29 October 2012
Think Like a Leader
Dr Liz Mellon
First of all, I am delighted to be here, so thank you very much to Michael for inviting me this afternoon – and this is my first Gresham lecture, so please be kind to me!
I work in a business and I have spend the past 25 years working with leaders, trying to help develop leadership, and it is not a subject that involves me talking at people. It is very much a conversation. So the idea of standing here and talking at you for 45 minutes is actually quite daunting, because normally we would go into debate, within about two minutes of me starting. Nonetheless, I can talk for England, so I shall do my very best.
I feel slightly ashamed also to have a book, when clearly there are far too many of these wretched books about leadership around the place, and I think that is right. There are about 2,000 new titles every year come out about leadership, so we are perennially fascinated with this topic, because, as Michael says, it is incredibly complicated. We can come at leadership from at least half a dozen different ways and make a good case for it.
I have a very simple definition of leadership. Leadership is that, wherever you are in the organisation, or in the world, and whatever else is happening, if you look behind you and there are some people following you, by definition, you are a leader. And, if you have the corner office, and the big salary, and the huge desk, and people have to trend knee-deep across the carpet to get to your corner, but no one is at all interested in following you, then, by definition, you are not a leader. So, for me, it is very much about followership, so if any of you are looking to corner this market, I can heartily recommend writing a book on followership because I can tell you that there have been about five such efforts in the last ten years, so it is an untapped area.
And it is lonely at the top. The work I do is with Executive Boards and with CEOs and with Chairmen, and it is lonely at the top. Does it matter? I am actually not sure because loneliness has many forms. The other thing that fascinates me, given all the very anodyne and cleaned-up stories that come out about corporate leadership, is that it is actually also intensely political at the top. You are lonely, but you are very much not alone. If you are a CEO, you have your Executive Committee around you – that might be anything from five to 25 people, depending upon how you believe your world should be constructed and run, and what you believe the role of the Executive Committee is. You have your Board and your Chairman, and some chairmen are CEOs [monke], who believe it is actually their job to run the business and therefore you are heavily engaged in battling about actually who is in charge. So, it is intensely political, and sometimes people say to me, well, it is okay, because it is only political with a small “p”, which is apparently better than being political with a large “P” – i.e. the infighting is not so intense, you know, you are probably not going to die as a result of it. It is intensely political, and that is the kind of story that does not get out there, because no one wants to sign off on the case study that talks about the politics.
That said, what is my view on leadership? I think that there is a huge amount out there at the moment about competencies. There is, indeed, a whole business, just as there is in publishing about leadership, there is a whole business about competencies. What is a competency? A competency is a behavioural definition of a prescribed, preferred behaviour that you should demonstrate as a leader in an organisation in order to make progress. Every year, you will have some feedback given to you based on how you perform against a list of competencies, and just for fun, I have just thrown up a few there, but this is not an unusual list. The competency list, the behavioural definition of what leadership is, it is like the Holy Grail, in a way: we keep thinking we have found it. If we put enough adjectives and enough definitions together, somewhere in the middle we will have found the lode stone that is really, truly leadership, and so we define it and we define it and we define it. It always makes me think of whether people can actually walk, still walk and function, if they are trying to do all of this at the same time. It is a huge and varied list of prescribed behaviours.
The other thing that rather worries me about it is that what organisations are trying to do is produce, if you like, an outline, a proforma, a perfect leader, and the best result for a business would be if there were thousands of these people marching side by side, all conforming exactly to this rather long and complicated set of leadership behaviours. And yet, we are human beings, and human beings, by definition, are not perfect. We are, either largely or to a small extent, flawed, but we are certainly not perfect, and we are certainly not clones. I mean, just looking round this room, we are a fine and robust array of extremely individual people. That is something to do, I think, with the human condition, that we are incredibly individual.
There is something dissonant for me in the idea that we have somehow perfected this definition of what leadership is. We can define it in behavioural terms, and therefore, reliably, at the end of every year, we will be able to look across the workforce and say, yes, yes, no, no, oh…never, maybe, next year, okay, with some kind of certainty. And yet, we do need some kind of benchmark, some kind of way of looking at and identifying potential and talent.
Let us put aside for the moment that we are trying to behaviourally clone individuals, and then let us look at the whole other side of what we are trying to do with leadership, and for me, again, the definition of leadership is very simple: leaders make change happen.
