EVERYONE wants to know the secret of good leadership, but you can’t buy a checklist that’ll teach you the skills in just six weeks.
Actually, that’s a lie. You can buy literally thousands, printed in self-help books and preached at business seminars, and some work better than others. But picking a style is often as personal as picking a place to eat lunch.
However, that doesn’t stop people talking about what they expect from a leader. Last month, the Hindustan Times ran a front page comparing the work ethic of British and Indian managers, following the publication of an interview with Tata chairman Ratan Tata in The Times (of London) the day after his firm announced hundreds of job losses at its UK sites, including Teesside.
While Tata subsequently dismissed reports he had called British bosses lazy, his interview featured an observation that when the company took over Corus and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), it inherited managers who didn’t go the extra mile.
He said: “In India, if you are in a crisis, if it means working to midnight, you would do it. The worker in JLR seems to be willing to do that, the management is not.”
Of course, to turn this statement into a big Britain vs India vs USA vs China work ethic deathmatch, you’ve got to ignore the fact that a country is a loose collection of people, some of whom are answering emails at 3am, and some of whom are in the pub by 5.30pm.
So here’s another question: In a time of remote-working, international business and video conferencing, what do we expect from our leaders? Do we want a figurehead or a dictator; someone whose role is to help others along, or someone who leaves his office as often as the fern in the corner?
“The leadership issue is very broad, and there are different ways of leading, especially in organisations such as family businesses,” says Lucy Armstrong of Gateshead-based business development organisation The Alchemists. “The leader is never truly off-duty. They’re always thinking about their business.
“A leader has to be very visible, especially when they’re communicating change. But if you’re encouraging people to take responsibility, you shouldn’t be standing over their shoulder the whole time.
“If you’re in a retail business, nothing replaces going out on the shop floor. Ken McMeikan (chief executive of Greggs) spends at least one whole day at one of his stores. That connection to the people that deliver the services is important. But should he be doing that five days a week? Certainly not. A lot of managerial tasks require you to present. There are times when this requires long hours, but not always. It’s about whether you have a workforce you trust, or one you feel you must control.”
Armstrong is chairwoman of the CBI’s national SME council, and gives organisational advice to businesses for a living. While she sees different cultures in different types of business, she believes the most successful businesses are those that develop an understanding of the needs of its staff. She says: “It’s human nature that if you’ve grown up in a blue world, it’s difficult to understand a red world might work better for some. The environment clearly has a role to play but you forget at your peril that you’re dealing with human beings. They have the ability to co-operate and be the most innovative resource you’ve got, or the most difficult and recalcitrant element of your business.
“I’ve seen business leaders consciously try to change. They’ve changed because to be successful they have to behave differently, as their business has grown and they’ve become the bottleneck. If you focus on what action will most benefit the business, you can take people on what is an emotional, difficult journey, such as changing their style or their role.”