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The Real Leader?

Effective leadership in any organisation is critical. We have all experienced various styles; authoritarian, charismatic, collaborative and the servant leader. Like most issues involving people the inevitable stereotypes emerge but the reality is that leaders need to deploy a variety of styles to meet the needs of a particular situation. A collaborative style is no good if there is a bomb in the building! You need a decisive and authority based approach to get people out quickly to save their lives.

However if you are looking at a possible acquisition then a collaborative, co-operative approach bringing in expert opinion from commercial, finance, HR, legal etc. will help decide whether the purchase is right for the future of the business. We saw what happened when ‘Fred the Shred’ pursued the purchase of ABN Amro and the Royal Bank of Scotland had to be saved by the taxpayer as a result. I suspect that few dared to tell him that he was wrong and that included the RBS Board.

People have developed theories on leadership throughout history, many have great relevance today. What is surprising is how organisations that appear rigid and hierarchical from the outside (e.g. the Church and military) have quite radical approaches within. One of my favourite quotes is from a medieval religious order. When a new prior of a monastery was appointed he was given a specific charge:

“Know all things
Correct some things
But above all cherish the brethren.”

We would have to make the final line more inclusive today and no doubt medieval abbesses were enjoined to cherish the sisterhood. But the principle that the leader is nothing without the support of colleagues is true today. This relationship clearly depended upon trust from both sides, authenticity is today’s buzzword!

Another organisation that probably did not send out a message of care and support would have been a cavalry regiment in the pre-1914 British Army. Cavalry regiments were particularly noted for snobbery and class distinction, but we might well be surprised by the first rule given to a new commanding officer:

“Feed the horses before the men
Feed the men before the officers
Feed the officers before yourself.”

Well, that shows that the first shall be last and is a much earlier example of “servant leadership” which, surprisingly was not invented 10 years ago!

John Timpson engagingly writes about “Upside Down Management”. He makes the front line shop staff the key priority to bring in business. Every other function in Timpson is solely there to support them, not the other way round as in many organisations.

In Saturday’s Telegraph Magazine there was an interesting account of the Dambusters Raid by the last surviving pilot, ‘Johnny Johnson.’ His comments on the C.O.’s (Guy Gibson) leadership style were illuminating. He said that Gibson was a strict disciplinarian but did not relate to the lower ranks except to tell them off. Yet on the actual attack Gibson led the attack on the Mohne Dam, the only one that was defended. He flew alongside each attacking aircraft to attract fire away from it. Johnson writes, “He said ‘You’re doing this, I’m doing this, we’re doing this together’ That to me is the essence of good leadership.”

We often hear the phrase ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ but some corporate leaders are content to be in HQ well away from the action. Whatever type of leader a person is, visibility is critical and can be done in so many ways today; video conferencing, emails, phone calls, Town Hall meetings and face to face. The worst description of any leader is that he or she is a faceless bureaucrat hiding from view and protected by minions. SO GET OUT THERE!!

John Williams is an HR Consultant and employment tribunal expert who will be speaking at our Employment Law Update on 24th June.

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