If the world was just going to be exactly the same as it always is, then management is an absolutely wonderful sport to play. Managers are adept at assembling the resources and putting forward a project and making sure that the project succeeds, that there are enough people, that there is enough money, that there is enough time, and that whatever was planned comes out as planned. The problem is, our world is not stable. It is complex, it is multi-dimensional, it is moving all the time, and certainly, in business, one competitive move is met by a competitive response, so keeping doing the same thing is not enough. Leaders come in and they make change happen.
How do they do this? Well, quite often, through the force of their personality, quite often because there is something about the individual that we just trust, that we can look them in the eye and say, “Yes, I will follow this person, I believe this person has the right idea, I can trust this person,” and that is a very individual act. It is very much a psychological contract between one human being and another. It is not the kind of contract that you would necessarily have with an army of people who appear and act in exactly the same way.
There is still, in the East and the West, a lot of “I” in leadership. There is that sense of “Can I trust this person – are they authentic?” and authenticity really means you have to keep your distance a little bit because you are privy to conversations and data and information that should not be made public, and yet, at the same time, I need to look you in the eye and know that I can trust you, know that you are somewhere close to a human being, rather than a set of behavioural competencies, to understand that it is you, the person, I am touching and you, the person, who is touching me. So authenticity is huge.
Authenticity is not the same as turning up and doing exactly what you want and being exactly as you are. We have bad days, we have good days, we have grumpy days, we have sunshine days, and so, a leader has to be somewhat consistent. Authenticity is not the same as saying, “always be exactly the same”, but it is at least being consistent and letting your own humanity show through. Authenticity does not sit well alongside a set of behavioural competencies.
I work in executive education and one of the most popular programmes, in East and West at the moment, is something called “Leadership, My Personal Brand”. Now, I am English, so I do not really like that as a term. It seems to me it lacks the humility that should go alongside leadership, it is very much I-centred rather than leaders making change happen, leading others, being a good leader of followers. That said, it really does not matter what I think, there is a huge market out there for it, “My Personal Brand”. I like to think of it as reputation. But the same argument stands: reputation, my values, my integrity, what I stand for, is a very individual act. It is not the act of an army of clones. It is something very personal.
We have this idea of I need to have a reputation as a leader, I need to be authentic as a leader, juxtaposed against the idea that we can conform, one and all, to a long, long list of leadership competencies. The list is always long. Sometimes you work with an organisation and they will say, proudly, “We only have nine competencies,” and before you cheer, you just say, “Could I just see the document?” and underneath each of the nine, there are at least fourteen or fifteen sub-paragraphs explaining exactly what it means! It is a big industry, it is a big business, and it just struck me, after so many conversations with people who actually were holding down big leadership positions, if you looked behind them, there were real followers entranced by them, wanting to follow them, wanting to achieve something alongside them, who did not fit – they were not fitting the mould of the leadership, the behavioural competencies, and enough people who were brilliantly ticked off, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, and were absolutely horrible leaders, to say: are we missing something? What might we be missing? In conversations with various leaders, I decided what we were missing is the way that they think.
The other wrinkle on the whole competencies’ business of course is that you can then get into a debate about what the behaviour looks like. I think this cartoon, for me, explains this debate…
“You have been treating me with deference, Harper. I believe the job description calls for subservience!”
So, there, it is a very nuanced business.
I was intrigued about this debate about authenticity, the personal brand, and I was also intrigued by the idea, but I wonder how they think, what is going on inside your mind – can you look inside the mind and say that people think like leaders? I will come back to that at the end because there are certainly people who do not think like leaders.
Let us start with the ones I think do think like leaders and then come back to what they do not do, and what I have here is a list, and you have got the book summary there, which basically means that you also have the list in front of you, and I think probably the best way to talk about the list is not to enunciate it as a list but maybe to give you a couple of examples of what I mean by how leaders think.
