If you are interested in leadership, and the impact leaders can have on organisations, then a great thing to observe is the world of professional football and the impact of the manager.
OK, I am biased, and still emotionally raw, so this won’t be the most objective piece of writing in the world, but hear me out.
Marcelo Bielsa was the manager of Leeds United for three-and-a-half years. His recent dismissal triggered unprecedented displays of anger and heartbreak for someone most of us have never met or even heard speak English, and all the more surprising considering that us Yorkshire folk are not exactly famous for our demonstrative approach to human emotions.
The point I want to make about his leadership isn’t the onfield success – the beautiful sparkling football and promotion to the Premier League – because other managers have achieved impressive sporting results too (as his critics never tire of reminding us). The point I want to make is how he transformed an organisation and connected emotionally with the club, the fans and the wider city on a level none of us have ever known before.
He transcended the function of his role (the football) and embodied values that were hopeful and pure, giving us something unique and more important to care about than a game with some goals in it. He was visionary without ever really mentioning a vision; he just lived it, with humilty and grace, and it captured our hearts.
At the risk of accidentally creating a smash hit for Ed Sheeran, during a recent conversation with a colleague, we came up with the idea of “Changing Out Loud” – consider this post an assertion of copyright!
We were thinking how to meet a need around change leadership in a work situation, and were finding the usual change management models (Kotter, Lewin, Bridges etc.) to be missing the point for what we wanted. This wasn’t change management, it was change leadership, and we didn’t really want leaders banging on about refreezing or creating a sense of urgency or sketching out force-field analysis diagrams, we wanted leaders to be telling us what we’re supposed to be doing, and then showing us that they are doing it too.
Many of us work in roles where our performance cannot be represented by an objective measure that neatly sums us up, and yet many of our performance management systems demand we do just that.
A lot of what we do has a fuzzy impact, with ambiguous barely-detectable results; results that ripple over longer timelines than the yearly appraisal cycle. In some cases our impact might be negative in the short-term because we want to make a lasting change in the long-term: change curves go down before they go up.
This is especially true when learning new skills, because there are phases of incompetence you have to struggle through if you want to gain competence at something new.
Even without these complications it is difficult to judge the full range and quality of what our colleagues do. We might see them dealing with a difficult customer so skillfully that they make it look easy, so we under-value how much legwork they put in to achieve this level of performance and so we mentally tot it up as routine. Then we move on, only catching glimpses of other people because we’re busy with so much else, those glimpses being more memorable if they ping a bias (or heuristic) such as “confirmation” (it confirms what we thought anyway) or “effect” (we have an emotional response to it) – but these superficial glimpses don’t stop us jumping to subjective judgements and thinking we’re seeing the objective truth about someone’s performance.
If that so-called “performance truth” is decided by people “thinking fast” (Daniel Kahneman), and confirmed by hierarchy rather than expertise, then we’re in trouble.
To quote Ryan Holiday (from The Daily Stoic):
because our senses are often wrong, our emotions overly alarmed, our projections overly optimistic, we’re better off not rushing into conclusions about anything
I worked with a boss who saw his role as to challenge people’s thinking.
He had a keen analytical mind and was world-class in wrong-spotting, he could unearth a gap in anyone’s thinking from a hundred paces, and tease out anything and everything we hadn’t thought through properly with a few clever questions.
Everything he touched got an intellectual kicking to check for road-worthiness, and he was rarely off base in his eternal quest to discover anything that might be wrong with everything we ever thought of.
It was a nightmare.
He probably saw his role as being a guardian of quality, an invaluable cog in the production machine, a well-respected thinker who people would joyfully seek out to test their ideas before daring to expose them to the wider world … but in truth he wasn’t illuminating us with the warm glow of comfort and joy he thought he was, he was casting a dark shadow of persnickety pessimism, deflating and demotivating with his pedantic challenges and “but the problem with that is …” response to almost anything we ever tried to do.
Maybe we were over-ambitious at times, certainly naïve, reaching for too much with our attempts to achieve as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but by the time he’d finished with us, we were just trying to get through the day.
It is an unfortunate truth that whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood.
