In my last OH Briefing (‘Sport, glorious sport’, 15 January 2022), I alluded to the close relationship between sporting achievement and character, how mindset, discipline and will are the bedrock of greatness in champions. As a friend quoted to me the other day, ‘It’s discipline that turns a nobody into a somebody.’ I want to continue down that path in this Briefing, looking at the nature of leadership and the character of a leader. Like sport and sports psychology, it’s a vast and complex subject, and one that I’ve had to face many times personally and professionally. You’ll bring your own assumptions to a discussion of leaders and leadership, as I do. In my experience, one of the marks of a great leader is they are eager to learn. They know they can improve. They strain to hear every whisper on excellence, how to shave off a few seconds, improve profits and impact more lives … hopefully, for the better! So, bear with me as I reflect on principles of leadership I have come to treasure and examples of good leaders I respect.
Let me clear about two things at the outset. First, leaders matter: they not only provide direction to organisations and institutions, they shape those who live and work in them and build their homes, families, relationships and relaxation around them.What is true nationally, is true locally and domestically. When leaders get it right, many benefit; when they get it wrong, a disproportionate number suffer. I’ll come back to this later. Second, leadership matters. This is a different point. It involves recognition that it is possible to identify, learn and shape different styles of leadership. Giving thought to how you or I, or those who shape any area of our life, lead deserves careful thought and attention. Leaders who don’t think and leadership that isn’t thoughtful are like drivers who don’t watch the road and lawmakers who don’t understand culture or personality, let alone the details of law and nature of justice. So, let’s be clear –– leaders DO matter and leadership DESERVES close attention.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the truth of this native American proverb, ‘Those who tell the stories rule the world.’ The saying sums up for me the inseparable connection between leadership and narrative, between voicing a vision and realising it. You know you’ve met a leader (in whatever walk of life) when their interpretation of an event or experience carries weight and their way of seeing things is impressively (if not infuriatingly!) accurate. The editor who provides thought leadership to a paper and a nation at a time of crisis. The expert who provides decisive evidence in a high-profile trial. The doctor who speaks with disarming clarity and reassurance in A&E. The leader takes a situation and steers it. They ‘tell a story’ (or ‘cast a vision’) which, for a host of reasons, we believe. The tragedy is there seems to be a dearth of good leaders at the moment, and leadership per se is almost a bad word. Rampant cynicism and mindless criticism haven’t helped, but a shortfall remains. To some, ‘Twas always thus’, to others ‘Tis something new’, with a loss of vision, values, direction and commitment at home and work now endemic. Of course, there is counterevidence, and opinion is often polarised, but the lack of agreement on what constitutes a ‘good leader’ and ‘responsible leadership’, is to my mind further confirmation, as Apollo XIII’s crew put it, ‘We have a problem.’
So, what can we do? It’s tempting to curl up in a ball and hope the problem will go away, that the storm will pass with patience and a bit of luck. But no leader worth their salt will settle for that; indeed, no responsible citizen should either. Avoidance is the enemy of improvement in most walks of life. Doing something may be difficult, but it is better than assuming the world can safely ride the storms it faces, of climate change and food poverty, of endemic violence and domestic abuse, of corporate corruption, venal greed and raw self-indulgence. But where to start?
Putting on my business and sports cap again, there are two very obvious things to do at the outset. First, to understand what’s gone wrong; and second, to begin to identify new goals. If an athlete runs badly, she doesn’t – or certainly shouldn’t – throw her spikes away. She takes a day to rest and then meets her coach to analyse the race and what went wrong. When ready, they set new targets for training and start preparing for the next race. It doesn’t always work, but analysis can be a good remedy for failure and paralysis. So, the issue for us is now, ‘What’s gone wrong with our leaders and leadership?’ And, as follow-on, ‘What kinds of leaders and leadership do we really need?’ Let’s look at these questions in turn.
‘What’s gone wrong with our leaders and leadership?’ I suggest four key things. In the first place, leaders and leadership have capitulated to social pressure and global agendas. They have become essentially passive, being more ready to be led by markets and forces, the media, and their potential futures and pension pots, than by their own professional and personal sense of ‘the right thing to do’. So, they have become ciphers more than leaders, mirrors more than decisive and effective managers. It’s no surprise CEOs last so little time: many have lost themselves in gaining their position. To my mind, as a result many of the world’s ills are caused and/or compounded by weak and ineffective leaders and leadership.
