The intense rivalry between organisations in the same sector – such as between British Airways and Virgin, or between the high street supermarkets – is no accident because a team pulls together when faced with an adversary. People need tangible targets and when none is obvious, why not create one?
Perhaps one of the biggest myths about leadership is that you need a finger in every pie, all of the time. Martin Johnson told me that being captain was very similar to a managing director’s role – if the team was working well, he didn’t need to do much at all. Much of the work in good leadership lies in getting your team or organisation to the point where it runs smoothly with little day-to-day intervention from you. From then on it’s a matter of looking for the bumps ahead on the road.