As inevitable as death and taxes, this Murphy’s Law of communication is especially true when the message is unwelcome. Whoever is in charge of sayings probably needs to change Bullock’s famous quote to include this:
’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes and Misunderstandings
Leaders – especially when trying to change something (because pretty much all change is unwelcome for at least some of the people some of the time) – must factor this into their thinking.
We must assume that, whether by genuine accident or convenient design, even our most-beautifully crafted and benevolent utterances will be misunderstood.
Leadership isn’t easy, it demands a level of self-awareness, self-control and maturity that not all of us are able to muster.
In my experience of working with humans, I have noticed that they have faults. If you are not in a leadership position, maybe these faults are no big deal, but as you rise in the hierarchy and your influence broadens, the impact of those faults is amplified and the probability of them doing harm grows exponentially.
So leaders need to be vigilant about which of their traits are helpful to their leadership role, and which aren’t!
There are many ways to get leadership wrong, and I have certainly been guilty of a few of them (and am certainly guilty of a few more that I’m unaware of – and some I am aware of, it’s a work in progress …). These are linked to many different things, such as personality traits that may mismatch the context of the moment (such as Asquith’s guiding chairmanship being unsuited to the decision-making demands of World War One – more here), or personality traits that just don’t suit leadership so well, or maybe just the leader not being mature enough because leadership is – like good wine – something that often gets better with age.
Here are five immature leader types I have spotted, sadly it’s not an exhaustive list:
(This is the first in several posts about authentic leadership)
How can I be an authentic leader?
This is probably the question I get asked more than any other on leadership development programmes.
How can I adopt all these leadership behaviours you’re telling me about, act motivated when I feel deflated, pretend to support positions and decisions I don’t agree with, and at the same time call myself an “authentic” leader?
The thing is, it’s the wrong question to ask because “authenticity” isn’t the point.
Leaders who worry about being “authentic” are putting themselves in the centre and forgetting that leadership isn’t about them: leadership is about influencing and inspiring other people (other people who are our social equals and who shouldn’t have to put up with our crap) to do something.
The day you become a leader, it becomes about them
Or to put it in a potentially brilliant (or potentially confusing) way: leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship.
So “authentic” is only good if it helps us influence and inspire others, it’s not necessarily good in itself.
In Venn diagram form:
This means that Person A is a poor leader despite being authentic.
They are unprofessional, quite possibly self-indulgent, and as they mistakenly seem to think we have to put with aspects of their “authentic self” which are unhelpful to leadership.
They are probably mistakenly thinking they are the star of the show and that leadership is all about them.
This approach might have some success when leading a cult, especially when backed up with a high level of competence (Steve Jobs maybe?), but it’s at best clumsy and exclusive (Donald Trump maybe?), most usually it’s ineffective and disrespectful.
This blog isn’t just about contemporary leaders, it also looks back at history, and what we can learn from leaders in the past.
I find this especially interesting – partly for the hell of it, my geekiness extends beyond politics into history (and other things, but let’s keep the focus tight) – and also because I believe that although we may be doomed to repeat history, we should at least try to only repeat the good stuff.
Herbert Henry Asquith is an interesting character.
A long-serving PM, largely overlooked because he was shoved out the way by the more glamorous and extrovert David Lloyd-George – but actually Asquith served longer, was far more respected and liked, was successful for most of his time in the top job, and – perhaps most importantly – is the only PM we’ve ever had from my hometown of Leeds.
He was a successful Home Secretary under the Earl of Rosebery and then Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and was the inevitable choice for PM when Campbell-Bannerman fell ill and died in office.
In fact he was the inevitable choice when Campbell-Bannerman succeeded in 1906 – there was an effort to kick CB upstairs into the Lords and let Asquith take over immediately, but his respect for the party leader led him to patiently wait his turn.
How did he become the undisputed obvious choice, and then such a dominant and confident figure for almost two decades?
And then, how did he lose it all, getting out-outmaneuvered by Lloyd-George and abandoned by his Conservative coalition partners?
I’m going to look at five things he got right, and then three things he got wrong that contributed to his downfall.
The romance was beaten out of travel many years ago.
