“If you lead a country like Britain, a strong country, a country which has taken a lead in world affairs in good times and in bad, a country that is always reliable, then you have to have a touch of iron about you.”
So said the iron lady, Margaret Thatcher, during her tenure as Britain’s only female prime minister; a position she held from 1979 to 1990.
But does an effective leader still require that infamous iron touch? With many of our current influential leaders – from politicians to bankers – failing us, do we require a leader with a firm hand on the tiller and an attitude to match?
Not according to the results of a study, launched today, from The Work Foundation, that crushes what it describes as the commonplace assumption that powerful leaders with a “controlling and target-driven approach” are essential in tough economic times. Instead, it says, leaders need to do quite the opposite and switch to a much more subtle, people-centred approach to leadership.
“The evidence from our research indicates there needs to be a paradigm shift for all leaders who remain focused on numbers and targets,” says Penny Tamkin, lead author of the report. “Outstanding leaders focus on people. Instead of seeing people as one of the many priorities, they put the emphasis on people issues first.”
Such an approach should spell an end to those endless one-to-one meetings centred on tasks, for example, with a manager instead taking time to understand individual staff and what motivates them, she says. Tedious training days should be ditched, with more of a focus on developing staff through challenge and support.
The two-year study was based on more than 250 in-depth interviews with senior managers and their colleagues. It focused on six high-profile organisations including EDF Energy, Guardian Media Group – publisher of the Guardian – Tesco and Unilever.
All the companies showed sustainability; some had at some point in the recent past faced turbulent conditions and survived; others continued to perform well in challenging circumstances; and some were clear leaders.
Good v outstanding leaders
The study was able to separate good leaders from outstanding leaders and, according to Tamkin, there was a surprisingly stark contrast in how the two types behaved. Good leaders, for example, were found to take a “what you see is what you get” approach, while outstanding leaders were consistent and careful in their behaviour.
“Outstanding leaders always show their best behaviour rather than throwing tantrums. They understand the idea of using themselves carefully as facilitator of better performance from others,” she says. “They are careful to be consistent even though that might mean controlling their emotions.”
Outstanding leaders are also able to see things holistically, Tamkin adds. “They act in a way that makes a difference to the immediate recipient but they also think about how this will impact on the organisation; for example, how creating a good atmosphere in the workplace will not only affect staff but feed through to clients.”
Effective leaders should not just delegate, found the report, but should stay in touch with staff members afterwards, asking how they got on and talking through any problems. “This could be done by taking staff out for a meal or a coffee, while rewards could include giving people extra ‘unofficial’ holiday if they have worked very hard,” says Tamkin. One leader she came across during the study apparently told a staff member: “Go out to dinner, take your partner and send me the bill.”
Why trust is key
The findings from the Work Foundation are largely supported by those from the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), which recently found, during a joint study with Management Today magazine, that almost a third of UK employees (31%) have low or no trust in their senior management teams. More than 5,600 employees were surveyed for the Index of Leadership Trust, which revealed that, for CEOs, ability alone is not enough. It concluded that trust is the cornerstone of good leadership.
“In the current climate of economic uncertainty and an air of mistrust – in everyone from bankers to MPs – CEOs must work harder at demonstrating their personal integrity, in addition to their leadership ability, if they are to inspire trust in their staff,” says chief executive of the ILM, Penny de Valk.
Perhaps because they often have more direct contact with staff, line managers were found to garner higher levels of trust than CEOs. The research revealed that the two most important factors for CEOs are ability and integrity. In contrast, though line managers are more trusted, employees expect a more diverse range of qualities and characteristics from them. As well as ability (top of the list) and integrity, line managers are required to demonstrate understanding, fairness and consistency.
“Really, the skill we need in leaders today is not to be the expert but to facilitate the new solutions. It’s not about ‘I have the answer’,” says de Valk. “The overarching finding is the need for personal resilience in this environment and not to go in to command and control.”
CEOs should get out and about and “walk the floor” she adds, rather than hiding themselves away – even in the current economic climate. Those that can’t walk the floor – perhaps because of the sheer size of the organisation – should still undertake symbolic acts that convey their philosophy.
“For example, banishing executive car parking from outside the front door of the workplace,” says de Valk. “A relatively simple thing to do that conveys meaning about the person doing it.”
