Leadership in the post-crash 21st century - RSA

Leadership in the post-crash 21st century

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  • Social innovation

FRSAs Frank Hore and David Low argue that leadership will get us out of the trouble we face at the start of the 21st century; but not if our grasp of what it means is confused and rooted in last-century thinking.

In the wake of the financial crisis and the scandals facing some of our banks and major institutions, a significant debate is being had about the leaders we want and need. So, what does leadership mean post-crash?

We need to understand that leadership is not a one-way exercise. It is about reading the needs and capabilities, the aspirations and fears of the led. With that understanding, leaders take management action to do right by the business. That way, management interventions play to the culture of an organisation and get the best from people.

The led do not just give leaders a reason to exist, they define them. To the led, the measure of a leader is the extent to which he or she is perceived to be ‘just the person we need today’. Another critical measure, of course, is business success, the impact on the bottom line. But the best strategy can only be realised if they think you are just the person the organisation needs.

Politicians grasped this a long time ago. They make a lot of effort to read the national mood, via consultation processes: government policies must bring enough people along, or else they will be punished come the next election. Unfortunately, the UK government seems to take readings only after launching initiatives and finds itself retreating in the face of negative reactions. This is what happens when you put policy – or strategy – before the people.

Still, many managers would argue that all organisations are fundamentally the same; all suffer the same symptoms of inefficiency and dysfunction to some degree or other. This is a crazy assertion. Of course your company is normal but only for a company that has been through what yours has been through. Organisations are different; we may be able to draw parallels amongst them but every one behaves the unique way they do for their own intrinsic reasons.

Let’s start with some basics. Firstly, people choose – and more importantly, choose to stay in – organisations that accommodate them. People feel comfortable where they can conform readily to a company’s norms of behaviour. People bring a lot of emotional baggage to the workplace and there they find a ready match between their own ‘odd little ways’ and the group behaviour they sign up to. And, where there is not a match, individuals will feel uncomfortable, isolated, or may just leave.

So, income aside, for many of us work is just a vehicle which allows us to spend time with like-minded people, or at the very least with people who may be bloody infuriating but whose quirks we can live with. This makes company politics not so much the stuff that gets in the way of business but, for many, the very reason they come to work in the morning. Politics, emotional reactions, chats in the corridor is organisation; it is what happens when people get together to work; and it either keeps them there or it drives them away, physically or emotionally. It is in short what we call organisational culture.

Secondly, leaders need to understand their organisations’ unique culture – and what has brought it about – or they will find themselves reacting to its symptoms, rather than to its cultural imperatives. Clearly the ‘normal’ way to understand an organisation’s culture is to live within it, experience what it means; fit in and over time find oneself conforming to its rules. By which point you are ill-equipped to articulate what it all means. So leaders need quickly to understand the DNA without becoming subsumed by it in order for them and their organisation to fulfil their potential

Thirdly, we are living at a time where people are seeking security. So we might expect their dependence on the comfort of colleagues and shared behaviours during working hours to grow. Even if the fabric of business is fragile, the emotional support – and income – provided by work becomes more important than ever. Leaders cannot often guarantee security but, they need to avoid destabilising their organisations and to take their people’s needs into account.

Despite this, we still see leadership debated as though it were a one-way set of skills. We ask whether it can be taught or is an innate quality. We need now to accept that leading is fundamentally about the led. So, the answer is not to roll out the attitudinal surveys; we need to get underneath the statistics.

This means taking into account the visible symptoms that are there: the flare-ups between people who should know better; the gaps in understanding about what is happening further down the organisation; the hikes in sickness and absenteeism and so on. This means making culture – articulating it, assessing it and understanding it – a business priority.

This is certainly tough on leaders. To get it right, they must occupy some no-man’s land between the organisation and some clinical, business imperatives, and be comfortable in both worlds but fixed on neither. It demands acting skills, not to dissemble but to empathise and understand. It demands self-confidence to cope without the comfort of becoming one of us; to avoid the pull of the organisation and the risk of losing the perspective that the business requires. It demands that leaders be comfortable with contrariness and that they always question themselves about where they stand.

This is not an impossible ask. Indeed, it is often today’s CEOs who work to impossible expectations: who have to live up to magical concepts of leadership, which will win against the odds; and whose working days are filled with tasks that confine them to their office and lock up their minds.

They need to get out more. Lean more on their human resources people who can act as a bridge to the organisation and help leaders to understand what makes the organisation tick, beyond the attitudinal survey. Ensure the colleagues that you trust to perform stand out from the crowd. Use external practitioners to take readings and bring perspective.

This role will not suit everyone and certainly not anyone who needs to be ‘one of the lads’ or believes a full diary makes for a fulfilling day. Post-crash leadership is more a job for an intrepid explorer, for those confident in their principles but always keen to learn.

Frank and David are management consultants who work closely with general managers across the services sector to find working solutions to sometimes intractable business problems, via innovative project work and personal counselling/mentoring activity. The Service Management Partnership



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  • A very well written and thought provoking article which focuses on the critical issues facing CEOs and their leadership in the current environment.

    Assessing the corporate culture is a priority for an incoming leader, one of many, and I agree it cannot be determined from staff surveys. It's a heavy investment of time, quality time spent with people at all levels in the organisation. What do you do and how? Why? What's important to you? How do things get done? What behaviours and values... Then, do I need to change the culture? How (to what?) and how (do I go about it? The old adage probably applies, if it ain't bust don't fix it. But if it impedes business goals like innovation or top quality service then the leader has to impose their personality and change it by example, coaching etc - the usual levers - and by changing people (remember the old Flora ad?)

    I'm not sure that work allows you to spend time with like-minded people - that's more like friendship. Work has an economic imperative, especially in the current hardship situation. People stay because they respect their boss, feel valued, are able to contribute and can operate within the "rules". And if none of these apply they may still remain to pay the mortgage by adapting to fit the environment - head down, do what it takes... but engagement zero (or perhaps negative).

  • As always David and Frank have excellent insights on business life. My first reaction was to disagree with the proposal that politicians should be our benchmark. Politicians tend to over promise and under deliver, and exaggerate to get elected only to compromise and moderate once elected. However after further consideration, maybe I also do this as a CEO. Have I really delivered my 3 year plan and what I promised at the interview?

    I definitely agree with the need to stay in no mans land and to avoid being subsumed in the culture. Perhaps this is ultimately unavoidable but how do we know when we are no longer "independent"? In my 4th year of my current role I realise that I have become much more subsumed and comfortable and the appetite for change and new directions that was required by me and also wanted by the staff 4 years ago is now so much more difficult to generate. 

    Robert Wright

  • A very insightful note by David and Frank. However, I would like to add that in my view leadership is about change. If an organisation stays the same it does not need leaders (it could do with managers). Where David and Frank are right is that the pace of change and the direction of change has to be calibrated by the culture and believes of the organisation and its members. The parallel with politics is appropriate and often ignored by business people. So unfortunately the task for a business leader is often more complicated than for a political leader: he has to lead his people AND he has to accomplish the tasks imposed on him by the Board, Regulators, Shareholders or the Market.
    Marcel Polk

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