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Leadership, why bother?

“Leading is more about being part of a feedback loop
within a system than it is being at the top of a command chain”

Stan McChrystal, Leaders – Myth and Reality

Anything that involves people is sometimes complex, usually fun, occasionally frustrating and often exhilarating. Leadership is all of this on steroids. In some ways leadership sounds rather old fashioned. It smacks of our forefathers and can have unfairly autocratic military connotations; the topic spawns books from gurus – all with their latest mantra; academics write their theories (even if they have never led a team). And yet surely, in today’s society with its flatter structures, more transparency and the trend towards coaching and mentoring rather than a command and control approach, leadership is being confined to historic study with little relevance for today? So, in the face of all this, why bother?

Leadership has always been difficult. Alfred Lansing’s excellent book Endurance brings realisation that without Shackleton’s leadership (and technical ability), his crew would not have survived. Leaders appear – Churchill during WWII and Mandela in South Africa – who inspire and navigate an organisation through choppy waters. Poor leaders – and everyone has experienced these – also serve notice of what not to do, which is a learning point in itself. The CMI’s tag of “accidental managers” describes those who are promoted for technical reasons and yet who have had no management or leadership training, and there are still too many of them in the workplace. Leadership is at least as relevant today as it has ever been, which is why most business leaders continue to study the subject, learn from it and put their findings into practise.

Today leadership is more difficult; companies function in an increasingly complex and interconnected world in which decisions have higher visibility and are promulgated instantly, where reputation is hard to win and yet can be lost quickly, and where stakeholders are more openly demanding. Leaders really are in the public eye, expectations of them are higher, and doing the right thing is often as or more important that profit and growth (and will be reported as such). There are new shades of grey and less black and white, success and failure are more readily judged, and hard outcomes are not always the most important factor.

Choosing to lead or being promoted into a leadership post comes with a moral need to develop the necessary skills. Leaders are not born, rather they are forged in the school of hard knocks – learning from good practise and hitting the delete button on poor examples. There are excellent courses (only attend if they are run by a practitioner), seminars, discussion and mentoring groups – all of which can help. Coaching is also a terrific way to explore leadership issues.

Do study past great leaders – but be aware that it is very difficult to apply leadership lessons from one instance to all instances. The circumstances and context will never be the same. In addition, many so-called “great” leaders had flaws – Lee, for example, was a brilliant military leader in the American Civil War and yet he fought on the side that supported slavery. Studying past leaders is educative, but must be done with a big nod to the circumstances.

Senior leadership is about values and behaviours and how these are embedded in both a leader and their organisation. “Get the culture right and everything else will follow” holds true for all businesses or organisations, and shaping the right culture comes from the top. Empowerment, wellbeing, personal development, transparency, approachability and allowance of mistakes will all help deliver a happy, thriving and positive team, best placed to deliver success. How a leader does this is down to them, but herewith some brief thoughts:

  • Make your team successful – this will drive success in your business
  • Set and follow your own moral compass
  • Build resilience at every level
  • Be yourself (never someone else)
  • Forge a great (senior) team around you
  • Empower your own “red team” to challenge all that you do
  • Get it right at all levels

There is much underpinning these simple statements, and these are not a diktat; rather they are areas to consider as leaders establish their own style and shape what culture works best for their business.

The author

Major General, Bill Moore CCMI CBE

Bill is an executive coach who focuses on leadership, the development of individuals and teams.

He was the CEO of The Portman Estate, a post he held for nearly seven years. Working with first-class property and finance teams, the Estate delivered year-on-year increases in income and dividends. He also fronted an accredited and popular wellbeing programme.

Prior to this, he was a major general in the Army with operational command experience in Iraq (twice), Sierra Leone (twice), Northern Ireland, the Falklands and with the United Nations. He is a Companion in the CMI and was appointed CBE in 2003.


This piece was originally featured in the May edition of CEDRIC, a Home Grown Club publication.