A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say “We did it ourselves” Lao–Tzu c. 550BC
This is a major chapter that pulls together all the psychological themes so far.
The Clemenceau case study shows that purposeful physical, allied to mental, momentum, is an essential part of leadership. Once that is achieved, the leaders can start to climb on top of the challenges they face, the positive momentum builds, the leadership becomes successful, and confidant enthusiasm for the team begins to be self–supporting.
The momentum of success is self–perpetuating; it is a virtuous cycle. We know that winning athletes generate extra testosterone after the event, confidence increases, they feel a glow, they look forward to the next challenge.
The opposite is also true. Too much thought, excessive deliberation, leads to the inbred self–perpetuating inactivity Shakespeare described in Hamlet:
“thus conscience doth make cowards of us all and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and enterprise of great pitch and moment with this regard their current turn away and lose the name of action.”
Act III, Scene I
Remember we have examined a destructive cycle that we all feel at one time or another. A fundamental anxiety leading by stages through cover–up, to stress and then, above all in the systemic mind, to the debilitating, ultimately life–threatening impact of a steady, small and frustratingly suppressed trickle of adrenalin into the system. For many males, the reaction is to hide, to turn in on themselves, and, even under the most dramatic of threats, to deny the evidence in front of them.
Leadership needs nurturing and help from a small circle of unconditional supporters, who are given, and use, a licence to debate and criticise openly and fully. Many can succeed greatly at a junior level when provided with a firm framework in which to operate. Their role is legitimised, the guidelines are clear. But the top man or woman has to establish their own framework – and doing that alone is a threatening challenge. The results are as devastating in companies and firms as they are in the military.
One chairman I worked with grew to be incapable of making considered, rapid and clear decisions. Instead he needed to listen to everyone, vacillating with each opinion, exasperating his staff with his dithering and, throughout, complaining that he “worked too hard”, “had to do everything”, “never had enough support”. In his confusion, he would forget the purpose of a meeting, looked to blame others and resented any criticism that was made of him. Confronting him, his leadership, his sequence of poor decisions and delays was the core undiscussable at the weekly executive meetings.
Many firms grow up like unhappy families in which the key issues are never openly discussed. It is difficult to sanction a leader – the concept is a contradictory one: we want the leader to succeed, we frequently have no critical framework in place, and so the very structure of the organisation makes it hard to challenge openly. My chairman did not know how to listen, he only knew what was rattling around in his own head (see Sidebar 17). He was usually first into the office, and at once submerged himself in the minutiae of administrative detail. With little empathy for others, his days passed working hard on the irrelevant or the immaterial, resolutely refusing to take the risk of looking into the real challenges facing the firm.
Worst of all, he lacked sufficient grip on what were key decision areas – top level recruitments for example. As a result, having set a recruitment in hand, his dithering would introduce doubt in the minds of candidates, where none needed to exist. Fellow staff would complain, and the Chairman would at once wash his hands of the matter and walk away angry at yet again “having to do everything myself” and “receiving no thanks”. Because of the hierarchy within the firm, because no one wanted to be unpleasant, because all wanted to show they were supporters, no one challenged the situation. A key recruit would be lost, a strategy would fail, frustrated staff would leave.
Ulysses Simpson Grant, the greatest General of the American Civil War, wrote in his memoirs: “War is progressive”. Leadership is too. My chairman was no leader; he stifled momentum (The Kaiser and His Court” J C Röhl: University of Cambridge 1994) Nor could he remotely have articulated his theory of business, had he had one, with anything like the forthrightness of Grant.
“Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you an, as soon as you can, and keep moving on.”. Lincoln once said approvingly of Grant “I like this man – he fights”. Grant’s thesis could well do for a definition of business strategy.
