CEOs: learn from Mrs May, disband your inner circle today

Many CEOs have, like Mrs May, an inner circle. It’s lonely at the top. You need people around you that you can trust, to tell you the things you need to hear or, if you’re weak, what you want to hear.

There’s nothing wrong with these inner circles provided they are informal and counterbalanced by a board with a formal governance process and in which power truly resides. The issue here is the location of power, not just leadership style.

Mrs May, allegedly, relied on her inner circle to the exclusion of everyone else. The cost of this error will be high. But it’s not as if she didn’t know that her leadership style was a matter of concern for many. Indeed she revelled in her reputation as “a bloody difficult woman.”

And she was not alone in her approach. The ink is barely dry on The Chilcot Report which highlighted Mr Blair’s “sofa style” decision-making as a contribution to the errors in the Iraq war.

So why do many leaders persist in making this unforced error? The answer is that they have no incentive to change. They believe that their behaviour got them to the top, so why change it?

Mrs May didn’t become a micro-manager overnight. It’s part of who she is and how she got to be Prime Minister.  Her identity must be bound up with distrust of others. In that respect, she is typical of many leaders I encounter in the course of my work.

If the cause of the behaviour is easy to diagnose, the cure is less so. It demands behavioural change, and that’s hard unless it’s taken in small steps.

So, if you’re a CEO with high emotional intelligence (EI) and therefore the self-awareness to know that you are behaving like Mrs May or Mr Blair, and know you should stop it but don’t know how then here’s how:

Step 1: Assemble your full operating board and ask each member to acknowledge their outstanding behavioural weakness. Start with yourself. If some less emotionally intelligent members are struggling, play “the least likely to say” game. That will soon flush it out.

Step 2: Start trading behavioural change deals as in “I’ll micro-manage 10% less if you acknowledge your mistakes 10% more”. Then legislate for the breach of these deals.

Step 3: Announce that, in future, no major decision will be taken without full discussion by the entire board and at which meetings and by rotation one member will act as Devil’s Advocate with full permission to question the rationale for each decision.

“Pigs will fly”, I hear you mutter in response to these steps. Not true. This process works. I have facilitated it many times. It works because there is an incentive to make yourself vulnerable, to change and to move to a higher level of leadership behaviour. The latter is the real prize because it feels good and it makes you a better leader.

And let’s be clear, micro-managers don’t enjoy micro-managing. They find it exhausting, energy sapping and time-consuming. Most of all it hides latent greatness. One micro-managing CEO I worked with and who did reduce his meddling behaviour using my small change approach, reported that he had more time, a happier team and, I believe, developed higher levels of trust.

I’m sure that there’s a different, more trusting, softer side to Mrs May. One that we have not seen, although one hears that the 1922 Committee had a glimpse of it during her belated mea culpa. See what I mean about incentives?

If I had my way, every leader would have to spend a minimum of one year at Emotional Intelligence School (EIS). There they would undergo mandatory weekly psychotherapy to process formative years’ experiences; they would study psychology and behavioural science, and above all, they would have to pass a boot camp type test on the benefits of good corporate governance. That would teach them never to rely on an inner circle, ever.

Leadership has lost its meaning in politics and business

The exact outcome of the UK general election is, at time of writing, distinctly uncertain. But the fate of leadership as art and science in politics, and indeed business, is not. It’s losing its perceived value.

The security forces remain the last bastion of respect for the term. And that’s only because people won’t obey orders in extreme conditions unless they are properly led.

Many years ago a client, an ex Royal Marine, told me that during his training the men and women under his command called him “Sir” until one day they started to call him “Boss”. “Why?” He asked. “Only now are we truly ready to be led by you into a war zone”, they replied.

Politics and business are not war zones. But people still need to be led. They need someone to create an environment in which they can do their best work, to decide on strategy and to keep stakeholders happy. That’s what leadership is.

But the political leaders in the general election are not leading their teams. We never even see them in photographs alongside the very teams they will lead if they win. Instead they behave as if this is a presidential election. It’s not.

Mrs May or Mr Corbyn will, whether as HM Prime Minister or HM Leader of The Opposition, have to lead their cabinet or shadow cabinet. They will not be leading the people. They will be representing them.

But neither leader has properly led their team during the campaign. I fear they won’t do so in power either. And we, the people, will greatly suffer. It seems that the leadership lessons of The Chilcot Report remain unheard and unheeded.

The quality of leadership in business, as in politics, is in indirect proportion to the frequency with which the word is used.

Witness the derision with which the repetition of the phrase “strong and stable leadership” was received. A “strong and stable presidency” would have been a more honest slogan. And references to “the many and not the few” would ring true if we could believe that the work required to execute that hope will be led appropriately.

By way of contrast consider this quote: “Our experience has proven to us that when you get the people proposition right, execute it well, put your hand up when you make mistakes, are humble enough to see this as a continuous improvement process (you never get to where you really want to be but you are always striving for it), then that’s when you really engage the hearts and minds and energy of the workforce.” That’s Adrian Bettridge, Managing Partner of Baringa Partners which took first place this year in the UK’s Best Workplaces Large Category. And if he practices what he says, then his would be a useful model for good leadership.

I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this piece about current examples of poor and good leadership and he said, “There has been a show of leadership from a rather unexpected quarter this week. A display of empathy, self-awareness, generosity and personal courage from a 23 year old American pop singer, Ariana Grande. She has behaved magnificently under extreme pressure and no doubt huge emotional strain. In behaving as she has, she has perfectly judged the moment and behaved selflessly in the manner of a great leader.” I think he’s a fan but, certainly, if a strong display of what used to be called “character” is a sign of a nascent strong leader then I agree with him that she is a good example.

Politics and business reflect the values of society. Increasingly, society is focused on individuals as opposed to groups. I like this focus on individuals because I believe that the uniqueness of individuals is under exploited in businesses. But, equally, businesses are groups of individuals and they need leaders. We can’t encourage individuality without also supporting how that individuality can thrive in a group. This balance is difficult to achieve but is what leaders must do if they want to achieve the best outcomes.

I feel gloomy about the prospects for good leadership in the new parliament irrespective of the outcome of the election. Hopefully people in business will take heed of the perilous state of leadership in politics and work to avoid it in their organisations by ensuring that everyone understands that leadership is a series of actions and not the human equivalent of a beermat folded and inserted under the wobbly leg of a restaurant table.