Sunday, June 26, 2011

Leading in a New World

Tomorrow evening I am, along with Liam Black of Wavelength, hosting a gathering of leaders of social enterprise spin-outs from the North of England and Scotland.

It's about 'Leading in a New World - and the challenges of running your own ship once liberated from the Big Machine of the public sector. For most of the men and women present, life will have got a lot more interesting since stepping out. But it will also throw up a load of challenges too. Not least of these is how to carry the whole weight of an organisation, often a pretty big one, into unknown new space.

Since stepping down as a CEO, and working alongside new CEOs and MDs I have learned a lot about leadership. The first thing I have realised is that I wasn't as bad a one as I thought. My shortcomings as a CEO were such that, by the end, I didn't actually rate myself that highly. I couldn't do numbers, I got stressed too easily and I couldn't manage process that well. Also, the job sucked me dry of creativity. I left feeling a husk of my former self.

However, watching the best of the leaders I now work with operate, I realised I wasn't so bad after all. For what I lacked in executive skill-set I made up for in other ways. People seemed to trust me. They knew what I was about and felt comfortable with that. Although I had visible weaknesses I didn't try to pretend I didn't and, somehow, this built loyalty and support, rather than disenchantment. And, even at the end, I managed to hang on to some degree of emotional intelligence, even as the organisation became increasingly systems and process-dominated.

Of all the leaders I work closely with now, the two I admire most are also people whose weaknesses are as apparent as their strengths. One of them will be in the room tomorrow, in fact. What I like most about them is that their values radiate from them. And not just their service-values either. Their core beliefs and priorities as human beings are very clear from the moment you speak with them. They have integrity. They show care. They are not just task-centred, but people-centred too.
In their different ways, they both have an energy and warmth which makes them good to work with. Not always easy, but always stimulating. Both are soft-hearted, but can also be very tough if crossed. But you always know where you are with them.

I think what I've learned over the last year, from both my work with Stepping Out and my observations of Suffolk County Council is that the human side of leadership is absolutely critical. It sounds an almost facile thing to say, but, so often, you see CEOs who don't appear to grasp this important truth. They think it's just about the tangible results, the outcomes. Of course it is, but you don't actually achieve these, organisationally, without the commitment which really great leaders embody.

That's where I think Suffolk County Council went wrong. While our leadership, both on the the political and executive side, had great ideas and the right policies (in my view), real, felt, support for what they were doing was, in the end, limited to handful of their own side. They were perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be aloof, arrogant and focused merely on the task-in-hand, not the people side.

The real challenge when you're leading is that, every day, you have a welter of things bearing down on you. Cross cutting demands. It's solitary work and you often feel low in energy and pre-occupied. You become incredibly pragmatic, at times too much so, because it can cut across your values. Staying the person you are, and the one people need you to be, is, in my view, the principle challenge of leadership for these new CEOs.

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