Leading with Courage
LEGITIMATE LEADERSHIP BREAKFAST, LEADING WITH COURAGE (3 MARCH 2016)
Wendy Lambourne’s Opening Address
Legitimate Leadership is an organisational transformation framework developed out of research conducted in the South African gold mining industry in the late 1980s under the auspices of the Chamber of Mines. The research sought to determine the conditions under which management of an enterprise are trusted by their employees, and its corollary – the commitment of employees to making an above and beyond contribution to realising the company’s objectives. What, in other words, engages employees’ willingness to contribute or go the extra mile?
It was an important question to answer back then and remains an important question, if not a more important question today, when roughly only one out of four people at work worldwide are engaged or willing (according to recent research).
What the research back then showed was that trust in management was a function of a single criterion and that was the degree to which employees perceive those in charge to have a genuine concern for their well-being. Employees accepted or rejected management on that basis only.
The decision to trust or not trust management was a function of how employees read their managers’ (individually and collectively) intent. Were managers in the relationship to “get” (results), with employees being simply the means to that end; or were managers there to “give” to their employees, specifically to care for and grow them?
Only when management was prepared to suspend their own interests to serve the best interests of their people would their people be willing and would the managers mobilise the consent of their people to being led by them. This elusive thing called willingness was in fact a matter of the heart, not the head.
Almost 25 years later a book came out with the title “Give and Take”. It was written by Adam Grant, allegedly one of the youngest people ever to be given tenure at an Ivy League university in the USA. His book was an instant bestseller. In the book he drew extensively on both social psychology research and individual and organisation examples to make the conclusion that the most successful people in the world are “givers”. Here was a book which provided both the scientific and evidential proof to support the findings made in South Africa – and endorsed by the many companies locally and globally who applied the insights It was now crystal clear that actually the best way to serve your own interests is not to pursue your own interests but serve the best interests of others.
Adam Grant, however, made a second finding from his research which was the opposite of the first. The finding was that the least successful people in the world are also “givers”. How can that be?
I think that it is easily explained when you consider Legitimate Leadership’s understanding of what “giving” really means. Giving is not about being nice to the point of being taken advantage of; it is about being appropriate in the situation that you are in.
In this sense, there are in fact two forms of giving. The first, which Adam Grant focuses on, is generosity. The other is courage.
Social workers in inner city Chicago who support those in need to the point of burnout are not being appropriate. They are being generous when they should be courageous.
All “giving” necessitates a preparedness to risk or to lose. Generosity requires rising above a fear of loss of things. Courage on the other hand is about rising above fear of loss of self. Of the two, courage is more difficult because the price that you may have to pay is higher.
It is my conviction after 25 years of working with leaders and organisations all over the world that the crux of exemplary leadership is getting the courage side of “giving” right – the essence of exemplary leadership is about cultivating courage in the first instance in oneself and then in others.
So in the response to the question, “what is the one piece of advice that you would give to anyone in a leadership role today?” my answer has to be, “more testicular fortitude, please!”
LEGITIMATE LEADERSHIP BREAKFAST – LEADING WITH COURAGE (3 MARCH 2016)
David Harding’s Address
The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear! Mandela
Hopefully, this morning, I can seed some thoughts that will allow our panel discussion to be more fruitful.
Courage and leadership, is it not one and the same thing?
Do we all subscribe to the same definition of leadership?
For me I see the role of a leader
1. to primarily develop the ability of all subordinates and maybe colleagues
2. to integrate the talent of individuals into a team
3. to challenge the status quo
So you may ask where does the courage come in?
So here is the first question for you captains of industry: how many of you have had a genuine feedback session around your PA’s performance? Hands up – difficult no doubt!!
I had a colleague in the consulting business who wished to apply his modern management consulting techniques to his wife.
He duly compiled some really accurate and appropriate feedback about her use of the credit card etc. The result of the intervention as consultants would say was not as expected. In fact it was a disaster!!!
Why? Well he certainly showed courage, but a complete lack of empathy!!
Lesson- being a bold in your face leader is unlikely to be effective if they are unable to understand and empathise with the consequences of their decisions.
Hierarchal authority can relieve leaders of the need to be courageous. Do as I say not as I do etc!
Leaders with testicular fortitude, however, are prepared to make decisions that are right, despite causing personal discomfort, pain and opprobrium.
From the top of the pile we can all direct a course of action and are often able to be insulated from the consequences, particularly at a personal level. E.g. sending the HR manager to announce retrenchments.
Confucius he says: To see what is right and not do it, is the want of courage.
