Leadership lessons.

A legacy of substance

Twelve years ago, when I was back in corporate life, I wouldn’t have professed to having much wisdom on the topic of leadership. Indeed, if someone had lined me and my exec colleagues up, and taken turns to pick a dream team of leadership expertise, I’d probably have stood around for a while before being thrown a pair of gloves and told: “You can go in goal, mate”.

Thus, when I set up as a consultant, I focused on my strengths: strategy, sales, profitability and performance, the complex but rational elements of corporate success. But life has a strange way of altering even the best laid plans, and over successive engagements it has proven to me time and again, that all those roads lead, inexorably, back to leadership.

Where I’ve seen strategic issues, nine times out of ten, a big part of the problem came down to leadership. Cultural, behavioural and staffing issues? Even more so. Profitability? Productivity? Hitting a glass ceiling on growth? There were always other factors at play but invariably, underneath all of them, it would come back to leadership as sure as night follows day.

Entirely out of practical necessity therefore, the biggest single element of my learning over the last decade has been around leadership: how to spot it, assess it, account for it, and work with people to improve it. I wouldn’t describe myself as a “leadership guru”, but I’ve come to understand far more about the topic than I ever intended, and what I have learned is this…

There is an unfeasible amount of literature about leadership, almost all of which is ephemeral and distracting because it is overwhelmingly about style, rather than substance.

The most in-vogue styles, whether charismatic, autocratic, servant, coach or authentic, change by the season, and yet, from my own observations, the most effective style tends to depend almost entirely on circumstance. The best leaders I’ve seen have been able to adopt the style that their people and organisations need of them, in that year, on that day, at that moment.

But what they all had in common was substance: the ability to imbue a consistent and shared sense of direction, to provide clarity of purpose in everything from strategic decisions to everyday discussions, to create an undercurrent of speed and expectation and to keep an unremitting focus on recruiting and developing talent to form high performing teams, within a positive, cohesive and supportive culture.

Or, as one of the best leaders I met in my early career put it more succinctly: to lead the thinking, lead the pace, and lead the team. And of those three, the greatest accountability, and the only one that can’t ever be outsourced or delegated, is team, and the culture that the team creates.

I’m a strategist by nature but it’s obvious to me, that it is team and culture – the strengths and beliefs of the human talent within an organisation – that really shaps the vision, that chooses where to play and has the capability and confidence to go out there and win. It’s talent that designs and delivers the products and experiences, that creates and embodies the values and purpose of the business, and that ultimately determines its success. Strategies and plans that don't flex to that reality will achieve nothing but a thick covering of dust.

It’s easy to judge leaders, and indeed ourselves, purely on performance, on sales and share price, margins and market share, but it’s also deeply misleading. The greater value of leaders to their organisations is not in their tenure, but in their legacy: the strength of culture and depth of talent they leave behind to perpetuate that performance for decades to come. Tesco performed fantastically under the first decade of Terry Leahy's leadership, but his legacy was chaos.

And thus, the biggest single lesson I’ve learned about understanding and evaluating leadership, is not to judge leaders by their style, nor their personal qualities, nor even by their current performance, but to judge them by the talent, behaviour and commitment of the team that surrounds them, even down to their third-pick goal-keeper.