There is something in business that we call the Wallenda factor, which refers back to the time where the high-wire artist Wallenda was worried about failing rather than worried about succeeding, and he actually fell to his death. A Wallenda has just walked across Niagara Falls also a couple of months ago, so the Wallendas are still in the high-wire business. But it is about saying there is uncharted territory in front of me, I am not quite sure what is out there, I am not quite sure what comes next. This certainly is not project management, it is not the managerial effectiveness of delivering to ready-set targets, but it is about making change happen. It is about creating something new, something different, and by definition, because no one has done it before, there is no safety net under you. It is not like it is a well-constructed route that you have laid the roadway down and that everyone is walking along it. You have got your first foot out on the tightrope, and the tightrope is, as the Coldplay song says, swaying slightly, and you are trying to think of how you can make it across without falling, because if you fall, there is no one to catch you – no one has done it before, it is completely new.
No safety net, then, implies you take risk, you stand up and accept the consequences if it fails. We do not see perhaps as much as we would like of that in our global organisations today. So, a couple of examples here…
I do not know how many of you know the charity, Save the Children, but Jasmine Whitbread is the first global Chairman and CEO of that. She was the CEO of Save the Children in the UK, and she is now heading the global organisation. As you can imagine - if any of you work in charities, you will know that it is a world even more fraught with politics probably than big business because it relies heavily on volunteers, it relies heavily on people who will give freely of their time, who have a strong belief system in what the charity is supposed to achieve, and therefore, people who are not paid do not always do what they are told, but they do what they believe to be the right thing. And so, she inherited an organisation that had 50 different programmes running globally, run through 29 different entities, and she looked at this, as a fragmented organisation, and said, “I think we can serve our people so much better if we collaborate and create one global organisation.” Can you imagine the mayhem that that created in an organisation where you have geographic spread, you have volunteers and paid people, you have people involved in varying different levels, with lots of different nationalities, lots of different politics I am sure, with a small “p”, to be overcome, but she said, “It is the right thing to do – we really do need to create one organisation globally, so that when we get the funding in, we serve better and leverage the funding that we have better.” No one had ever tried to create one global organisation out of Save the Children before. No one had even really thought of it, apart from her current Chairman at the time. So, it was saying, this can be done, it is a completely different departure, and I wanted to start with that story rather than a business story because, in a sense, I think business people are paid, are they not, to make things different, to find new markets, to create new products and services, but not always maybe in a charity, but to do the best she possibly could, to create that global organisation was a step untold.
Let me move now to business. Heidrick & Struggles are a global search firm, and some of you may use Heidrick & Struggles to find your own senior executives, so they are essentially a search firm. Kevin Kelly, the CEO there, has spent the last three years turning them into a leadership advisory firm. In fact, he is encroaching on my territory, in the sense he is trying to teach people how to be leaders as well as select them, so he is trying to change that organisation from being a company that goes out and finds, like a headhunter, finds suitable people for a job, and instead, look at the Senior Executive, audit the Senior Executive, and give advice and development for the existing people in the Executive. It is a completely new business model that he is struggling with. Again, nobody told him he should do it, but the headhunting business is a crowded field, so he is trying to differentiate his organisation by taking some risks, by going out into the unknown.
Essentially, an individual endeavour, but in their head, what they are thinking is: risk-taking is not a problem, it is part of my job. Now, what it looks like behaviourally is very different if you are Jasmine Whitbread and if you are Kevin Kelly, but inside their heads, they are both thinking: “This is not good enough – we need to do something different” and they are not afraid to do it. Let us come back to fear later in the talk.
Comfortable in discomfort. One of the wonderful pieces about getting to the top is this myth that, all of a sudden, you are in charge and you make pronouncements and the world around you moves, and of course, as I explained at the outset, it is an intensely political game at the top. You are not alone. You have got lots of people still jostling alongside you. It is still very much a conversation about what should happen. It is still very much a process of influence in terms of working out the next steps.
I had always conflated in my mind the idea that a senior executive was very decisive, and what I discovered was that sometimes, senior executives are extremely decisive, and certainly, the ones who like to create a crisis, that Michael referred to earlier, those are decisive because they are creating a sense of crisis in order to push people towards the decision that they believe is most important.
On the other hand, at the same time, I have found individuals who would delay taking a decision. Now, that is really hard, when you have various constituencies. Let us take a private sector organisation, so you are a business. You have got employees waiting to see what the next move is because it is going to affect them – they may have to move countries, they may have a job, they may not have a job. You have got shareholders, who are very anxious whether they are going to sell or are they going to keep the stock, you know, at the end of the day. You have got suppliers, who want to know if you are still going to be there to be supplied to. You have got customers, who want to know if you are still going to be there to be bought from. They are all waiting for the next strategic move, and if the move does not come, that creates a wash of uncertainty, so the pressure, certainly market pressure, is towards decisiveness – just cut to the chase, take the decision, and move on. But what I also find in my research is that several leaders make it an art form not to decide, because it is about the timing – timing is everything? So, it is when will I decide, and how will I decide what is the right thing to do.
