Leadership is about who you are.
Management is about what you do.
Sir Michael Bichard, a former Permanent Secretary, draws a clear distinction between managers and leaders:
Managers who control their organisations effectively may enable them to survive. But it is the leaders who create a sense of purpose and direction, and who analyse, anticipate and inspire.
Strong leadership is therefore essential if your team is to be innovative, efficient and successful. And yet one of the minor mysteries of the modern world is why there are so few effective leaders – in both the public and private sectors – when there is so much advice available in so many different books and courses. Indeed, they all say pretty much the same sort of thing which is that leaders are different from their followers. They tell their people that they are different and they behave as if they are different. They can answer the following questions from anyone at any time:
- Where are we going?
- Why are we going there?
- How will we get there?
Effective leaders always have a good number if not all of the following attributes. They:
- have a remorseless iron determination to make things happen;
- have an unshakeable inner conviction;
- lead decisively and confidently;
- constantly promote the same message;
- are different;
- have at least one weakness;
- provide a role model and set an example;
- keep things simple;
- are a little theatrical;
- are authoritative and respected;
- are committed to their team;
- accept blame;
- are honest
- are physically strong, and
- take risks.
Simple, eh? And of course many civil servants have a good number of the above attributes. But my own observation, for what it is worth, is that too few senior civil servants are sufficiently remorseless, committed, and honest. Let me explain what I mean.
The first and most important characteristic of a leader is remorselessness, which takes two forms.
First, leaders feel no remorse when they make mistakes, when things do not go according to plan, or when some innovation fails to work. They recognise that they are dealing with humans, not machines, and human behaviour is highly unpredictable. Remorse and guilt are understandable, but quite unnecessary, even if something does not work in the way you expected.
Second, leaders are remorseless (in the sense of relentless) because they know that every improvement will take two or three times as long as they expect it to. But they don’t let this stop them. Instead, they keep plugging away and eventually they and their teams achieve levels of performance that others can only dream of.
Different situations call for different styles of leadership. Sometimes decisions need to be made very quickly and obeyed without question. But leaders nowadays almost always need the consent of those that they lead. Management consultants Kouzes and Posner describe leadership as ‘a reciprocal relationship between those who choose to lead and those who decide to follow,’ Modern leaders therefore need to be a cross between an old-fashioned captain of a ship and someone who is running for office. It follows that newly appointed leaders should go out of their way to get themselves elected – i.e. respected by their teams – in the first few days after their appointment. This simple fact does not seem to be understood by many colleagues.
If you are to be elected leader then you must commit to the team, with all its strengths and weaknesses. This is particularly important in the civil service if only because you are unlikely to be around long enough to replace them. And the civil service is anyway so large that, by definition, it has to employ a cross-section of the population. Of course you do not need put up with mediocrity or laziness. But you cannot insist on surrounding yourself with energetic geniuses. Your task is to get the best out of those who work for you, without forever wishing yourself somewhere else.
How do you show your commitment? You should:
- be very visible, in particular by walking about;
- set a good example, including by complying with rules and standards that have been set for your team;
- champion the team e.g. by defending them against unfair criticism, but also
- respond to fair criticism, whether of you or your team, in particular by putting matters right and by ensuring that the problem does not recur.
More generally, good managers and leaders tend to spend more time with their direct reports than do other managers - and bad managers spend very little time. This all seems very obvious but a middle manager friend of mine told me that three weeks passed before her newly appointed Senior Civil Servant (Deputy Director) boss got round to meeting her, and she had yet to meet her Director after six months in the job. So some colleagues still have something to learn about visibility, commitment and leadership.
According to Lucy Kellaway, writing in the Financial Times, a good leader knows exactly when to be straight, when to be economical with the truth, when to lay it on with a trowel, and when to dissemble. This is absolutely right, but most of us spend too much time dissembling and too little time being honest with our staff. In particular, we have to be honest in making it clear to staff that they are employed for no other reason than to help the leader achieve his or her objectives. However much they like working together, the team must be directed to achieving a common goal. Everyone is then much better directed and motivated. Those who skirt round this fundamental truth simply waste time and create confused expectations.
Effective leaders also give clear and honest feedback to their staff – not all the time, but frequently enough to be effective. Any sustained failure to give honest feedback to colleagues – and of course we have all failed to some extent, and regretted it – can only end in disappointment, confusion and demoralisation. Honest appraisal is also a necessary companion to empowerment. Once the manager has defined the job that is to be done, he or she should aim to keep out of the way and let his or her staff do what is expected of them. But there must be regular informal and formal appraisal to ensure that the work stays on track.
The problem with my pen picture of an effective leader is that it equally well describes Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler; Nelson Mandela and Stalin. So some leaders are qualitatively better than others. What marks them out? It is clearly the culture that they encourage, and the boundaries that they set.
Good leaders certainly lead by example, rather than by coercion. I like the quote attributed to St Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words".
Bad leaders, in contrast:
- talk a good game, but have no impact
- make everything look great while they are there - but everything falls apart after they leave
- improve financial performance whilst having no impact on the organisation's other results - such as exam performance in schools or medical outcomes in hospitals
- are decisive and incisive - achieving 'quick wins' but neglecting the investment and other factors that lead to long term success.
The best leaders carry out a difficult balancing act. On the one hand they are obsessive about setting the correct boundaries and establishing the right culture. On the other hand, they empower and support. Those who get it right can usually then stand back and watch their team achieve surprising results.
Further detail is my advice on building successful teams.
Advice on management and strategy is here.