For a brilliant and entirely relevant account of leadership styles of Grant and also of Alexander The Great, Wellington and Hitler, see “The Mask of Command” John Keegan: Penguin 1987 Like Clemenceau, Grant surrounded himself with an inner team of “persons with whom I had a previous acquaintance” from his home town in Galena, Illinois. Frank and open debate matters, as does the need to confront “undiscussables”. Grant seems almost to have been the originator of this approach. He valued above all the company of Rawlins, the assistant adjutant general and effectively his chief of staff. And he did so precisely because he could broach unmentionables with him. “Rawlins could argue, could expostulate, could condemn, could even upbraid without interrupting…. the goodwill of Grant…. he became a living and speaking conscience of his General”
Keegan describes Grant as running his command “as a sort of barbershop meeting, where those with a place round the spittoon were as free to air their views as they were to spit tobacco juice”.
Though not a great public orator, Grant’s despatches and orders of command were written fluently, quickly and with a forceful clarity. Keegan describes his despatches as equalling those of Wellington at his crispest, and goes on to eulogise the remarkable achievement of Grant’s autobiography:
“Grant exceeds Wellington in his powers of extended composition. His Memoirs, dictated (and, after his voice failed, written) while he was dying in agony from cancer of the throat, are not only a triumph of physical and moral courage – his family depended on their completion for rescue from bankruptcy – they are also an enthralling autobiography of high command to exist in any language. For despite his modest achievement at West Point, Grant possessed formidable intellectual capacity. He had the novelist’s gift for the thumbnail sketch of character, dramatic setting of mood and introduction of the telling incident; he had the historian’s ability to summarise events and incorporate them smoothly in the large narrative; he had the topographer’s feel for landscape and the economist’s instinct for material essentials; and he had the philosophical vision to balance the elements of his story into the argument of his apologia pro sua vita – which was how a just triumphed over an unjust cause. The result is a literary phenomenon. If there is a single contemporary document which explains “why the North won the Civil War”, that abiding conundrum of American historical enquiry, it is the Personal Memoirs of U S Grant.”
Determined, always moving, taking trouble, supported by an inner circle of trusties, keeping in touch, and clear communication – the other features were his unconcern for show and his committed modesty, “There is no glitter or parade about him”, his life–long love for his wife, Julia, and his almost spartan modesty. He and Wellington eschewed ceremony, oratory and theatre. It was only Grant’s distaste for this that caused him to decline the President’s invitation to join him in the theatre box where Lincoln was murdered! Wellington once said “I like to convince people, rather than stand on mere authority”. Like Clemenceau, Grant always wanted to be in the thick of things, finding out, and directing his men at the critical time. He was visible.
And finally he vigorously embraced innovation and technology and turned it to his advantage. Grant, like Lincoln, used the rapidly expanding telegraph to collect intelligence and stay in touch with his command. Again and again his correspondence and orders refer to the growing spread and value of the telegraph and his reliance on it.
Grant was winning his victories in the 1860s, Clemenceau was leading France in 1918, Montgomery was showing the same qualities at El Alamein in October 1942 (For the full build–up and description of Montgomery’s generalship, see “The Full Monty, Volume I” Nigel Hamilton: The Penguin Press 2001). These qualities were a resolute focus on the battle at hand, the unflinching determination to find out and confront difficulties and a driving resolve to win.
In 2001 Jim Collins and his team of researchers at Boulder, Colorado, published the results of their examination of what made good companies great (“Good to Great” Jim Collins: Random House 2001). Like all the books mentioned here, his is compulsory reading. Ultimately his team found seven features that the most successful businesses had in common and that uniquely lay behind their extraordinary achievements (see Sidebar 18). Jim Collins’s list echoes in great measure the characteristics of the leaders we have already discussed – we focus on their “unexpected” discovery of Level 5 leadership as a way of moving from an understanding of the qualities that mark great leaders, to those that seduce and ultimately ruin leadership.