Imagine you are running an organisation that employs 300,000 people, working in 85 countries and the market is writing about you every single day, and you are saying, no, let us just wait, I am not sure the time is right to make this move yet – let us just wait… That is an awful lot of expectations, a weight of expectations on you, pushing you towards a decision. Those of you who are familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” will recognise it takes slow thinking, it takes reflective thinking, to be able to wait, and live with the uncertainty, the tension and the ambiguity that that evokes in you as an individual and certainly in the individuals around you.
Thinking about being comfortable in discomfort, I was talking to a chairman, who asked me not to name him in the book, so I shall not name him here. He said, “I have spent my whole career not being named, so you are not going to start now.” But John, for that is his name, was wonderful – and there are lots of Johns in the world, right, so that is pretty safe – and he said to me, “The thing is that, very often, the data will not tell you the answer.” So, as a more junior manager, you are told “run the numbers” and then it comes up with a neat answer, but when you are venturing into uncertainty and you are undertaking new ventures – should you open an office in India or not, should you close down the manufacturing plant in China – it is often very hard to get hold of the information to know whether the decision is the right one or not. And John said to me, “Sometimes, it is 49/51,” i.e. it’s a very tight decision. He said, “Sometimes, I will have got 49 because I just think it is the right thing to do,” you know, to heck with it with the numbers are that close!
But I was thinking about Tom Albanese, who is still the serving CEO of Rio Tinto, one of the largest mining groups in the world. He took over as CEO in 2007, so he was still there after five years, which is not a bad thing these days as a CEO, and as he entered his job, the first thing he was supposed to be doing was finalising the purchase of Alcan, the big aluminium company based in Canada, which was as big, almost as big, as Rio Tinto itself at that time. So, overnight, the company doubled in size. He is - two months later, a very, very big rival of theirs, BHP Billiton, knowing that they would now be cash-poor because they had just done this huge reverse swallow of Alcan, decided to step in with a hostile takeover bid. While all this is going on, Tom is trying to take the company into Mongolia and into China, and he has a joint venture on the cards with Chinalco. At the same time, the Australian Government, because Rio Tinto is dual-listed, is saying we do not want this Australian treasure, this jewel, to become partly owned by the Chinese, so raise the money in a different way, Tom, not by raising funds through going into a joint venture with Chinalco. His then-Chairman, Paul Skinner, left in sadly dubious circumstances – there was a missed baton in terms of passing on and moving on to BP, so Paul never made that leap. The incoming Chairman lasted precisely one meeting. There are now huge amounts of turmoil at the top while they are trying to decide what they should do.
So, I said to Tom, “Well, how did you cope with that? How were you quite so comfortable in discomfort?” That is, what did that look like? Tom is a very resilient character, and he said, “It was absolutely fine. The only thing,” he said, “was, when we used to come out of the War Room meetings,” because they had a War Room, “I used to have to tell the people alongside me, particularly one Executive Assistant, not to look worried,” he said, “because if you come out of the War Room looking worried, that is going to ripple through the whole organisation and everyone is going to be extremely worried, and it could have an impact on the share price.” Tom never looks worried. He is one of these people who is always smiling, always looking very relaxed – he is very comfortable in discomfort, a very resilient person, but he had to advise others, you know, “Please do not look worried on my behalf.”
Where does this come from? You know, we have not even got into the debate about leaders, born or made. I certainly hope that comes up later. It is usually a perennial question. But, in his head, Tom is perfectly comfortable in the most uncomfortable circumstances. I joke with him that life is a lot easier now – I am not sure he actually agrees, but he is still CEO.
Solid core. This is an interesting one for me because it links very closely to what Michael was saying about integrity. I used to work – I still do work – with HSBC, which is a very large global bank and, like many banks, has been suffering from an appalling press, and indeed doing some bad stuff at the same time.