Leaders, however, occur at all levels in an organisation, both formally and informally, something we sometimes forget. First line managers and shop stewards come to mind. But what of those leaders who rise naturally in work groups, civil society and so on.
Being a first line manager trying to direct and grow a disaffected work force, with whom they often lived, grew up and worked together, is every bit as difficult job as being the CEO, in some ways more so. Little power, minimal support, hostile environment etc.
And yet, with a little help and guidance, tolerance and respect it is more than possible to create outstanding leaders anywhere in the organisation.
Isn’t that what our primary role is?
When I first started to restructure AEL in the mid 1990’s I spent significant time cultivating the unions in that post revolutionary period. The president of our main union was a man of great wisdom, who recognised that the industrial relations landscape had changed irrevocably. The revolution was over –how to handle the peace! It was easy for me to say what was needed; he had to persuade his membership that whatever pain necessary was worthwhile in the long term. It was a question of securing the future for our children’s children.
As a union leader he would have had no credibility overtly supporting the restructuring, the strategy was to enable him not to say no!!
For me this was a man who not only epitomised leadership, but who exhibited the true courage of one who was prepared to take the pain to ultimately do the right thing for all members of the business. And he was brave: in the space of two years we shut four factories took out 4000 staff, and never lost a day in industrial action. That was in a workforce that was 100% unionised in the factories.
I contrast him and the success of that partnership, with a second restructuring I carried out in 2013/14, where the main union leadership bitterly opposed the closure of a factory, as had been previously agreed, as a consequence of a significant new investment in modern machinery.
We fought for a year, faced 10 strike calls, none of which got sufficient support, and eventually closed the old factory with a loss of 1000 jobs, although we had created 700 new higher skilled and paid jobs in the new factory.
This led me to observe two things about leadership: The main union protagonist cared not one jot about the workforce, this was a marxist political statement directed from the centre with no real reference to the context or welfare of the affected workers.
Secondly we put huge effort into upping the quality of leadership for all the first and second line managers in both the affected plants and the new plants using the Legitimate Leadership thematic.
Thus through leading the troops from the front at shop floor level, particularly, ensuring that primary communication came from management; we not only created the operational performance to affect the closures, but persuaded the workforce that certain self-serving unions were leading the business to financial ruin. Hence the lack of support for the strikes.
What is more interesting, in the context of today’s discussion is the courage displayed both by certain shop stewards and some management, to face their fears in a hostile environment and stand up for what they personally, as opposed to politically, believed in.
To give you an idea of how we had in the past allowed union power to overwhelm weak management, in a plant of 700 people we had 40 shop stewards – inherited I hasten to add!
But of course you all know this, the 101 of leadership isn’t it?
One thing that I do observe, is a consequence of today’s society’s desire to be able to hold people to account in the event of public failures, whether accidents, bankruptcies, malfeasance etc.
All good and well, we should expect of our leaders to stand up and be counted!!
Oh yes I hear you cry, get real!!
Self-preservation is a natural instinct. Sure, so a Mother dies protecting her child?
Regardless of those around us who will not, or lack the guts to, surely any leader worthy of the name will stand up for what they believe. That takes courage. Indeed can you be a real leader if you do not have it.
In the trenches of the Somme young officers would lead the charge, many times in a futile way because they believed they owed it to their men to demonstrate courage overcoming fear, as they set the example. It was gallant gesture, but managerially a bad call, we lost proportionally more leaders than men, to the disadvantage of the battle.
The problem is how do you empower, that overused phrase, your people. Certainly not by hedging their lives with so many controls, that they become ciphers. And I do not mean that we should have an anarchic world either.
The cry always goes up that we cannot trust, we must have authorisations, limits of authority, and twenty signatures etc., all to stop fraud or whatever. South Africa ranks #1 in compliance legislation, but so what. We still have massive fraud kleptocracy etc.
Surely if we are to break out of this spiral of disempowerment, without being naïve, we have to show trust.
As Tacitus said: Nisi impunitatis cupido retinuisset, magnis semper conatibus adversa!
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise!
Many years ago I ran a very high tech plant, putting literally, molecules on a polyester substrate. The foremen had been around for years maintaining the status quo, but resisted all efforts to improve.
One of the complaints, to be expected, was that they were not allowed to make change nor was there any budget available to them so to do, therefore, nothing could be done.
After some discussions about health and safety and change control, the real issue was cash and freedom. So we struck a deal, each shift was given a budget for which they had sole responsibility. All changes had to be agreed between them. They could commission whoever they liked to execute, and all that was asked for was a 15% improvement in plant output.
