How to Renew Yourself as a Leader (Part 1)

Posted on 18 August 2020

This post is part of the “The New Leadership” series

  1. How to Renew Yourself as a Leader (Part 1)

You don’t have to stay with fixed stereotypes or rigid rules

“I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fa! La! La!

Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “Iolanthe” (1882)

There are times when it’s extremely tempting to believe that Gilbert had it right and that the world is composed of two kinds of people: stiff-necked, puritanical and rigid conservatives; and free-flowing, wishy-washy, politically-correct liberals.

Here’s what Thomas Jefferson wrote, long before “Ionlanthe” came on stage in London:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still, and pursue the same object.

This view of the world as based on a simple dichotomy between right and left is tempting, but, I suspect, probably wrong. We all have both of these tendencies within us. Sometimes we’re concerned with stability and respect for the past, sometimes ready to take risks and pursue our freedom. The problem comes when one or other tendency gains a sufficient upper-hand to suppress the other one entirely.

This is certainly the case in a leader. A rigid, rule-bound, change-resisting leader can cause havoc. But so can a leader who applies such alight touch — and is so averse to setting any kind of boundaries or rules — that no one is quite sure of what they are supposed to do, and there is little or no co-ordination between people working towards the same goal.

Communication reveals basic attitudes

Where these basic attitudes are clearest is in communication. People tend to hear what they want to hear — what they agree with — and ignore the rest. A ‘liberal’ leader finds it tough to communicate with ‘conservative’ subordinates. They want structure and stability; he or she offers them freedom, yet seems to require them to take frightening risks. Reverse the roles and things are no better. The ‘conservative’ leader wants to set firm guidelines and maintain predictable results; his or her ‘liberal’ subordinates feel stifled by what appears to them to be over-control and micro-management.

Over the past few years — the era of macho, Hamburger Management — we’ve had something of an excess of ‘conservative’ attitudes to leadership. The pendulum has swung a long way to the right. It has made creativity suspect and encouraged many people’s natural tendency to lead via command-and-control approaches. Communication has been mostly top-down and based on setting ever-more-demanding targets. The prime characteristics valued in the ordinary employee have been loyalty, commitment, obedience to authority, and the willingness to work for as many hours as have been demanded.

True, there have been people advocating a less repressive approach; one based more on trust and empowerment. The problems associated with change in ‘conservative’ cultures — they hate it and it only comes with considerable pain — have forced some attention onto other ways to approach leadership. But, in general terms, the words have pointed one way while actions have maintained the other.

Is there a change coming?

That’s why I found this report in The Economist so interesting. When massive corporations start to look positively on an approach to leadership very different from what is there today, you have to consider the world might just be starting to change.

Andrew Witty, the new CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, wants to end what he sees as a corporate ‘police state’:

IT IS a rare company boss, let alone one who has just got the top job, that can get away with likening his firm’s culture to a police state. But Andrew Witty, the new boss of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a British pharmaceuticals giant, somehow manages to pull it off. He invokes that analogy—tentatively, to be fair—to explain the cultural transformation he wants to see at GSK: away from today’s excessively regimented, rule-based approach towards the “utopia” of a simplified, values-based culture that trusts employees to do the right thing.

This is admirable, but it isn’t either new or without precedent.

What he is suggesting is usually called ‘values-based’ management, but I think this is a misnomer. It implies something altogether further to the left, ‘liberal’ end of the spectrum. It also carries overtones of moralistic thinking. The term ‘principles-based’ would be better, because this kind of leadership actually blends both the firmness and predictability of ‘conservative’ thinking with the individual freedom characteristic of more ‘liberal’ styles.

Principles-based leadership

Poster announcing the victory at Trafalgar

The key to this approach is to lay down firm principles for everyone to follow, then allow individuals enough freedom of action to respond to the circumstances they find themselves in — always requiring that they stay within the principles laid down.

One of the finest examples of leadership of this kind was Admiral Lord Nelson, the British naval hero and victor of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Many leaders, knowing they faced a climactic battle likely to determine the outcome of history for centuries to come, would wish to set down a complex plan of the tactics to be followed by each ship and demand firm adherence to it. It’s surely no time to allow individual ship’s captains to make things up as they go along.

Nelson did almost the opposite. Here is pretty much the sum total of the instructions he gave to his captains:

“Whenever the Enemy can be discovered they are to be closed with and attacked with all the Vigor which is possible. . . everyone should act with cordial unanimity and the greatest cheerfulness . . . I rely with confidence on the Judgement and Support of every Individual under my Command . . . Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight, but, in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy . . . The entire management of the Lee Line [the division headed by Admiral Collingwood], after the intentions of the Commander-in-Chief are signified, is intended to be left to the judgement of the Admiral commanding that Line.”

It would be hard to find a better model of clarity, brevity and the right blend between ensuring predictability and allowing freedom of maneuver.

In the second part of this article, I’ll inquire into the reasons why this principles-based approach to leadership is still comparatively rare, despite all the advantages it offers.

Sign up for our Email Newsletter

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , ,

This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 251 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

Contact the author

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Andrew Meyer says:

    Thank for an interesting post. I loved the Thomas Jefferson quote, that is great and it framed your post perfectly. Your description of the approach taken by Lord Nelson is interesting because if you look at the US Military leadership approach, it’s very similar to Adm Nelson’s. As with many things, an active Military, living in the practicality driven environment where they exist, is often way ahead of their civilian counterparts. Have you talked to people about military leadership?

    Inquiring minds want to know…


  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Andrew. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

    You ask whether I’ve talked with people about military leadership. I can’t make that claim, having never been part of any military organization myself, nor had the opportunity to talk with military leaders. I do, however, read quite a lot of military history, mainly for the reason you suggest: it provides one of the clearest ways of evaluating whether or not some approach to handling a complex organization actually works.

    Keep reading, my friend.

Leave a Reply

Bad Behavior has blocked 1570 access attempts in the last 7 days.