Leading questions






As any sort of a leader, I clearly cast no shadow.

This becomes obvious when, at 10pm one weekday night, my eldest son, Fergus, disrupts the peaceful calm of the kitchen by barging through the door, swiftly followed by his five-year-old brother, Conrad.

“Hiccups,” Fergus announces as this might explain anything.

A cure for hiccups?

A cure for hiccups?

He pushes past me, gets a teaspoon from the cutlery drawer and then heads for the cupboard where he retrieves a jar of peanut butter.

“Whoa! What’s going on?” I ask.

“It’s the best cure for hiccups – a spoonful of peanut butter. I thought everybody knew that?”

He administers the peanut butter like congealed Calpol.

Before I can speak, we are joined in the room by my seven-year-old daughter, Lily.

“How come everybody’s here?” she asks, not unreasonably.

There is some general chatter when I hear door to the garden open. My wife has finished her al fresco cigarette.

“Quick! Mummy’s coming,” Lily shouts, and the three of them herd back upstairs to bed.

I shake my head: “What am I? Invisible?”

What this illustrates is that leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Because while my children may pay no attention to me in the discipline stakes, they often seek my counsel when it comes to the buying of clothes, music or matters of general philosophy.

So, I’d argue my wife and I are joint leaders in this venture – on enabling the other.

My boss, Simon, puts it a little more succinctly.

When his daughter Bea asked him who was the boss of the house, he glanced at his wife and said: “We’ll the best way of looking at it is that your mother is the Prime Minister and I am the President. She has most of the day-to-day control.”

Interbrand, the company for which I work, is regularly described as the world’s leading brand consultancy. So it is no coincidence that we understand the importance of good leadership – indeed it was the core subject of a recent company summit where the great and the good mapped out ways of improving our own brand.

We don’t want to limit ourselves to being good leaders in the workplace, we also want to be recognised as great leaders in the marketplace.

It is interesting that the 10 factors that Interbrand has developed to measure a brand’s strength also read like a roll call of requirements for any great leader.

Like any successful brand – no matter how large or small – they should demonstrate clarity, authenticity, consistency, responsiveness and understanding to name but a few.

 

A lot is written about leadership. I mean, a lot. Most recently I discovered that even Lady Gaga had five leadership lessons to teach us all – including, perhaps, how best to wear dress made from cuts of red meat.

But for all that is written – and even with the understanding that leadership styles and directions must adapt to their context – the ingredients of most great leaders are the same.

Primarily they have to have a compelling vision –

a clear, easily-communicated and understood idea of what we are here for and where we are going. I think it’s important to note that they don’t necessarily always need to clarify how we will get there – but I will return to that later.

They are ideally, therefore, also and accomplished coach, an engaging storyteller and, crucially, able to challenge those around them without appearing aggressive or arrogant. This ability to push people to the edge of their comfort zone and beyond is the cherry on the top.

 

This is what we are trying to do with our people. It is also what we are trying to do with our clients. We want to be trusted advisors, real partners and not simply a supplier with their eye only on the money.

By offering a genuine, considered point of view on a whole range of disciplines and branding issues, we deliver much greater value that anyone who simply says yes.

And this is exactly what every great leader does.

Command and control has been at the

heart of many a discussion on leadership but, in my view, this has much more to do with managing, rather than leading – clearly an important distinction yet all too often lost in translation.

This takes me back to the ‘how to get there’ piece.

In most companies while the ultimate goal or objective is clear – how you deliver it will vary enormously. This ‘how’ will differ depending on the team or the function; success for the finance team, for example, will be markedly different to success for, say, the creative studio or the receptionist, but all are doing their best to deliver the end goal – in our case to create and manage unrivalled brand value.

That is why a leader cannot tell you exactly how to get there. It is for each local line manager to translate the vision into a clear step-to-step guide, but for a leader it is about being Intelligent, Inspiring and Imaginative.

This approach is best summed up by Antoine de saint Exupery in The Little Prince: “If you want to build a ship – don’t drum up the people to gather he wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

And how does great leadership make you feel?

For me it is probably summed up in the words safe, empowered and inspired.

I mentioned earlier that leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum – first simply because to be a leader you must have followers but also because I don’t believe you ever lead alone.

 

Look at some of the acknowledged leaders of the 20t

h century and you’ll see that most, if not all, were somehow enabled by others, by people who complemented them (and I don’t mean in the ‘hey nice shoes’ way) or even, perhaps, completed them.

When a leader draws you that grand, compelling picture, that impressionistic vision of the vast and endless sea, is just as important for someone else to be able to provide the detail.

That is to say the size of the boat we need, the journey time, the depth charts and, of course, the shipping forecast.

Whatever your feelings on Margaret Thatcher, for example, she didn’t achieve everything alone. She certainly didn’t engender feelings of safety or widespread empowerment but, for many, she certainly was an inspiration.

The truth is that she wouldn’t really have achieved anything had it not been for crucial pockets of support that helped mitigate those sharp, iron edges.

Talk to some of those who served her any of her cabinets and they will tell you that she was anything but a good leader. The fact that she achieved what she did was in part due to her vision, but just as much down to people such as Bernard Ingham.

 

For balance you might argue the same for Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell.
So, in business, as in politics, it is important for a leader to be enabled. I’d argue that this is the very role HR can primarily play.

This doesn’t mean we should just be the ones to provide the shipping forecasts, though. We must also be a key influence in deciding the direction of travel and able to help navigate in a completely new way when faced with uncertain or changing seas.




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