It was with some trepidation that I left them to it and crushed all desire to ring up, walk the plant in order to find out what was happening, although I did see the production figures.
After the first month things were looking up, I got the odd call asking advice, I was allowed on the plant but had to be circumspect!!
By year end we had a 25% increase in output, drop in overtime, absenteeism and so on. Most amazing was that no shift had spent their entire budget; they guarded the modest sums with their lives but still delivered the goods.
The moral I take from this is: to gain control you have to give up control! – Harding
And let me tell you that is really difficult and counter cultural!
And here is another example!
When I was just a little bit younger, I was moved to a job in a different part of the world as the budgets were being put to bed. The Operations director flew in from Holland and soon I was being pressured to say what improvements I could deliver. I demurred pointing out that I had been in the job for less than two weeks and what would he suggest? There was then an uncomfortable, potentially career limiting, impasse. To cut a short story shorter, an emissary was despatched to persuade me to offer something which ultimately I did. Say 10% improvement.
The following year the same director returned to review the performance and set new targets. We had achieved way better results. He was happy I was happy! So what was agreed for the following year? We put a figure on the table BUT that was for guidance because we both agreed that trusting us to do the best possible job ensured that we would deliver the best possible result. And we did! Whose balls were stronger and bigger!
I have one more story of courageous Directors! Not me!!
I was the acting manager of the sister PVC plant to the one at Sasolburg, when we started to experience reactors going out of control and from time to time and dumping 40 tonnes of smelly carcinogenic PVC slurry on our neighbours.
This culminated in the headlines in the national press that it was snowing in June in Runcorn and an old lady’s mini was covered in the stuff as she drove on the highway. Adverse press reports were an anathema to the board!
Everybody got grumpy and two nights later it happened again at 04h00 and I promptly shut the whole plant. I informed the works manager and the relevant divisional directors, and got hold of the shop stewards at lunchtime to discuss what we were going to do. Over the course of the next 10 days we met each lunch time at the pub whilst we rebooted all our procedures etc.
In the meantime I was invited to discuss the matter with the company deputy chairman and sundry others to explain what my plan was to prevent any more incidents. This looked like the final days of my career.
To my surprise I was not sacked, I was asked what help I needed and requested to keep the bosses informed on a daily basis, and left to get on with it.
No one ever criticised the decision that I had taken to shut the whole plant despite the cost.
The process operators too, were shocked into understanding they also were part of the solution.
The net result on restart was a significant improvement, on a sustained basis of plant operation, a real improvement in labour relations, and large consumption of beer in the local pub whilst we grappled with the reopening of the plant.
No one could have planned the crisis but we all took the gap. But for me the outstanding lesson was the trust placed in me and the team to do the right thing and for them not to feel impelled to send a thousand head office chaps to help us; that proverbial flock of corporate seagulls.
It was an important lesson well learned for me and an example of enlightened management from the very top. And they were kind enough to make me the permanent manager.
So where are we? Testicular fortitude is a necessary attribute in all true leaders. They may not show fear but if they don’t feel it then it is unlikely they are, in our terms, good leaders.
Finally how do we balance the exuberance and energy of youth, with the wisdom of age and experience? Do all leaders have to be in your face demonstrating their prowess? There are of course times when this is important, but effective leaders know when to take the back seat, give the young bloods their head, let them make mistakes and then honestly coach them onwards and upwards.
I find that very hard, but when it works you will have developed the winning team, which is surely what it is all about.
Nevertheless, sometimes you have to cut the young bloods down to size. I once had a very bright young man working for me, who was absolutely convinced of the correctness of his approach. He ambushed me in the open plan office to tell me how wrong I was! Was this going to be the start of the next anglo boer war! The ensuing, sometimes heated discussion became gladiatorial as others joined to listen. I should have been wise and stopped it there and then, but as you know there are times when the opportunity presents itself and you go for it!!
And hour or so later he comprehensively lost the argument and conceded!! Victory – but for whom! He learnt that to persuade was more productive than intellectual arrogance, his career is now flourishing, with a little gentle coaching from his engels friend.
It was high risk, but was needed. I might have lost but I would have bailed out with a bit of humility. The point is once again that the reward was worth the risk and this man is becoming a serious leader in the business.
That is our job.
Ladies and Gentlemen that is my story. I leave you with two from thousands of quotes on the subject of courage and leadership that resonate with me.
On challenging the status quo:
Henri Matisse said: Pour regarder quelque chose comme si nous avions vu avant nécessite un grand courage! To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage!
And on a lighter note:
Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway! John Wayne.