I am not so naïve as to expect tearful relatives waving me off with their handkerchiefs every time I jump on a train, but nor am I ever quite prepared for just how functional the experience has become.
To make matters worse, my journey began on a bus.
Don’t judge me. This was because the train journey from Ferrol to A Coruña takes nearly two hours (the bus is 40 minutes), and the timetable was constructed by people who don’t understand the need for sleep or sleek connections. I would have had to get up absurdly early and be left with a good couple of hours of dawdling in A Coruña station, two things I didn’t want to happen to me … so I got the bus.
I walked through the Ferrol Bus Station concourse, past the closed ticket offices, and past the closed shops and down the steps to the platforms.
It’s harsh to say that Theresa May has been the worst Prime Minister in my lifetime, but it’s also true.
It’s not fair, because she is also the Prime Minister who got handed the most difficult gig since World War II.
In more benign circumstances she might have outshone the likes of John Major or Alec Douglas-Home or Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan … but we’ll never know, because she got handed a burning platform of toxic crap by a fractured party, and was expected to lead a divided nation through a potentially disastrous policy that she had opposed.
Would Anthony Eden or Harold Wilson or Gordon Brown have done any better?
I read this hot on the heels of Asquith’s biography (by Roy Jenkins) because I was in the mood, and because I thought it’d help me get to grips with what happened when Lloyd George barged in and took over.
It is a fictionalised account, so it mainly reads like a novel, and Byrne does a pretty decent job to keep it going considering there isn’t really enough going on to justify a novel, and we already know the ending.
It leans a lot on Jenkins’s biography, but is more critical of Asquith than Jenkins was. In this book you understand a lot more the negative side of his premiership. You see the mix of respect and frustration felt by his colleagues – respect for the man, his skills and his achievements, frustration at his drinking, distractions (female), laziness (or maybe his half-hearted commitment is a better way of saying it), and most of all his consensual approach to government by committee which was too slow and cumbersome for the needs of wartime.
I never got why Asquith was so consistently overlooked as a national figure.
If anyone ever talks about great Liberal Prime Ministers it’s always Gladstone this and Lloyd George that, poor old Squithy never gets a look-in.
As one of the few figures of consequence to actually come from Leeds, we should be bloody well talking him up, not letting Lloyd George overshadow him.
This biography is a bit old-fashioned and shallow. It’s good, and readable, and tells the story with minimal focus on childhood, and maximum focus on his time in Number 10, which is the right balance (reading about other people’s childhoods is almost as boring as reading about other people’s dreams).
A very good book, but more than that, a very interesting and inspiring subject – much more so than I realised.
Two things in particular: first he was someone whose politics were remarkably similar to my own; and second he had the concept of living life to the full, “a life well lived,” which is something I never quite worked out for myself, but aspire to.
I remember Roy Jenkins from my own childhood. Not very well, but I knew who he was. I clearly remember the SDP and thought he was the stuffy old one who looked a bit out of place next to the glamour of the much younger David Owen and David Steel. Later when I studied politics properly, he cropped up as a big name in Harold Wilson’s first period in office (Home Secretary, then Chancellor), but I didn’t know the detail, and he seemed to peak way back in the sixties, and then wander off to Europe before returning to split Labour and melt away into obscurity.
The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept
This great quote – attributed to Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison (a senior officer in the Australian Army) – was first said to me by Dan Pruce, a speaker on one of our leadership development programmes.
Dan’s story went something like this:
Every day I walked past a scruffy old hedge.
The hedge ran along the side of one of our office buildings, our gardener was responsible for giving it an occasional trim. I supposed that because the public rarely saw it, it had tumbled down the priority list, and got little attention.
It annoyed me, but it wasn’t my priority either, and I didn’t really think of it as something under my sphere of influence. It took me a while before I realised I could do something about it.
So I put aside my reservations about being seen to be wasting time on an unimportant issue, and ignored my inner voice shouting at me to stop being annoying, and I met the gardener and asked that the hedge be maintained to a higher standard.
It was a small thing, but from that moment on I never walked past something I thought wasn’t good enough.
