Monday, 15 April 2019


The art of the modern  leader

In a recent poll by the Hansard Society and Ipsos Mori, most people polled said they wanted a “strong” leader (whatever that means) and 54% approved of a leader who’d break the rules.

I’m deeply suspicious of this.

Currently the most successful leaders in sport and business are a more consensual breed. They recognise we no longer live in a world where blind obedience is demanded.  I once witnessed something in an American business to whom we were consulting. The Chairman had a bee in his bonnet about introducing colour variants to their flagship brand to make to more appealing to children. We begged his top team to tell him this was insane, wrong and doomed to failure. They wouldn’t … and it was.

Obedience is over-prized. “Because I said so” was always the worst reason to give a child for doing something they disagreed with. And our world is slowly changing in recognition of  this. “So what about loyalty to the company?” I’m asked. Loyalty goes both ways and all the loyalty in recent years has been to investors and top management rather than to the downsized workforce. 

I was once asked to do a presentation on Generation Z to a household name in office
equipment. All the available research and that I did myself showed they were mostly fair minded, determined to do a good job,  unimpressed with material  possessions, sceptical about things like simple  “career paths” or “property ladders” and most of all disinclined to take instruction at face value. They interviewed rather than were interviewed and took instruction reluctantly. The senior executives listened to this with stony faced incredulity whilst at the back of the room the interns were applauding.

Today leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are praised  by those who might in the past have applauded Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini – men who made things happen – people who saw things in black and white and in capital letters. In business such leaders would be characterised by comments like “at least you knew where you were with Tom” which is rather like saying you know where you are with Ebola.

In the 2020s, as they approach, we need a new breed of leader and top team that coaxes the best out of their people rather than tries to beat it out of them.  Above all they need to be leaders who are selfless, better listeners and great coaches. Leaders who say “we” not “I”. Here’s what gurus at Harvard say:

People will be more effective leaders when their behaviours indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us … rather than their own personal interests.“  (Kim Peters and Alex Haslam Harvard Business Review August 2018)

Old fashioned attitudes to leadership exist because we’re reluctant to discard our worship of historical role models. But the world is changing so leaders had better change too or be changed.

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