As we have seen with various high profile business rescues (most notably South African Airways), and business scandals such as the Steinhoff saga is that the biggest detractor of value, and the most common cause of financial distress is gross mismanagement.
It is often the task of business rescue professionals to come in with a broom that sweeps clean. The leadership that caused the distress are often dismissed and it is up to the BRPs (in consultation with company stakeholders, shareholders and creditors) to pick new leadership.
If you ask any applicant for a top position: why should anyone be led by you; they will provide a long list of reasons why they are best suited for the position. In reality, only qualifies a person to be a good leader.
Reveal your weaknesses
The article points out that when leaders reveal their weaknesses, they show us who they are—warts and all. This may mean admitting that they’re irritable on Monday mornings, that they are somewhat disorganized, or even rather shy. Such admissions work because people need to see leaders own up to some flaw before they participate willingly in an endeavor. Exposing a weakness establishes trust and thus helps get folks on board. Indeed, if executives try to communicate that they’re perfect at everything, there will be no need for anyone to help them with anything. They won’t need followers. They’ll signal that they can do it all themselves.
Beyond creating trust and a collaborative atmosphere, communicating a weakness also builds solidarity between followers and leaders. Consider a senior executive we know at a global management consultancy. He agreed to give a major presentation despite being badly afflicted by physical shaking caused by a medical condition. The otherwise highly critical audience greeted this courageous display of weakness with a standing ovation. By giving the talk, he had dared to say, “I am just like you—imperfect.” Sharing an imperfection is so effective because it underscores a human being’s authenticity. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, is a brilliant businessman and a hero in the United Kingdom. (Indeed, the Virgin brand is so linked to him personally that succession is a significant issue.) Branson is particularly effective at communicating his vulnerability. He is ill at ease and fumbles incessantly when interviewed in public. It’s a weakness, but it’s Richard Branson. That’s what revealing a weakness is all about: showing your followers that you are genuine and approachable—human and humane.
The article adds that another advantage to exposing a weakness is that it offers a leader valuable protection. Human nature being what it is, if you don’t show some weakness, then observers may invent one for you. Celebrities and politicians have always known this. Often, they deliberately give the public something to talk about, knowing full well that if they don’t, the newspapers will invent something even worse. Princess Diana may have aired her eating disorder in public, but she died with her reputation intact, indeed even enhanced.
That said, the most effective leaders know that exposing a weakness must be done carefully. They own up to selective weaknesses. Knowing which weakness to disclose is a highly honed art. The golden rule is never to expose a weakness that will be seen as a fatal flaw—by which we mean a flaw that jeopardizes central aspects of your professional role. Consider the new finance director of a major corporation. He can’t suddenly confess that he’s never understood discounted cash flow. A leader should reveal only a tangential flaw—and perhaps even several of them. Paradoxically, this admission will help divert attention away from major weaknesses.
Practice tough empathy
The article points out that unfortunately, there’s altogether too much hype nowadays about the idea that leaders must show concern for their teams. There’s nothing worse than seeing a manager return from the latest interpersonal-skills training program with “concern” for others. Real leaders don’t need a training program to convince their employees that they care. Real leaders empathize fiercely with the people they lead. They also care intensely about the work their employees do.
Consider Alain Levy, the former CEO of Polygram. Although he often comes across as a rather aloof intellectual, Levy is well able to close the distance between himself and his followers. On one occasion, he helped some junior record executives in Australia choose singles off albums. Picking singles is a critical task in the music business: the selection of a song can make or break the album. Levy sat down with the young people and took on the work with passion. “You bloody idiots,” he added his voice to the melee, “you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about; we always have a dance track first!” Within 24 hours, the story spread throughout the company; it was the best PR Levy ever got. “Levy really knows how to pick singles,” people said. In fact, he knew how to identify with the work, and he knew how to enter his followers’ world—one where strong, colorful language is the norm—to show them that he cared.
