Leadership lessons of Brexit

Yes, there are some.

Why leadership matters

One of the most active areas of learning that we provide in Executive Education is around that very broad topic of “Leadership”. Who asks for help? The range is incredibly wide, from some of the world’s biggest banks to Churches, from global law firms to bio-tech start-ups to global players in technology and communications. To cope with this needs an understanding of what “leadership” actually means (academic institutions develop a point of view on this) and also seeing how we can help individuals to improve their own leadership skills. And that is a key foundation stone for us – leadership skills can be developed, even though some will be better at it than others.

In our teaching we will often use Case Studies to bring to life the dilemmas faced by leaders in every possible type of organisation. Classroom discussion, and debate – even argument – over which of several courses of action the protagonist in a Case study should take, can open people’s eyes to the difficulties of making real leadership decisions, and why there are never easy answers. We were recently running a Sector Leadership Programme on the very day that the British Government was faced with (yet another) crucial Brexit vote. We had a range of Brexit views in the room and, to give the group credit, were able to rise above the politics. We realised that what we were experiencing in Britain was a near perfect Case Study to illustrate the difference between management and leadership, and what can go wrong when managers try to lead – and do not realise that they need to do things very differently. It happens in business organisations on a daily basis, and here we were seeing it played out on a national stage.

The purpose of this article is to reflect on the current state of government in Britain and see what lessons it has for the partners in professional service firms, management consultants, senior manager and directors, or for any person who is given a title and expected to lead a team, an office, a business segment or a global company. And we think that at the core of this is the difference between a great manager and a great leader and why one struggles to do the other’s job. But that people who are quite good at managing could be pretty effective leaders too – a case where the great are the enemies of the good!

So, unfortunately, back to British Politics. Our Eureka moment occurred when we had put up a PowerPoint which contrasted what managers do, as opposed to what leaders do. We used the thinking of Dr John Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership – Emeritus at Harvard University amongst other great academics such as Abraham Zaleznik and our own research which focuses on Professional Service Firms. The comparison looks something like this:

What a leader does  What a manager does
Focuses on people
Looks outward
Articulates a vision
Creates the future
Sees the forest
Empowers others
Has colleagues
Trusts and develops
Does the right things
Creates change
Serves subordinates
Uses influence
Focuses on things / tasks
Looks inward
Executes plans
Improves the present
Sees the trees
Has subordinates
Directs and coordinates
Does things right
Manages change
Serves superordinates
Uses authority

We then posed this question. Is Theresa May a manager or a leader? On the manager side, we have someone who has managed her party machinery with exceptional skill and won her party’s election to “leader”. In fact, she won this competition against a substantial and combative group of political opponents. She probably understands the machinery of the Conservative Party better than anyone else. But she looks a bit like the talented expert in an organisation who has fought their way to the “top job”. Like the brilliant lawyer, computer scientist or engineer who was the best at their profession – and aspired to be the leader. Unfortunately, to be the best at their profession means that they are “the best” which by definition means that they are at the extreme end of the spectrum of talent. Leadership requires completely different skills – so what is the chance that the person who was the very best at their “day job” would also be a great, or even a good, leader?

We saw much the same skill set in Jeremy Corbyn. Hardly an inspiring orator, but he had very skilfully managed his party. In fact, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have very successfully fought off very serious attempts to remove them. They are superb managers of their parties – we may never see better. But “what got you here, won’t get you there” to quote Marshall Goldsmith.  One of the signs of a great leader is the shift of focus from themselves (and preserving their job) and instead to focus on others – their followers. It has also been said that the fundamental requirement for a great leader is a reluctance to take on the role – but here you have two individuals who were supremely well focused on their own advancement. Of course, we know they only stepped forward in order “to serve others / their Country” but we think they got there by being driven to achieve personal success (as they saw it). Please don’t listen to the stories of “but they are great in a small group meeting”. Leaders do big groups, crowds, thousands and tens of thousands. It’s in the job spec.  And they also do one on one and small group very successfully as well.

