Monday, 16 December 2019


We’ve been hearing a lot about leadership, that Corbyn is a weak leader, that Johnson is a decisive leader (albeit a bit of a rascal.) At Christmas we’re told about the burning need for a leader 2000 year ago. But I no longer think we really understand what a leader is.

Is it the command-and-control, “follow me” hero who storms the hill? Is it the charismatic,  inspiring thought-leader or is it anyone who has a title which automatically confers on them respect and deference?

The old fashioned concept of leader like Elizabeth 1st, Churchill and Thatcher is not what is needed today. Indeed different businesses in different conditions require different leadership skills.  It’s this that makes me loathe the absurd Alan Sugar’s depiction of leader.

We have too many examples of Attila the Hun in the boardroom and few leave businesses in good  shape. Martin Sorrell is rumoured to have called his Chief Executives on Christmas morning not, as they’d hoped, to wish them the season’s greetings but to ask them why their staff to turnover ratio had slipped by a % point in December.

Phil Green, Harriet Green and Steve Jobs were successful as leaders for a while but at what cost? Values take a kicking when the “number” is the only thing that counts.

Modern business is more like football than chess. The flow of play that a well organised team can achieve is what counts. My sense is that most businesses need to have executive teams where everyone knows their role and who are all aligned to achieve the same objective.

Winning with style and purpose. Author and academic Jim Collins defined “Level Five Leaders” as the holy grail. He describes it as comprising:-

“a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They're incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.”

The idea of selflessness has always been locked into the philosophy of the Civil Service where the importance of the role is rewarded in generous pension arrangements rather than big salaries. But in general Civil Servants are what it the title says “servants” not “leaders”.

The idea of employees – as obedient factotums not as people showing initiative and freedom of thought – is especially appealing to the old fashioned leaders with a military bent for command and control. But unfortunately for them we have spent a generation encouraging creativity.  The upside of this is the surge in new inventions and breakthroughs in all the tech sectors. Wouldn’t we rather have a bunch of wealth creating geniuses motivated with “concierge-management” - great food, services and a stress free lifestyle rather than a controlling leader?

Great leaders will leave great legacies or achieve the unexpected but above all they’ll get the best out of their people who’ll  be coached into being great, dedicated followers.

Followership matters more than leadership now. The task is to make them believe following is worthwhile. That’s what leaders do.

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