The article adds that, clearly, as the above example illustrates, we do not believe that the empathy of inspirational leaders is the soft kind described in so much of the management literature. On the contrary, we feel that real leaders manage through a unique approach we call tough empathy. Tough empathy means giving people what they need, not what they want. Organizations like the Marine Corps and consulting firms specialize in tough empathy. Recruits are pushed to be the best that they can be; “grow or go” is the motto. Chris Satterwaite, the CEO of Bell Pottinger Communications and a former chief executive of several ad agencies, understands what tough empathy is all about. He adeptly handles the challenges of managing creative people while making tough decisions. “If I have to, I can be ruthless,” he says. “But while they’re with me, I promise my people that they’ll learn.”
Tough empathy also has the benefit of impelling leaders to take risks. When Greg Dyke took over at the BBC, his commercial competitors were able to spend substantially more on programs than the BBC could. Dyke quickly realized that in order to thrive in a digital world, the BBC needed to increase its expenditures. He explained this openly and directly to the staff. Once he had secured their buy-in, he began thoroughly restructuring the organization. Although many employees were let go, he was able to maintain people’s commitment. Dyke attributed his success to his tough empathy with employees: “Once you have the people with you, you can make the difficult decisions that need to be made.”
Leadership in Action
The article points out that all four of the qualities described here are necessary for inspirational leadership, but they cannot be used mechanically. They must become or must already be part of an executive’s personality. That’s why the “recipe” business books—those that prescribe to the Lee Iaccoca or Bill Gates way—often fail. No one can just ape another leader. So the challenge facing prospective leaders is for them to be themselves, but with more skill. That can be done by making yourself increasingly aware of the four leadership qualities we describe and by manipulating these qualities to come up with a personal style that works for you. Remember, there is no universal formula, and what’s needed will vary from context to context. What’s more, the results are often subtle, as the following story about Sir Richard Sykes, the highly successful chairman and CEO of Glaxo Wellcome, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, illustrates.
When he was running the R&D division at Glaxo, Sykes gave a year-end review to the company’s top scientists. At the end of the presentation, a researcher asked him about one of the company’s new compounds, and the two men engaged in a short heated debate. The question-answer session continued for another 20 minutes, at the end of which the researcher broached the subject again. “Dr. Sykes,” he began in a loud voice, “you have still failed to understand the structure of the new compound.” You could feel Sykes’s temper rise through the soles of his feet. He marched to the back of the room and displayed his anger before the intellectual brainpower of the entire company. “All right, lad,” he yelled, “let us have a look at your notes!”
The article adds that the Sykes story provides the ideal framework for discussing the four leadership qualities. To some people, Sykes’s irritability could have seemed like inappropriate weakness. But in this context, his show of temper demonstrated Sykes’s deep belief in the discussion about basic science—a company value. Therefore, his willingness to get angry actually cemented his credibility as a leader. He also showed that he was a very good sensor. If Sykes had exploded earlier in the meeting, he would have quashed the debate. Instead, his anger was perceived as defending the faith.
The story also reveals Sykes’s ability to identify with his colleagues and their work. By talking to the researcher as a fellow scientist, he was able to create an empathic bond with his audience. He really cared, though his caring was clearly tough empathy. Finally, the story indicates Sykes’s own willingness to show his differences. Despite being one of the United Kingdom’s most successful businessmen, he has not conformed to “standard” English. On the contrary, Sykes proudly retains his distinctive northern accent. He also doesn’t show the typical British reserve and decorum; he radiates passion. Like other real leaders, he acts and communicates naturally. Indeed, if we were to sum up the entire year-end review at Glaxo Wellcome, we’d say that Sykes was being himself—with great skill.
The role of BRPs
If I was pressed to pick one virtue that would determine a good business leader, I would look at their track record. During the interview process, candidates typically put their best foot forward in an attempt to persuade relevant parties why they are best suited to the position.
Track records don’t lie. It is often the difference between a great sportsman and a mediocre one. You look at their performance over their career as opposed to a specific season.
Where do BRPs come in, they are there to advise stakeholders, shareholders and creditors to ignore the noise and to look for business leadership values that would add long term value over short-term/immediate value.
Charles Phiri is an Associate at Indalo Business Consulting