Leadership Isn’t Always About the CEO

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When it comes to leadership, the likes of Weinstein and Donald Trump are often whose faces paint the papers with colour. However, it’s often the invisible leaders that make strides in leading their teams.

The ability of a leader to take a back seat and let their team shine is a hard skill and it’s all linked into personal character traits like being able to listen, build and develop those around them as well as being able to accept feedback. It’s certainly something Trump could learn from…

Here Laura Boutell, MD of Quarterdeck, explains the culture of leadership from a whole new perspective.

Leadership lessons can come from unexpected places. One of our favourites is Dr Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” which contains a surprising amount of wisdom for both adults and children.

Another unexpected source of leadership techniques is a particular episode of the cartoon Futurama. In the episode, Godfellas, the robot Bender, floating endlessly through space, meets an intelligent galaxy that can speak, and which claims to be God. The galaxy tells Bender:

“Being God isn’t easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

There are many styles of leadership, the most famous examples come from highly visible leaders, think Churchill, Hitler, Steve Jobs – but that is not the only way to lead. One of Dale Carnegie’s principles from “How to Win Friends and Influence People” says: “Let the Other Person Feel the Idea is His or Hers”. After all isn’t that what leadership is all about? Getting others to enthusiastically do what you want them to, rather than boss, bully or threaten them into it?

Unfortunately, the need to be highly visible and highly regarded is what sometimes inspires people to become leaders in the first place, not the achievement of a shared mission. But this type of motivation can lead to poor leadership, far too many leaders are quick to take the credit and fast to pass the blame.

We don’t have to look far for examples of the effects bad leadership and toxic culture can have on a company.

Pioneering app, Uber has suffered a seemingly endless chain of scandals this year. In various exposés from ex-employees it has been revealed that an unrestrained culture was largely to blame, with CEO Travis Kalanick coming in for particular criticism. Mike Ashley of Sports Direct has also come under fire for a culture of leadership that is less than inspiring. Examples of poor culture always point back to the leader.

Ryan Air is another culture that has had unfortunate press coverage recently. Initially, Michael O’Leary attributed Ryan Air’s catastrophe of cancelled flights this autumn to “ATC capacity delays and strikes and weather disruptions” among other things. It was later revealed that it was actually internal mismanagement that was responsible.

Remember the PR disaster that United Airlines underwent in April? CEO Oscar Munoz initially blamed the passenger, a doctor who had been assaulted by his staff and dragged off a plane against his wishes. If the CEO publicly disrespects the passenger in this way, guess what his employees will do?

There are lots of things in life that you only notice when they go wrong. Good leadership is among them. Going back to our Futurama quote: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

Invisible leadership acknowledges the true nature of leadership. That the people you’re leading are the important ones. If you could achieve whatever you want on your own, leadership would be irrelevant.

Leadership doesn’t always have to fall to the person who is obviously the leader or who has CEO in their job title.

The true mark of a great leader is building a great culture. Culture is what happens when things go wrong or how people behave in the heat of the moment – not when everything is going swimmingly. After all, anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

Great leaders build great cultures. They infuse the culture with their own DNA, so their people know how they should be behaving even when the leader is not there. That’s true invisible leadership.

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