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The next time you need a break, type the words cartoon leadership into Google and browse the images shown. Mostly poking fun at leaders and leadership styles they nevertheless give us a glimpse into the somewhat surreal existence which can ensnare those who think that leadership is easy.
From the outside looking in there is no mystery to being a leader. After all, it’s just sitting in an office and issuing orders isn’t it? In the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson, “how hard can it be”? Well, in truth, leadership can be easy, but only if you understand the principles of leadership and work hard to get the mix right, to develop the vision and culture and to communicate.
To quote John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” But what happens when things go wrong, who takes the blame? Over the past decade we have increasingly seen the rise of the “buck stops here” culture, the idea that when things go wrong the leader should resign. In Parliament, in industry, in the Civil Service and in the banks we’ve seen calls for leaders to resign when unpalatable news is released. And in a way that call is right, but often it is for the wrong reasons.
How many times have we seen calls for resignations backed up by “someone should pay and that person is the leader”? The idea that the leader has to pay simply because they are the leader is spreading through our society. Wrong. The leader may well have to pay but not because they are the leader but more importantly because what went wrong can be traced back to a fundamental failure in leadership.
Organisations stand or fall on the quality of their leadership. The CEO and the leadership team are responsible for developing the vision, for creating the culture within which the vision will work and for communicating and cascading the culture through the organisation until all of the employees are engaged in meeting the vision. So if processes go awry, if the culture of customer service first is submerged in targets and cost cutting then it can usually be traced back to a failure of vision or communication on the part of the leadership. In other words, the buck does stop there but only because the culture and vision starts from there as well.
The problem is that sometimes the leadership team don’t understand quite how fundamental their role is in developing a strong culture. Sir David Nicholson giving evidence to the Health committee said that in order to move the NHS’s culture back on track everyone involved needed to reflect and work out for themselves what they need to do in terms of changing the way they are and what they need to do going forward. Either that statement is reflective of an NHS in which each trust is autonomous, in which case why have a Chief Executive at all, or the statement reflects a misunderstanding of the way in which changes in culture need to be lead from the top if they are to have any chance of succeeding.
This doesn’t mean that the culture should be rule bound and highly prescriptive. The realisation that in a world in which every organisation has access to common technologies the only differentiation is that “something extra” is moving innovation culture up the agenda to become mission critical for many businesses. And one of the key planks of innovation culture is the way in which every employee is empowered to see innovation as part of their remit. But innovation culture and empowerment only work if the culture and vision are strongly led from the top; the alternative is anarchy with every department striking off in whichever direction they fancy.
To instil an innovation culture; to avoid anarchy and keep the business focused as a unified whole on the service and product provided to the customer requires a leadership team which understands the principles of innovation and is united in its desire to communicate, to guide and to empower. If the leadership team fails, then the buck does indeed stop there, but rightly so, not simply because of the title.
For those interested in exploring innovation culture Cris Beswick and I are speaking on “The human touch – How innovation leads to exceptional customer experience” at the European Customer Experience World conference in May. http://www.ecew.co.uk/ecew/programme.html