Second, leaders and leadership lack a clear sense of their raison d’être. In other words, they have little sense of what they are doing, and, as importantly, why they are doing it. They may initially be driven by a desire to serve or satisfy a longing for power or wealth. They may want to excel in something and find their way to the top for good reason, but position and ambition, like money and reputation, are mirages. No sooner has someone ‘arrived’ than they find there’s little or nothing there. Less power than they imagined, fewer freedoms to make decisions than they hoped, and less satisfaction in ‘having it all’ than advertising promised. Lacking reliable and consistent lights to steer many leaders are ship-wrecked on various, sadly predictable, rocks.
Third, leaders and leadership today have been duped into believing success is tangible. I am no great titan of industry nor aspirant politician, but over the decades I have found myself leading teams on and off the sports field – and most of the time I have enjoyed it! One of the key things I have learned – as much through failure as success – is that there is much more to leadership than getting results. The leader who is focussed on the bottom line or Q4 profits, has missed more than half of the point and most of the joy of leading. Leadership is tested and proven in the priceless intangibles of inspiration and aspiration, of creating the conditionalities in which others aspire and of being a person who inspires. Too often leaders blunt vision and bludgeon opposition, when their job is to lift standards and stimulate achievement. If toxic leaders create toxic environments, the reverse is also true, wholesome leaders create a culture, community, and context in which all flourish.
Fourth, leaders and leadership have too often bought into a blaming and blameless vision of life. Though claiming more responsibility, they deny they are responsible! Though ready to point the finger of blame, they are less and less happy if – or more probably when – people blame them! What a perverse, paradoxical world we inhabit. But leaders and leadership aren’t unique. They reflect the culture and communities that produced them; cultures where blame is more common than praise and responsibility in short supply; or, as is said of truth in politics, ‘Though rarely found, supply still exceeds demand!’
There’s one more point to make about the current crisis of leadership and leaders. Come back to that native American proverb, ‘Those who tell the stories rule the world.’ If you listen, it’s not only talking of stories shaping lives, but warning about storytelling falling into the wrong hands. If this was a risk communities faced when ritual myths were voiced (and preserved) by priests and shaman, it is still a risk modern, high-tech, media-driven societies face when money buys airtime and influences news agendas. Storytellers rule: always have and, I am pretty sure, always will. Is it any surprise leaders of government and industry employ communications experts and two of Britain’s recent Prime Ministers worked in PR and journalism earlier in their careers? Absolutely not.
I could say more on what’s gone wrong but let me move to consider more positively where we go from here because there are good people doing great things and because, of course, we all fail in some way or other, and life has to go on. So, what of defining and discovering new goals for leaders and leadership? Let me again suggest four key cornerstones in a reconstituted vision of leaders and leadership.
First, in every sphere of life and work, there needs to be a clearly articulated ‘contract’ between those who lead and those who are led. Leaders can live in a hermetically sealed bubble of wealth and privilege that renders them unaware of, or oblivious to, the lives and needs of those they claim to lead. The mechanisms of control that managers and leaders create should – no, must – be applied to them, too. An articulate ‘contract’ between leaders and led matters: it provides shape, value and mutual accountability.
Second, following on from this, leaders and leadership should be evaluated on the basis of professional achievement and personal merit. We expect artists to be technically skilled and sensitive to mood and atmosphere. Music is about more than minims: it is also a matter of interpretation. Why, then, do we evaluate leaders and view leadership, in terms of technical competency? Both are as much about ‘art’ as ‘science’, about ‘personal merit’ as ‘professional achievement’. I am reminded of the words of French lawyer-philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), ‘Every nation gets the government it deserves’ (French: Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite). Writing in late-August 1811, when the Russian constitution was being revised, de Maistre’s point was rich in irony and realism: societies get the leaders they deserve, and it is society’s duty to produce and monitor its leaders. In other words, the ‘contract’ is two-way. If we have a hand in creating the culture out of which leaders emerge, we are (partly) responsible for the failures we see in them. If their standards are low, where did they learn second-best would do? It’s not only managers who make great football teams: it is the expectation of fans on the terraces.