Collins had started out trying to avoid what he feared might be the leadership myth. “Avoid putting it down to the executive” was his instruction. But gradually and consistently, perhaps his most profound discovery emerged that there was something special about all the successful executive teams. And the “something special” was itself unexpected. The great companies were not led by larger–than–life heroic leaders. None succeeded because a white knight had been parachuted in to them. Instead they shared much of the character of the military leaders so far discussed. Like Lincoln and Grant, they were apparently shy, self–effacing, and humble. In most cases they remained happily married to the same woman throughout their life. They were rich men by the end, but in no way flaunted their wealth. Deliberate, focussed, fearlessly facing their challenges, their eyes were set firmly on winning for their company. And one other intriguing feature – each of the CEOs surrounded themselves with their own inner team where there was a constant and often vigorous debate, where self–criticism was open, and where support was honest and unconditional. As described by Jim Collins, a key trait of Level 5 Leaders is ambition first and foremost for the company and concern for its success rather than their own riches and personal fame. “Level 5 leaders want to see the company even more successful in the next generation – comfortable with the idea that most people won’t even know …. about their efforts”. They want to ensure the successors succeed. Board member Jim Hlaveck, for example, is quoted describing Ken Iverson, the CEO who oversaw Nucor’s transformation from near bankruptcy to one of the most successful steel companies in the world.
“Ken is a very modest and humble man. I’ve never known a person as successful in doing what he’s done that’s as modest. And, I work for a lot of CEOs of large companies. And that’s true in his private life as well. The simplicity of him. I mean little things like he always gets his dogs at the local pound. He has a simple house that he’s lived in for ages. He only has a carport and he complained to me one day about how he had to use his credit card to scrape the frost off his windows and he broke the credit card. ‘You know, Ken, there’s a solution for it; enclose your carport.’ And he said ‘Ah heck, it isn’t that big of a deal… ’He’s that humble and simple.”
It is clear from reading Collins’s book that the same could have been written about George Cain (Abbott Laboratories), Alan Wurtzel (Circuit City), David Maxwell (Fannie Mae), Colman Mockler (Gillette), Darwin Smith (Kimberley Clark), Jim Herring (Kroger), Lyle Everingham (Kroger), Joe Cullman (Philip Morris), Fred Allen (Pitney Bowes), Cork Walgreen (Walgreen) and Carl Reichhardt (Wells Fargo). I paid tribute at the start of this book to all those ordinary people, who, every day, do extraordinary things – here surely is a Valhalla of such ordinary folk. But in reality they are not “ordinary”.
At the same time as keeping their feet and egos grounded, they feel in touch with an inspiration to do something great, to make their companies the best. They, together with Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Montgomery and Grant were driven to succeed for the whole cause, not just for themselves. They had standards, they had values, and they followed them. They surrounded themselves with trusties who shared those values. Ultimately they had their feet firmly planted even if they were reaching for the stars.
Unfortunately, however, not all companies are run by Level 5 leaders. Nor are they encouraged to be so. Unfortunately many (perhaps most) shareholders still want to believe in the white knight, the glamorous, larger–than–life hero who, with a few bold strokes, can galvanise the share price and make their fortunes. Extraordinarily, despite all the evidence to the contrary, companies are still looking for saviour CEOs from outside their organisation, applauding swingeing changes with apparently no sustained memory of how these moves are doomed to failure.
Jim Collins’s team showed how, with the exception of Fannie Mae, all of their good–to–great companies promoted from within. Read the newspapers, look at the profitability of head–hunters to see the dogged determination of so many companies to turn a blind eye to this reality.
It’s amazing that we should think any different. The parachuted top executive faces a world of new challenge. He knows no one, he is known by no one. He is new to the organisation’s culture, its language, “the way we do things here”. He is probably being paid handsomely and feels an excessive need to prove his worth. Some of his colleagues will resent this pay; certainly he will feel they may. In many cases, he may know little or nothing about the industry or business. I’ve said “he” so far; how very much more apparently challenging for a “she”. No matter what our opinions about equality of the sexes, there are, as yet, very few women taking top jobs – how much more threatening for them.
Any company that seeks an external appointee to a critical management role has failed in one of its most important areas of corporate governance – it has failed to breed successors (see Sidebar 19).
But whether head–hunted, or appointed from within the firm, there is a second style of leadership altogether that we have been working towards – that of the driven Alpha Male. Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson estimate that 70% of all senior executives are Alpha Males (The Senior Executives of Work Ethic, a California–based coaching company quoted in HBR May 2004). These men are driven to take ever larger decisions, to think and act fast and often dramatically. Impatient, intuitive, often capable of original approaches to a problem, they are almost always glorious fun to be with, exciting, fast–living and remarkably open to trusted, up–front critics.
