If you were asked to rapidly name three top business leaders you might come up with Steve Jobs, Philip Green and Martin Sorrell. There is no question that each is, and in the case of the late Steve Jobs, was, an effective business leader, yet their leadership styles differ markedly.
For a number of years now, as an executive performance coach I have worked closely with numerous senior managers across different industries, and I have been able to closely observe leadership in its many forms. If I had to draw one conclusion from my experience it would be that there is no single style that provides a holistic winning formula. Certainly not against a background of considerable economic uncertainty.
Taking a broad look at business management styles, I find there are basically two types of leaders; those driven by inspiration and those driven by aspiration. We are often told that successful businesses are created by inspiring leadership, and we will sometimes attempt to replicate the styles of successful leaders into our own organisations. The lessons we draw from these people – be they business peers, political leaders or others – usually result in our changing the way we behave and manage people.
Apple, Dyson and Amazon are good examples of inspiration-led companies. They are exemplified by leaders who are dynamic and charismatic, and who, by nature, are inclusive and connect well with their people. These leaders are driven by innovation and creativity, they will try many different methods without the fear of being proved wrong, and they have a clear vision of where they want their company to be in the future. Being able to effectively communicate this vision in a way that is compelling to those around them separates them from their contemporaries.
Organisations in the pharmaceutical, petroleum and banking industries generally have aspiration-style leadership. They, too, have successful and charismatic leaders, but size, market share, influence and geographic spread are often more important than innovation and creativity. These leaders are generally power-driven, they want to be top dog, and they will want to set the rules of competitive engagement by which others must follow. Their structure also tends to be more hierarchical than companies that are inspiration-led. To the public, their behaviour can sometimes be seen as rather arrogant and self-serving, the banking sector being a good example of this, as UBS investment bank chief Andrea Orcel recently admitted to Britain’s Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.
Both leadership styles will happily challenge the status quo, which is essential if their organisations are to continue growing and moving forward. Businesses can certainly be hampered if the rules of past leadership generations are handed down to existing generations, then passed on to future generations unchallenged and unchanged.
Which raises the question that if neither leadership style is perfect, should we be investigating the possibility of combining the best of both styles to create a new type of leadership model? It’s a bit like asking if GlaxoSmithKline could be as effectively run with Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Andrew Witty as joint CEOs. They are both the same age and both are very successful business leaders, but with very different styles of management.
There are significant cross-overs between aspiration-led and inspiration-led organisations but having perfection as a key objective is neither feasible nor realistic. Creating any new style of leadership involves the issue of change management and that ultimately affects all stakeholders in the organisation. Certainly difficult economic conditions drive a radical rethink of an organisation’s operating, marketing and sales procedures, because what worked well in buoyant times often does not work well in a major downturn.
The same applies to leadership style. When there is a high level uncertainty about the future, this has a fundamentally negative effect on employee morale. In this environment, staff will focus more on their career choices, their personal well-being and their financial future. I have heard it said by very senior people that everyone’s focus should be on cost-cutting and restructuring, not on motivation and morale. That has to change because when people become less engaged, their productivity declines, they become less customer-focused and adopt what could easily be interpreted as counterproductive behaviour.
Changing leadership style to address the current business environment comes easier to a few than it does the majority. Those who choose, and are determined enough, to be influential business leaders will benefit from observing the behaviour of other successful leaders – if they look. That’s not to say it’s simply a matter of drawing leadership lessons from others, but for managers to imitate the qualities of others and creating their own unique way of leading, creating and generating. This may often require aspiration-led leaders learning from those who are inspiration-led, and vice versa.
In essence, therefore, I see little reason for developing a new model of leadership, even if the current styles on their own may not be totally effective in all situations. The key objective should not be perfection but the creation of a leadership style that is both sustainable and repeatable, but not formulaic.
By : Kate Tojeiro