Great leaders must show their human side

Business hierarchies are changing along with the qualities needed to be a modern leader

Cast your mind back. From rock stars to royalty, the alpha dog at school to the athletes who inspired us; growing up, our leaders always seemed to be born rather than made – and they were also somewhat out of reach.

But the rose-tinted lenses are cast aside as our worlds become more interconnected; we are better informed, more empowered and challenging, demanding two-way dialogue from those in charge.

Honesty, listening, empathy, humility and flexibility are seen as essential traits in today’s leaders, as important as courage, confidence and decisiveness have always been

Organisational hierarchies are less fixed, less about command and control as they become more fluid and multifaceted. Our emotional quotient or EQ is now revered as much as our IQ.

Honesty, listening, empathy, humility and flexibility are seen as essential traits in today’s leaders, as important as courage, confidence and decisiveness have always been.

Jutta Tobias of Cranfield University School of Management says the role of leader is evolving as the business environment becomes more complex.

The evolving leader

“It is no longer about the lone male, John Wayne-style, big-jawed hero receiving applause for solving everyone’s problems,” says Dr Tobias.

“Leaders need to allow those around them to shine, stop being fearful of saying ‘I don’t know’, and allow different voices and opinions to be heard.”

leadership qualities

No longer reliant on externally driven fear or admiration, tomorrow’s leaders need to derive their satisfaction from completely different sources, looking inwards rather than outwards.

Dr Tobias says: “They are not only leading more complex dynamics, but doing so more publicly. Are they managing their emotions well enough? Are they respected? Are they being respectful?”

Modern leaders need to become trusted enablers of creativity and innovation for those they lead, and showing a well-regarded weakness or vulnerability seems to be criteria for garnering that trust.

In Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones cite businessman and sometime national treasure Sir Richard Branson as exemplifying this, in turn cementing his authenticity.

“Branson is particularly effective at communicating his vulnerability,” they write. “He is ill at ease and fumbles incessantly when interviewed in public. It’s a weakness, but it’s Richard Branson.”

Driving employee engagement

Traditionalists might view these more sensory characteristics as more at home in funky, youth-filled London creative agencies, all beer and bean bags, than the more “professional” sector, but Maggie Stilwell, managing partner for talent at EY, disagrees.

She says the introduction of flexible working three years ago has transformed the business.

“It used to be about following the mother ship of the office without thinking ‘is that the right place for me to be to get the output I need today?’”

Are these softer, more touchy-feely approaches coming at a cost to the bottom line?

“No. We have seen a significant halo effect from doing something that is effectively logistical, a much bigger payback. We’ve realised if we drive engagement levels we also drive more growth, profits and higher staff retention,” says Ms Stilwell.

So why bring our mentors and managers under such scrutiny? Are certain sectors daring to review their executive models and winning in doing so?

First and foremost, the business world is responding to a talent war. Initially identified by McKinsey in the 1990s before falling away during the financial crisis, Jeff Grout, business speaker, consultant and coach, says the talent war is back with a vengeance as we witness “the toughest recruitment market in a decade”.

He says: “In order to attract the best candidates, companies need to change the way they are doing things. Candidates are no longer concerned with their role and reporting lines. They are more interested in how decisions are made, to what extent do they feel a sense of involvement. How it feels to work there is of utmost importance.”

Responding to change

While certain professions – health, legal, accountancy and finance – generally demonstrate more resistance to change, the fast-moving consumer goods and retail sectors come across as more enlightened, he says.

Rather than being sector-focused, the size of the company is a more likely differentiator; smaller companies can be more nimble and try things out, while flatter structures are often more effective with fewer moving parts.

Helena Morrissey, Newton Investment Management chief executive, featured in Fortune magazine’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders
Helena Morrissey, Newton Investment Management chief executive, featured in Fortune magazine’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders

Arguably, if everyone is an ideas person with ambitions of leading, it might lead to top-heavy organisational structures with too few following. Do we risk making our worker bees redundant?

“In the UK we hardly manufacture anything anymore. We are a nation full of people with ideas and it is this intellectual capital that will be most important to the UK economy,” adds Mr Grout.

He foresees a world in which the core functions still exist, but will gravitate towards outsourced services as companies employ more contractors and portfolio careerists become the norm.

In terms of remote working, the multinational opportunity that sits hand in glove with that and information overload, technology is behind much of this progress.

Chief executive of Newton Investment Management Helena Morrissey calls it the “game changer”.

She is also chairwoman of UK asset management trade body the Investment Association, founded the 30% Club in 2010 with the objective of redressing the gender imbalance on FTSE 100 boards, is a mother of nine and recently appeared in Fortune magazine’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

The future leader

Ms Morrisey agrees the concept of leadership has changed significantly from one relying on command and control to being more about influence and persuasion.

“Society and businesses are much less hierarchical and deferential – you don’t get respect through a job title, but through what you do,” she says.

“The universal access to information along with the ability to contribute to opinion, thanks to the internet and rise of social media, has been the game changer here. Leadership needs to feel local and personal, even if in practical terms that cannot always be the case, if the leader is to be trusted.”

This comes back to Mssrs Goffee and Jones’ idea of leaders managing their authenticity. Being seen to listen, communicate and empathise is instrumental in helping that cause.

Taking his local and personal leadership style more literally was former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, who ran the corporation from 2000 to 2004.

Having interviewed Greg Dyke on more than one occasion, Mr Grout says: “He took the view that leaders must first listen to earn the right to be heard.”

Stepping into the shoes of John Birt, whose reputation for being autocratic and London-centric preceded him, Mr Dyke took himself in a different direction. Or rather, several different directions outside the M25.

“During his first 100 days in the post, he travelled to locations no director-general had ever been to before. He avoided the executive dining room, queued up with a tray at lunchtime and asked everyone the same two questions – name one thing we could do to improve our service to our audience and second, tell me one thing I can do to improve your life at work.”

Within six months he reportedly had everyone in the organisation on side. “Very few leaders can say that,” concludes Mr Grout.