Third, leaders and leadership can be learned and demonstrated in all walks of life. This is important. If politicians fail, we can thankfully still find good examples of leadership in the military and world of business, and in our own home. It is no surprise many with leadership gifts opt for corporate life if/when politics sets a low bar on expectation and achievement. Growing, thriving corporations can be found with a positive culture and committed, dynamic leadership team and workforce. Why not? Talent attracts talent. Excellence inspires excellence. Failing businesses take note. My own background is in the tough school of hard knocks and graft. Perhaps that’s why I always admire those qualities in business, local government, and the military. The latter – that I have been involved with – doesn’t take leaders and leadership for granted. Training for both is at a premium. Gone are the days when family tradition, raw courage and amateurism sufficed. Leadership and leaders can be taught and caught over time.
As I wrote in my last Briefing, leadership – like Olympic Gold Medals – is as much about a person’s character, discipline and will, as their coach, media contracts and confidence. If our pervasive ‘celebrity culture’, with its shallow values, has served to corrode the credibility – and attractiveness – of the classic leadership qualities of honesty, integrity, directness, and graft (as many political leaders sadly seem to confirm), it is good to hear from leaders in other walks of life why leadership matters and how it’s learned. Here’s former US Secretary of State and 4* General Colin Powell’s (1937-2021) advice to young officers: ‘The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.’ But leadership isn’t only about public service. My father has been a wonderful role model. He is a humble man, a cobbler by trade, who worked hard all his life and cared for the love of his life, my mother, through 14 years of Alzheimer’s. Yes, a parent leads, gives direction to a life, models character and values, and serves those he or she loves. To my mind, anyone who leads has a responsibility to lead well.
Fourth, developing leaders and understanding leadership deserve time and investment. As we have seen time and time again, poor leaders and leadership can create a toxic, demotivating culture. The opposite is also true: good leaders and leadership create benefits and achievements that are more than the sum of the parts of any organization, community or home. But it takes time, and an acute sense of the privilege and responsibility of literally ‘holding another’s life in one’s hands’. The culture a leader creates is a reflection of themselves. Nature and nurture combine to form and forge the character and values they hold dear and want to promote. I am a fan of the Canadian management guru Henry Mintzberg (b.1939), whose account of the various roles an effective leader in any sphere must perform (viz. providing information, accountability, ideas, plans, decisions, solutions, connections and feedback) – as, note, a direct counter to the toxic impact of poor, often autocratic, leadership (viz. manipulation, insecurity, uncertainty, unfairness, collusion and drift) – helps to frame expectation and curtail flashy, mindless ambition.
I love South African golf legend Gary Player’s (b. 1935) reply to a spectator who shouted, ‘That was lucky!’ after Player holed a bunker shot in a practice round, ‘The more I practice the luckier I get!’ As Mintzberg, Player, and one of my all-time favourite experts on understanding and shaping the psyche of leaders and organizations, Roger Birkman (1919-2014, so ably perpetuated in the UK by my good friend Andy Austin) all teach, leadership, like sport and life, does not and need not depend on luck or natural gifts. It involves the patience, diligence and trained skill of a craftsman, gardener and engineer. Effective leaders and leadership produce and are produced by a virtuous circle with clear values, a positive, dynamic culture, and a pro-active pursuit of excellence in and for the next generation. But it all takes time, effort and investment. When leaders cut corners, we know they are more interested in themselves than those they lead. Let’s be clear, a good leader is identified first-and-foremost by being intentionally diligent and exceptionally invested in nurturing others. If societies get the leaders they deserve, leaders shape the societies they serve. How on earth can a society, business, community, or household thrive and be inspired when their leaders do not live and encourage positive qualities?
But it would be churlish not to end without commending all who by choice or chance find themselves in leadership positions of any kind in our increasingly complex society and world, where information overload, polarisation, and every day pressures drown out the quiet voice of reason and interrupt the flow of careful thought and planning. To my mind, the need for leaders with substance, principle, balance, and sound judgment has never been greater. Without them the fissures we see emerging between young and old, country and communities, leaders and led, individuals and special interest groups, employers and employees, parents and children, risk becoming ever deeper and more damaging. All strength to those who step up to the plate and try to reverse this trend and put quality leadership back at the heart of a healthy culture and community … where it belongs!
Michael Pask – Senior Associate