I first started working with them in 1995, and I used to work with Sir John Bond, who was, at the time, the CEO, and then became the Chairman, and as I went around the world and met different people from HSBC, it used to intrigue me to say, “Tell me a story about Sir John.” Now, if you are running a company that spans the globe and you have got hundreds of thousands of people working for you, the chances that they have met you are actually quite slim. I would be facing 20, 30, 40 people in a room, maybe one of them had met him at some stage at a cocktail party or something, they certainly were not on first name terms with him, they had not spent time with him, and I would say, “Tell me a story about Sir John.” They would say things like, “Well, you know, Sir John, if he leaves the office last at night, if he is the last one out, he turns the light off.” Oh…that is interesting…really, okay… “If he is going to see a client and the client is actually quite close to the office, he always takes public transport – he never takes the car. “ Okay, that is good, interesting… How could they possibly know these very intimate details? If I asked you to tell me a story about somebody you are living with, you might not be able to tell me quite such a good story as that! How did they know such intimate details about him? They were very clear what he stood for, and he stood, at that time, he represented their strategy, which at the time was “Managing for Value”, which is business-speak for “cut costs”, and so he was living out this role, as a representative leader. He had to be known for what he was doing, he had to be known for cutting costs, and he made sure his reputation was out there.
As Michael suggested, Leadership is not about telling people what to do, but if you are clear about your values, what is important to you, then you can tell people how to be. A solid core is part of that. It is knowing what you stand for, being comfortable of what you stand for, having a sense of the right thing to do - and I hope we have a hefty debate about “the right thing to do” in the panel discussion - and therefore, you are able to act as a role model for people because they understand what should be done, not what ought to be done or what could be done – do you understand…? The role of the right, not the art of the possible.
Another story here would be Sim Tshabalala, who is the Deputy CEO of Standard Bank in South Africa. As you know, the Black Empowerment movement there is the, I will not say “natural consequence” post the years of Apartheid, but certainly it is Nelson Mandela’s wonderful legacy for the country, which is that, instead of killing each other and fighting, they have had a peaceful transition and are now trying to empower black people who have been disadvantaged in terms of opportunity and also education. There was a very complicated system put forward there for ensuring black ownership of 25% of all share-ownings in the country, 25% shareholding, to be put aside for the black population, and Sim Tshabalala, who is black himself, was arguing against this on more than one occasion because he said it will cripple the companies – it will cripple the funding opportunities for this companies, because, essentially, the shares could only be sold very cheaply. They could not be sold at market price – you will cripple them, and he argued for holding the shareholding rate lower, 15% or lower, and instead re-investing the money saved in small and medium enterprises, that is, encouraging black entrepreneurship in the country, rather than enforced share ownership. He was called anti-transformation, because this is part of the transformation process for South Africa, so he was labelled anti-transformation. That is very, very hard for a black South African to be labelled anti-transformation, and so I talked to him about why he did it, and he said, “It is the right thing to do. I am not arguing against my people. I am arguing for them. I just do not believe it is the right policy.” But to stand up in that way to be counted was extraordinary. So, he had very strong and clear values, knew what he stood for, had a very strong sense of the right thing to do, and was willing to argue for it.
It is quite common for CEOs to talk about their legacy, and in the same way that I am not so fond of the phrase “personal branding”, I am not so fond of the phrase “legacy” either because it kind of implies that I have done this great thing and please welcome to this great thing I have done. It feels like it is about “me”, not about “us”, and obviously a legacy is created by thousands and thousands of people, not by one person, although that one person tends to be the figurehead. I like to think of destiny. I like to think of a leader leaving so that the people behind still have a destiny, they are still on the road and going where they are going. But it is very true today that the markets are unforgiving, that shareholding has changed in its nature and construct over the last century, to the place where, today, the average share is held for less than a day, so there is a lot of spread-betting in the market. And what does that mean? That means, inevitably, businesses focus on the next quarter’s results. The short-termism does not therefore guarantee the long-term survival of the organisation. Organisations are driven to short-term decisions, which actually may destroy long-term value. It is a very hard pressure to resist.
