What sort of business leader do we really want?

The US election has been one way answering what sort of leader some people want. Another is the spell-binding Abel Gance silent movie Napoleon. 

Abel Gance, film maker
Abel Gance, film maker

Once again this extraordinary achievement packed out a major London venue in November 2016. It keeps  happening. Whenever this marvel of cinema rears its head, audiences around the world turn up and watch—for over five hours.

What they see is not a complete story of Napoleon. Gance never got the chance to go the whole way and realise his vision of maybe five more equally long films. They do see a Napoleon though, who is many things, but not an ethical leader. Even in his early days ordering school chums around to organise their triumphant snowball battle, he is despotic and entirely uncompromising.

As an adult this turns into a leadership with ultimately terrible human consequences. Yet the man continues to fascinate, rather more than say Hitler, whose evil intent was unrelentingly evil.

Early in the film, Napoleon extolls the benefits of a united Europe, free of borders where people move around freely and differences are not settled by wars. The Royal Festival Hall audience in November broke into spontaneous cheers when that particular intertitle hit the screen.  Napoleon

The revolutionary French government tasked Napoleon with taking the revolution beyond the country’s borders. It was seen as the only way to ensure the long-term survival of the revolution’s message of liberty, equality, fraternity. This was ethics as a political commitment.

Though Gance never made his full length Napoleon movie this surviving one shows a domineering character, who remains isolated for long periods. At one critical moment when asked for a military opinion he responds grandly:

“Either I command or nothing”

Maybe with hindsight “nothing” might have been a better response.

The desire for a “strong business leader” permanently distorts what it means to lead a major enterprise. Soft alternatives, such as being a “Servant leader” gain little traction against the persistent demand for the leader as saviour. Someone who rises above normal constraints to perhaps produce extraordinary results.

GandhiYet when such a leader does surface, their message is not always universally accepted. Gandhi for example argued for sincerity, integrity, voice, vision, and moral values. All highly ethical and desirable.  

Yet companies in India for example, struggle with this message and fail widely to realise it in their daily practice. India remains relatively high on Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt nations.

So-called ‘strong leaders’ generally disappoint.  ‘Strong’ typically means an inability to accept collective decision-making, an avoidance of consensus building, and intolerance of alternative views. Despite considerable historical experience, much contemporary opinion persists in equating ‘strong’ leadership with effective leadership.

Deng and Mandela
Deng Xiaoping and Nelson Mandela

Occasionally the strong leader is transformational, as was Deng Xiaoping in China and Mandela in South Africa. They seemed to have enough ethical drive underpinning their power to convince followers they were there to do good, rather than evil. 

What’s clear is there’s no reliable formula or general principles to define an effective, let alone an ethical business leader. It’s more about probabilities. Sometimes ‘strong’ leaders are mainly ethical and meet with success. More often, they suffer setbacks or create disasters.

What does all this mean for companies and their continual search for effective and ethical CEOs? Certainly the appointment of CEOs continues to be a cause for concern. Few CEO’s survive long in the top job.

For example, Fortune’s CEO data shows the 500 largest companies in the U.S. have a median tenure of just 4.9 years. Hardly long enough to get to grips with how a company culture works, let alone transform an enterprise with perhaps over 100,000 employees.

John Chambers, ex CEO of Cisco Systems

In May 2015 Cisco’s CEO John Chambers stepped down after a full 20 years at the helm. While in office, he took revenues at the company from $1.2 billion to over $47 billion with a total shareholder return of 1632%, or 15% on an annualized basis. Still, his exit triggered widespread discussion about how long a CEO’s should stay in office.  

Twenty years seems too long, while five years is seldom enough to make a transformational impact. In 2016,  having been in the job since 2007 Wells Fargo’s board ousted CEO John Stumpf over the bank’s sales-practices scandal . Nine years was also just long enough for his mistakes to catch up with him.

The alternative to a strong leader is not necessarily the more anodyne “servant leader. One could envisage being both. Yet the idea of being a servant of followers persists as an attractive antidote to the strong leader model.

To be a servant leader you have to be good at listening, offering empathy and be self-aware. You also need to persuade, conceptualise, offer a vision, and build a community. These are not incompatible with being a strong leader. As Jim Collins has pointed out, successful leaders are often a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They’re ambitious for the company, not themselves.

Napoleon in Gance’s film opus spends much of the time staring into the middle distance, or staring down objectors. “That little fellow frightens me” says one hardened general and the rest of the top brass agrees. Strong leaders it seems have an ability to create fear.  

When it comes to running companies what alternative types of leader can both deliver results and demonstrate an ethical commitment? Here are some current possibilities:

  • Disruptive or innovative leaders. These can be visionary and inspiring. Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos come to mind, or even James Dyson.  
    dyson, musk and bezos
    Musk, Bezos and Dyson
    Sometimes, as in the case of Elon Musk they exercise their leadership by endorsing disruptive ideas 
    without becoming too involved with pursuing them.

    For example Musk proposed the idea of the now rapidly advancing Hyperloop, but stepped back to let others to make it happen.

    Such business leaders can also be entirely destructive. They may do immense damage to those they purport to manage. Albert Dunlop ruined Scott Paper winning him the nicknames “Chainsaw Al” and “Rambo in Pinstripes”. He engineered a massive accounting scandal at Sunbeam-Oster. His widespread layoffs and fraudulent earnings have put him on several lists of worst CEOs.

  • Collaborative leaders. Rosabeth Moss Kanter talks about leaders who recognize there are critical business relationships “that cannot be controlled by formal systems but require a dense web of interpersonal connections…”. Another expert argues: “You are a collaborative leader once you have accepted responsibility for building – or helping to ensure the success of – a heterogeneous team to accomplish a shared purpose .”[spacer height=”20px”]
    Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman
    David Archer, one of Maynard Leigh’s external advisers has listed ten key lessons for a successful collaborative leader. These include finding ways of simplifying complex situations, having the courage to act for the long term, and investing in strong personal relationships at all levels. Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman seems an example of this type of leader.
  • Sustainability leaders. These are leaders who see their prime role as promoting sustainability. In October 2016 for example, in the first meeting of its kind, over 20 leaders from across the business and investment industries came together to discuss their common goal to measure and minimise their impact on the natural world.
    Bob and Yvon
    Examples of these might include: Bob Collymore of Safaricom, or Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, or Gail Kelly, CEO of the Westpac Group one of Australia’s biggest banks and winner of the “Most Sustainable Company” award at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

    All these alternative business leaders have integrity or ethics running through their approach. Each interprets them in their own, unique way.



Thanks to James Cole, Director of Communications at University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership for his additional comments.

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