Odd for a story about topiary to be so meaningful, but the central message was clear: if you’re a leader, and you don’t challenge it, that means it’s OK.
Leaders are constantly being told about the importance of being authentic, and then being taught lists of key things that great leaders do.
They’re told to have vision, to lead “tribes”, or “be up to something”, and be passionate about what they want to achieve, to engage with people authentically and at the same time to apply prescriptive models and theories to inspire people and empower them to deliver results.
For all the breathy appeals to individual authenticity, training is often based on leadership techniques that mean asking leaders to behave in an inauthentic way.
When I train people on these skills and behaviours, I am often challenged about this tension between being authentic and true to oneself on the one hand, and using behavioural models and leadership skills on the other.
How can I be me, yet behave in a way that is not me?
Many answers to this question feel wishy-washy and undermine the inspiring message of developing the self, or they let aspiring leaders off the hook, letting them get away with not developing skills that are unnatural to their personality type.
I don’t know when I first noticed that I lacked the gene responsible for dress sense.
Illustrative example: I spent my early years insisting that a peagreen tracksuit top went well with a pair of dirtbrown cords.
If I’d known then that this was not the nadir, but rather a stopping-off point in my downward spiral to wardrobe hell, I may have sought professional help there and then.
But it got worse, much worse.
Thanks to a strange fashion quirk led by my cooler friends, I was soon seen wearing swirly blue shirts and off-white suits in a way that still now makes me make involuntary embarrassment noises when falling asleep.
As I grew my hair and turned to jeans and rock t-shirts, it felt like safer ground. I was seventeen, had long hair and a Rush t-shirt. OK, I wasn’t going to be invited onto any catwalks, but at least strangers weren’t pointing and staring in ill-disguised wonder.
Overlong and outdated, this story is interesting to read because it was, and is, so influential on politics and – to a lesser extent – on organisational leadership, but it doesn’t really stand up on any other basis.
It starts quite well. It’s well-written and I enjoyed the early chapters about the challenges of running a railroad in 1950s America. However, the story soon deteriorates into a nonsense argument between the heroic industrialists who are talented and achievement-orientated, and the fake straw men who are spineless, stupid and corrupt.
The philosophical premise that informs this (and Rand’s theory of Objectivism) is so damn clumsy it gets quite infuriating.
The central argument is so simplistic and loaded it insults the intelligence. The good guys are hard-nosed, hard-working, focussed, and clever. They unashamedly make money and don’t apologise for it. So far so good; no problem with that. What they go on to do is reject most human relationships as unnecessary – Dagny Taggart, the most human of the “good guys” (who I quite fancied), at least admits she needs butch and uptight Hank Rearden in her bed and doesn’t mind saying so – Rearden, who needs a good slap if you ask me, insists (and insists!) that he’s only doing Taggart for his own pleasure and does not give a jot for hers. This seems very important to him. She sees this as a good thing.
This book is a fast-paced high-energy onslaught of short choppy chapters that shout the argument that we are all members of tribes – groups of like-minded passionate people – and that tribes are where the energy and enthusiasm is.
Godin uses this concept as the basis for a discussion on game-changing leadership. It’s about how “heretics” can passionately and determinedly fight for what they believe in, and that if they are right, people will follow them. The point is not to seek people to lead, but to seek a disruptive idea and make it happen; the people will follow.
Management and leadership are two different things, but that doesn’t mean that managers and leaders are two different people.
This chasm-like division between the fabulous leader whose job is to provide inspiration and direction, and the workmanlike manager who has to get into the weeds and deliver on the detail, is a load of nonsense.
Worse, it’s harmful.
I’ve been a manager for years, and I’ve only succeeded when I was also a good leader. When I’ve been a leader, I only got that right when I didn’t abdicate my responsibility as a manager.
My definition of leadership
Influencing, inspiring and empowering people to do something
My definition of management
Making stuff happen to the agreed quality standards on time and within budget
(Another definition of management is “an act of creating and maintaining such a business environment wherein the members of the organization can work together, and achieve business objectives efficiently and effectively” from Business Jargons – it’s OK, but I find it less clear)
Leadership and management: different, but also complementary.