It could be argued that a number of organisations have already demonstrated a commitment to people over output during the recession. Many have introduced forms of flexible working or measures to alter working patterns that avoid redundancy.
Last summer BT, for example, proposed that staff take up to a year off, in this case in return for agreeing to a 75% pay cut. To encourage more workers to take up the offer, the company paid the reduced salary as an upfront cash payment – so someone on a £30,000 salary got a £7,500 lump sum. “Such a refreshing stance from BT,” said one employee at the time. “Much better than the ‘axe now, worry later’ method of other employers.”
Others, such as KPMG, offered a move to a four-day week. These moves are not popular with all staff but they do demonstrate a focus on retaining staff rather than instantly culling them to cut costs.
Can leadership be taught?
This is a big question for organisations looking for future leaders, but both de Valk and Tamkin agree it is difficult.
“A lot of it is around becoming more self-aware,” says de Valk. “You need to be much more conscious of the clues you use, both verbally and in gestures. Having said that, a lot of coaching does now teach this sort of thing.”
Tamkin agrees that it is very difficult to teach people the traits they need but says that some of these can be learned. Some forms of management training, for example, such as psychometric profiling, will give people an insight into what they are like and what might be areas for improvement. “However, a lot of these things need to be learned via feedback from others,” she says.
Leaders with good people skills can often be identified by senior management early on, she adds. Even if staff are not having to demonstrate leadership, their ability to develop strong relationships with other members of staff can be a good indicator of potential. “If you really want to make a difference you have to open up to people,” she says.
However, not all experts believe that selecting a good leader is as simple as picking someone with a “people-focused” style over someone who is more target-driven and controlling.
“Most researchers would agree that desirable features are not exclusively either-or,” says Professor Peter Warr, of the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield. “It’s always a question of balance between desirable themes, and the best balance can depend in part on circumstances and pressures.”
My way or the highway? Leadership styles compared
Old school: Michelle Mone Founder and co-owner of MJM International, the multimillion-pound lingerie company that produces the Ultimo bra. Left school at 15, has appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice (where actress Patsy Palmer called her a “stuck-up cow”) and famously fell out with Rod Stewart by replacing his girlfriend with his ex-wife as the face of her underwear range.
Mone’s way: “I always say to people in the organisation that we’ve all got to win. If I’m winning and you’re losing, you’re not going to be happy. If you’re winning and I’m losing, I’m not going to be happy. So let’s all win, then we’ll all be happy.”
New school: Stuart Rose King of the bras, outgoing chief executive of Marks & Spencer. Known for people-focused and ethical-minded leadership. Green issues high on his agenda at M&S; also known for taking a personal interest in customers’ thoughts on his products. Once arranged a meeting with Jeremy Paxman following the BBC presenter’s criticism of M&S men’s underwear.
Rose’s way: “The business has substantial further trading potential, which will be unlocked through a return to the core values of quality, value, service, innovation and trust.”
Old school: Nicolas Sarkozy Glamorous wife, sharp wardrobe and celebrity trappings once earned the French leader the nickname “President Bling Bling”. Leadership style described variously as “confident and fast-paced” and “aggressive”.
Sarkozy’s way: “Nothing – I mean nothing – and no one – I mean no one – will stop me going through to the end, and trying to be ready for the challenge of 2007.”
New school: Barack Obama Credited with very “open” style of leadership and also praised for making intelligent recruitment decisions. Before being elected he said if he were to become US president he would focus on providing leadership, vision, judgment and inspiration, and would delegate responsibility for controlling the agencies that would report to him.
Obama’s way: “To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn: I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too.”
Five key skills
1. Seeing the bigger picture Outstanding leaders recognise the interconnected nature of their organisations and act accordingly.
2. Understanding that talk is work Outstanding leaders talk to staff to find out what motivates them and how they can boost enthusiasm.
3. Giving time and space to others Outstanding leaders allow people more freedom and influence over the work they do.
4. Growing through performance Outstanding leaders invest in their workforce and use challenges presented to encourage growth, learning and engagement.
5. Putting “we” before “me” Outstanding leaders work hard on team spirit, shared decision-making, collaborative working and forming strong bonds between teams.
Source: The Work Foundation