By Steve Priddy, Academic Director at GISMA Business School
In certain circles it has become fashionable to argue that management has passed its peak. In this time of digitisation, disruption and the platform business, we are standing at the edge of a unique historical moment where managers, and by definition leaders, will become increasingly less relevant as the flattening out of the ‘post-modern’ organisation proceeds apace. Layers of bureaucracy will be stripped away, businesses will become agile and fast moving, new entrants led by single minded entrepreneurs backed by angel investors will herald a new industrial future.
Forgive me for fundamentally disagreeing. In the first place the highest aspiring, most disruptive of products and services will never decouple from the real world. For example, Tesla’s electric cars run as well on a fossil fuel fed electricity grid, no matter what its charismatic CEO may be saying.
A high-speed train network cannot run unless supported by a complex, largely irreplaceable human bureaucracy. As a species, we have to face up to the need for hierarchies of management which are ultimately led by men and women.
So, given this uncomfortable and unfashionable constraint what traits make for a great business leader? Here are mine, drawn primarily from my own experience as a ‘follower’.
Great business leaders respect that we are ALL on one spectrum or the other, seek to understand the qualities of that spectrum and allow followers to flourish.
My sister teaches teenagers with learning difficulties of various kinds. More recently, she qualified as a counsellor, and works one-to-one with these remarkable individuals, and she also trains the trainers in the skills she has acquired. She tells me, and of course it is true, that syndromes such as Asperger’s and autism and the spectrum associated with each are probably the tip of the iceberg, and that we all live our lives on various spectra that have a profound impact on our world-view and how we approach the life of business.
When that penny drops we realise how much more diversity has to offer, and what a long journey is ahead of us to realise the potential of that diversity. A great business leader knows this and celebrates it.
Great business leaders walk the talk.
In the UK, Timpson shops concentrating on shoe repairs, key cutting, engraving, watch repairs, dry cleaning and photo processing are ubiquitous on the high street. The family owned company led by John, now in his 70’s, has over 2,000 branches, turns over £300 million sales a year and generates annual profits of £20 million. It is a remarkable business in many ways, but one aspect of his leadership, passed on to his son who now leads the business, was his non-stop schedule of visiting each shop, day in day out. This extensive and intensive schedule is what business commentators refer to as management by walking. It is about finding ways to be around, whether on the shop floor, the open plan, or the high street. It is about constantly sniffing the air and feeling the changes.
Great business leaders give praise where it is due.
I know, how often have you heard this one? However in my view you cannot hear it enough, because after many years in a working life I see it all too rarely. There is a flipside as well: how does a good leader give criticism? Once in the days of the memorandum I wrote what I thought to be a sensible criticism of a big loss making project my firm was trying to extricate itself from. It was rashly written, circulated too widely and without thought. My great business leader had the decency to ring me, to tell me why I was wrong and that he would have to reply openly and brutally to me. Sure enough, that is exactly what he did – my memo came back splashed with blood red ink, exclamation marks and circled items. I have it today, and have never forgotten that act of consideration.
Great business leaders build the team.
They know their strengths and weaknesses. It is interesting how linguistic habits develop; how decades ago we would have spoken easily of ‘weakness’ but nowadays we skirt around with terms like ‘limitations’ or ‘challenges’.
Great business leaders know that the ability to thrive and be successful is most prominent where we do not seek to painfully improve on weaknesses we have lived with all our lives. Far better to recruit in the team individuals who do have those qualities in abundance, and are at ease themselves in utilising them.
Great business leaders say the mistake was mine, I accept full responsibility, I will fix it.
One of the turns of phrase I hate is “I apologise if I caused offence”. A true apology replaces ‘if I caused’ with ‘for causing’. It is remarkable that despite all the evidence, people in positions of leadership still feel unable to take responsibility when things go wrong, whether they be big and physical, like an oil spill, or small but vital, like being unable to access an on-line bank statement because of an IT failure.
All of the above could be construed, as they say as ‘teaching granny to suck eggs’. But in my view, they all went towards characterising the great business leaders I have known.