If you are going to be worth your salt as a CEO or as a leader, a senior executive in a corporation, then you want to leave the thing in a good state after you have gone, so I do think it is about the present, and that is not a hard one – if you talk to any CEO, they are very firmly focused on the next quarter’s results. It is also about the future, and if there is one thing CEOs are consistently criticised for, it is not being strategic enough. Everyone laughs about the two-day strategic retreat that takes place once a year, the idea being you go off for two days, you come back with your strategy, and that is going to last you until the next year, which is increasingly impossible in today’s turbulent markets. It is also laughingly referred to by people in organisations as “management in retreat” rather than a management retreat, so there are all kinds of fun and games around that. But, essentially, they do not spend enough time thinking about the future, thinking about what they are trying to create, but equally, they are not thinking enough about the past I think.
I was privy to one change programme, so leaders as masters of change, Michael, a change programme where the culture was going to be changed, the business model was going to be changed, huge fanfare, and essentially, there was an artefact that represented the past and was going to be brought on the stage and ceremoniously dumped in a waste basket, and then it was going to be, “Yes! And now onwards and upwards to a greater, brighter future!” until somebody pointed out that did not that mean that there were going to be hundreds of people in the audience who were essentially going to be told that the last ten or fifteen years of their life was just being put in the waste bin and was this really a good thing to do?! In their haste to move on from the past, they had forgotten the investment that everyone in the audience had in that past, and it was a good past. So, instead, at the last moment, they changed it, and, it turned into a vault, and the vault door was opened and the artefact was put inside, safely under lock and key, “our foundation for a brighter, better future” – symbolically so much better, do you not think?! It was so much better.
But it is about integrating. One of the reasons people resist change so hard in organisations is it tends to be, “Oh, that was rubbish yesterday – let us go on to a brighter future,” and it is that kind of dichotomy represented, and, in fact, it is a continuous process of regeneration as you go along, integrating the past, worrying about the present, but focusing very much on what you are creating for the future.
If you get stuck too much in the present, then you miss that future, the sad, really pallid state of Nokia, which, four years ago in 2008, was the number one brand in the world, such a trendy mobile phone that when teenagers were asked what brand it was, where it came from, they would say, “Oh, it’s Japanese.” And there is a Finnish company that started out as a logging company over a hundred years ago, and in four years, the same team has managed to take them from number one to almost dead in the market. They got too bound up with the present and their past, and did not think enough about the way the whole mobile telephony industry was changing what a handheld device meant and what they should be trying to create for the future.
I think one of the most selfless acts, in all the mess and the carnage of the global recession that kicked off in 2008 and we are still suffering, one of the buyouts actually in the United States was AIG. AIG was one of the companies that was saved in the United States, in the same way as we saved RBS here, and, as part of that, one of the companies that was owned there was led by Rod Martin – he was the current CEO – Alico, and lived in tremendous turmoil and had to rebuild that because they had no clue whether it would be sold or whether it would go into bankruptcy. For a long time, Rod and his team had no idea what would happen to it. In the event, they managed to create it as a separate profit-making entity and it was sold, but in all that endeavour, in the two and a half years that it took, for Rod to achieve that sale, along with his team, he knew that he was creating, and consciously creating, a future for the organisation in which he would have no part because there was no way the Executive team or he could continue in charge. They were the figurehead, they were the ones at the top – they had to go. But they all worked extremely hard to make sure that the corporate had a destiny without them. That is the kind of thing: thinking about the organisation going forwards, even if you are not going to be part of it. On your watch you are the lonely helmsman, or helmswoman, for a while and then, at the end of that watch, the boat still needs to be able to sail without you.
If we think about these five ways of thinking, no safety net and comfortable in discomfort is actually a very individual thing. It is, “I am going to be a great risk-taker and, sure, I will live with the uncertainty of it and I will not let the tension eat me alive”. Solid core comes back to my basic, fundamental values, what I stand for as a human being. Once we get to “on my watch”, then we are starting to think about, but as part of a player, in a system, in a larger system, as someone leading something greater than just leading yourself, what does that look like. And the last one I think is absolutely the hardest, “I am the enterprise”.
“I am the enterprise” means looking out for the good of the whole, not just for the good of your part. This is significantly and severely challenging for executives. The whole way remuneration works in organisations, very often bonuses and pay linked to individual results, means that you will be looking out for your individual objectives and your results, but not thinking so much about, well, how does my part play out in the organisation as a whole. Once you get to the CEO, my goodness me, I hope you are looking out for the whole because, in a sense, the whole chess field is yours and you are moving the pieces around, so you really ought to be thinking about the whole, but to develop this, in younger executives and younger leaders, is actually pretty challenging.