Why we need both leaders and managers

We seem to inherently relate to double acts – even if one half of the pair is only semi-visible. Think Apple – Jobs and Wozniak; Microsoft – Gates and Allen; South Africa – Mandela and Mbeki.  The list of smart leaders who realise what they are good at – and more importantly what they are NOT good at – and work in collaboration with people who are unlike them, is huge.   The skilful pairings all have one thing in common – a respect for each other’s abilities and where each sits on the “Leadership – Management” continuum.  The crucial thing is that they understand that there is a continuum and each works to enable the other.

So, let’s explore this continuum.  Whilst at its extremes it seems to be bipolar, clearly each individual is a more complex bundle of all of the attributes noted here.   At the Leadership end of the continuum we see the dreamers, those who can envisage a better wold, place, organisation, office or way of doing the work. The big picture, the Jeff Bezos who could see the possibilities creating a universal delivery platform.  Elon Musk who decided that there is a future for electric vehicles and space ships that can – and should be – reused.  The people who challenge the established thinking and can’t hear the words “It can’t be done”.  For them that is precisely their raison d’etre – the fact that they think it should be possible. Not for them the importance of the role or title – as Job’s put it – “it’s about doing things that are insanely great!”

The Manager end of the continuum gets less of a spotlight but let’s be clear, this is also a vital skill set to make sure things get done!  Unfortunately, in recent times, the managerial skill set has been down played and or undervalued – yet is vital all the same.  That ability to plan and budget, to organise people and resources, to keep everything moving in an orderly fashion.  To exercise a degree of control to achieve the outlandish dreams of the leader.

While these managerial skills are important, they need to be placed in the context in which they are being deployed.  Which takes us back to our current political analysis.  In Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, we are seeing two good, maybe even great, managers working the levers of the apparatus of their party machinery – whilst the country at large is looking on aghast.  The followers – the electorate – were expecting leadership.

A game of opposites

At the extremes, great leaders and great managers are opposites. If you are going to be a great leader, you are likely going to be a terrible manager. At their extremes of achievement, they are alternative skills. What we may be seeing in [Great] Britain may be the other extreme. And a real difficulty, whether is business or politics, is that when it comes to moving from manager to leader, the great truly is the enemy of the good. While we can see a good manager become a good leader, a great manager has such extreme, and extremely embedded, skills that they are going to find it very difficult to switch roles.

If you ask people what they want from a leader, a set of very common themes and words emerge – Trusted, Charismatic, Visionary, Brave, Charming, Positive, Popular, Social. In fact, it’s amazing how repetitive these themes become. We want leaders who can show us the way, who are focused on the future (rather than on today’s tasks) who are positive and can inspire us with a vision of a better future.

Leaders engage, they don’t hide. They face challenges full on, and rather than refuse to answer difficult questions, will be honest about the size of the obstacles ahead. Moreover, their ability to convince their followers is built upon their own confidence that what they are doing is right and will create the best results. A leader is not afraid to take a different path to the majority view, and to fight for that conviction. A leader will tell you if they think you are wrong, they are not the slave of the majority view. Indeed, if all they are going to do is follow the majority view, that is just reacting to focus groups. Managers react to focus groups, leaders create a compelling vision of the future. Leaders paint the picture of the future, managers can turn that dream into a reality. You need both.

But what our esteemed politicians in Britain have demonstrated is that if you tell a truly great manager that they are the leader, it simply doesn’t work.  We were reminded of the wonderful and acute observation in the poem by Roger McGough:

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader
OK what shall we do?

What you get, and this applies to both the main parties, is great managers who are focused upon managing their team, the MPs, and the party. Yet they have completely failed to engage as leaders with the electorate. We therefore have a leaderless country. Let’s see what that means for our future.

And what about you? Are you in a Leadership Role at work? So do you lead, or do you try to manage; to give people (even your peers) targets: to seek to make them accountable; to deliver against existing plans? Or are you looking to a different future, taking a risk, inspiring and leading them to a new destination?

Kevin Doolan and Mike Mister

The views expressed in this article are our own personal opinions and do not represent the views of any other person or institution