The Art of Leadership - Knowing Your People

One of the many things that made Ricky Gervais’ David Brent such a cringe-worthy example of a terrible leader was his overwhelming need to be liked by everyone, particularly his employees. Being a leader is a tough and often lonely job – genuine friends in the workplace are something few leaders can afford, or ever attain.

And yet some extremely successful leaders create an atmosphere where their employees – sometimes thousands of them – feel that they know them intimately. In these organisations, arguably, employees perform better because they want to do the best for their boss. Sir Richard Branson would fall into this category, as would Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC. In other words, popularity and success as a leader are not mutually exclusive.

In their excellent book, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones argue that the best and most inspirational leaders manage workplace relationships by knowing when to empathise and encourage loyalty, and when to be distant in order to keep people focused on their goals – without ever resorting to hierarchy to create the distance for them. This balance between inspiring loyalty (and even affection) among followers while simultaneously preserving enough professional distance to command the necessary authority is one of the most challenging aspects of leadership.

The rise in an empathetic style of leadership is a relatively recent event. For years (and in some cases, still today) the command and control approach dominated the leadership agenda. Goffee and Jones believe that modern, empowered times have effectively killed off the command and control approach and that people will now only follow leaders who are adept at capturing people’s hearts, minds and spirits.

That said, these qualities are impossible to fake successfully. But that does not mean  that if you are not naturally empathetic you cannot be a good leader. During the research for our book, What Do Leaders Really Do? we spoke to 17 successful leaders from the business and sporting world, as well as the military. Some (such as Dyke, Kevin Roberts, worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, and Major General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the Desert Rats during the first Gulf conflict) were naturally empathetic leaders who inspired huge affection among their followers. Others were not; but all of the leaders understood the importance of taking the time to get to know their employees.

Sue Campbell, head of UK Sport, told us that she learned on her first day as a trainee teacher that being a success was not about teaching, but about people. ‘If you can’t get people to engage with you, the game is over,’ she said. The same law applies to leadership – or as Greg Dyke puts it, ‘you have to get your people on your side because they can screw you, just by agreeing to do one thing and then doing another’.

There are a number of ways of ‘getting people on your side’, some more obvious than others. When he was head of London Weekend Television, for instance, Dyke introduced a tradition of a Christmas party for employees’ children. He also sent flowers to any staff member that had a baby, and wrote to any that had suffered a bereavement. ‘If as a boss you communicate with people in times of tragedy and in times of joy, it makes a massive difference,’ he said. ‘It is absolutely essential and it’s what decent human beings do anyway.’ But he acknowledges that some organisations are simply too big for those sorts of gestures. The most important point, he and others agree, is mutual trust; that your employees believe you when you say you are going to do something, and that they are trusted to do their job properly, in their own way. (Much of the latter depends on the leader selecting the right team, which we will look at more closely next month).

Many of the leaders talked of the challenge of creating an atmosphere where employees felt that they know their leader in a large organisation. Visibility was seen as vital – some of the best leaders use a combination of site visits, small meetings and email communication (but carefully written and targeted) to ensure that employees felt they were there, even when they were not. Work can often drive you through the office door and behind a desk, but effective leadership means going out and making a connection with as many people as possible.

In the same spirit, Charles Dunstone of the Carphone Warehouse and Greg Dyke said they always made a point of eating in the staff canteen whenever possible, as did the military leaders. ‘The commander needs to know what his men are thinking and it is relatively easy to gauge mood when you talk to someone over breakfast, for instance, and he has been on guard during the night,’ said Patrick Cordingley.

Patrick Cordingley also used to take time out while his company of 5,000 were waiting in the desert for the advance on Kuwait to play chess with the men. He often lost, but said he was delighted to do so as this gave the men something to talk about if they had beaten the brigade commander. Greg Dyke made a similar point – that you can’t be everywhere all the time, but if your people talk well about you, it feels as though you are. He related a conversation he’d had with the late Mo Mowlem MP: ‘Mo told me that when she visited anywhere as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland she would go up to the receptionist first and say, hello, I’m Mo Mowlem, who are you? And later, she would write down their name. The next time she went back to the same place she would go to reception and say, hello, I’m Mo and the receptionist would say hello, I’m Joan. So Mo would say, isn’t Muriel on today? Those things matter. In the end, it’s about the stories people tell about you.’

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