What does it look like? I think it means that you are pretty selfless. One of the things we talk about a lot is work-life balance. Work-life balance is harder and harder to achieve because we have got our phones that are connected to the internet, we can plug into anything, anywhere, 24/7, we can be contacted anywhere in the world at any time. It is increasingly hard to find that balance between what used to be quite easy because you would leave the office, you would go home and that was it, until the next day – you know, you could only be disturbed by telegram or fax! It has changed quite a lot, has it not?! Anyway, that does not work anymore!
So, for me, there is an element of selflessness in senior leaders because, essentially, they are giving up their life for a while – I mean there is no work-life balance. They are 100% at the service of the organisation that they are running or trying to lead.
One of the people that it brings to mind is Ronnie Leten, who is the current CEO of Atlas Copco, which is a big compressor, heavy machinery, heavy engineering company that supplies to the mining industry and others, and he described to me when - in his whole career, he has worked with Atlas Copco, and he had to leave at one stage for nine months, for a variety of reasons that it is not worth going into, but he described how very, very sad he was to have to leave what he believed was a wonderful organisation that could do amazing things, and no sooner had he left than everyone, including him, was trying to get him back on, so he was only away for nine months. He has huge pride in the organisation, and like most CEOs, works every hour available to him.
Another way of thinking about it is, and I will end my CEO anecdotes, as I started, with a woman, Irene Dorner, who heads up, currently heads up HSBC Americas, and she said, “Leadership, for me, is like being a light-bulb.” She said, “When I get to work in the morning, I switch myself on, and I am very conscious all day that I am in a significant leadership role, that people are looking at me – they are looking to check, am I happy, am I sad, am I elated, am I downhearted. They are looking to make sure that I am pretty upbeat, that I am pretty confident and optimistic about what is going on. They are looking to me for decisions. They are looking to me for reassurance. They are looking to me as a presence.” That is what we do – we are boss-watchers. We watch leaders the whole time. The scrutiny is absolutely amazing. And she said, “So, what I try and do is make sure I switch on in the morning, and I am very consciously wearing my leader hat all day, and when I get home at night, I switch it off, I can sit down with Jack, my husband, and relax a little bit.” Jack does not think the same. The last time I saw Jack, I said, “Oh, I have just had half an hour with Irene,” and he said, “Oh congratulations – I last saw her for dinner a week last Tuesday,” so I am not sure he sees as much of her as he would like, but the point is, she is always on, she is always thinking “What does the situation require right now? If I were to be the best leader I could be, what should I be doing, how should I appear, right now?” Is she authentic? Absolutely. If you ever get the opportunity to meet Irene and spend time with her, she is a larger than life character, an absolutely amazing woman! She is very authentic, but she is also very careful to represent what she believes her organisation needs from her.
So, where does that leave us? That leaves us with my fundamental belief, that we have an industry of behavioural competencies. I think it is an attempt to turn alchemy into base metal. I do not think we can describe a leader, in behavioural terms. I think looking at how leaders think give us a clue to how they see the world, and therefore how they approach their world. They take risks, they live with the uncertainty, they have strong and solid values, they think about the voyage that they are on but it is only for a while, so they are very careful about what they are leaving behind, and they represent the organisation as faithfully and as truly as they possibly can. That is how they are thinking. Behaviourally, how it plays out, if you are a man or a woman, or you are Asian or you are Western, it looks very different: cultural moirés, age, background, upbringing… Behaviourally, it diverges enormously, but I do believe, inside their minds, they think in very similar ways.
The last thought I would like to leave you with is that, if behavioural competencies work, then why, in so many organisations that I work with, do I find a culture of fear, and I find senior executives who are unwilling to take risks, who are sitting there waiting to be told, who are not demonstrating any of these wonderful ways of thinking about their role as risk-takers in the world at all. Now, against the behavioural competency framework, they have got lots of ticks, but are they really taking risks, are they really trying to make change happen, are they really there and reassuring people who have chosen to follow them? I find a lot of learned helplessness in global organisations, people who are not picking up the baton at all. So, if behavioural competencies work, why then do we see so much fear in organisations, and why, sometimes, do the politics start to get played out with a big “P”, rather than a small “p”?
© Dr Liz Mellon 2012