However they also suffer from precisely the conditioning discussed in earlier chapters. To summarise once more the likely prognosis:
- They have an extreme systemic mind – they tend to be highly focussed on things, objects, processes, how engines or business deals work. Once focussed, they are driven to be correct, to win. Comfortable with conflict, they almost welcome the mental clash of argument. They see people’s feelings as irrelevant to the debate, they will often have little time for home life, and certainly see it as secondary whilst they are on the more important job of bringing home the bacon.
- They are quick but strangely “sensitive” – most of the time Alpha Males are moving quickly. They are physical people, have a need for physical movement, partly to be there and to find out, but mostly because the very act of movement reinforces their need to be doing something. I cannot envision many of them spending time in contemplation or still reflection. They have no trouble taking people decisions, like hiring and firing, that make many other managers procrastinate to the point of indecision. Their staff are either ‘in’ or history. Anyone who leaves the company is immediately unregretted – “OK he’s gone – that’s fine, we move on”. However, at the same time, beneath it all, Alpha Males can be strangely sensitive, finding it difficult to accept praise, bottling up and hiding their innermost doubts and fears, and almost pathetically sensitive to criticism of themselves. One final reflection: it is dangerous to generalise about any type of person. My own sample is inevitably a small one. However, I have also found that once the Alpha Male does stop, take time to stand back and consider a difficult, sensitive issue, he ceases to be decisive. It is as though the very momentum of his normal life carries him over the rocks of indecision like a high tide. When he gives this up, he is subjected to the same frustrating complexities that, for most of us, are a daily experience.
- They have suffered a childhood – most have come from single parent, unhappy, even abusive homes. I often think the need for physical movement and the absence of a sense of comfortable stillness derives from their never having experienced the secure comfort of a settled place called “home”. Certainly, as we have discussed in earlier chapters, confronted by the anxiety caused by a basic driver being threatened, they have covered up or compensated through a growing habit of striving for ever greater achievement, for the next glorious success, and for fast decision–making and movement. None ever seems entirely satisfied or really happy.
See the case study by Byron on Jack Welch
Given the chance, many of us could as easily start to lose touch with reality. In great measure, a lot of their excess, and their aberrant behaviour, was because they found they could get away with it. The next chapter will turn to followership, and describe how we all want frameworks to work within, that legitimise our actions. We and leaders need these frameworks for another vital reason. They provide us with constraints and guidelines that stop us becoming self–serving, self–indulgent and ultimately abusive – that is the one profoundly important reason why we need values, and why all companies need an immensely strong–minded non–executive chairman. His or her role is to lay down the law of their company, to clarify and implement “the way we should do things here” (See "Abuse of power").
Ron Perelman was the only apparent exception, born into an affluent Philadelphia family. However he suffered from an “overbearing and controlling father.”. “Actually”, Byron quotes a family intimate, “Ruth was a piece of work in her own right. But if I had to pick one or the other, I guess I’d given the nod to Ray. He’s the one who warped Ron into the ogre he became”.
The framework is, however, only one part of the double function of non–executive chairman when dealing with the driven CEO. The other function is to provide some of the unconditional love, affection and adult praise that the CEO lacked as a child, the “stroking”. Far too much time is spent, by the chairmen examining financial data, looking for what may be going wrong, double–guessing future outcomes and, in some cases, micro–managing talented executives, instead of building deep and supportive relationships, providing genuine acclaim for success, and being there for the executives both when they win and when they lose.
A recent Sunday Times article touched on many of the points raised so far in this chapter, only on this occasion, the author Shane Watson, was talking about women executives. She was particularly interested in their serial infidelities:
“The point is,” says one of her top executive interviewees, “when you’re the boss, you’re not really answerable to anyone…. If you are the sort of woman who is driven, ambitious and enjoys taking risks, then, often, you are also the sort of woman who has affairs.”
Another adds “It sounds shallow, but when you’re on a roll, you feel sexy and powerful, and the last thing you want is to go home and be reminded of your domestic responsibilities.” (Sunday Times, October 24 2004)