Howard Raynor saves you thousands of pounds buying hundreds of books on leadership and the time of visiting the twelve million or so web pages on leadership by giving you a one sentence overview that has taken 23 years to formulate.
The job of leadership is to provide hope. It is that simple, there isn’t anything else – creating the sense that the purpose of the organisation or mission is worthwhile, that what we are all doing with our time is not lost. Without this fundamental spark nothing else can function properly. There, that is it. Everything else you read on leadership is about how you achieve this vital task and it varies a lot. Consider this. Christopher Columbus would have made the perfect arts administrator. After all, he set off with no clear idea where he was going, when he arrived he didn’t know where he was, and when he returned he didn’t know where he’d been – what’s more, he did it all on some else’s money. If this sounds familiar read on.
Born to lead?
The one question that has everyone on edge is whether leadership is something you are born with or whether it is something you can learn. It’s a fatalist outlook but it comes up a lot. In the arts and entertainment sector my experience is that leadership is something people learn because if they don’t learn they won’t be the leader for very long. Whether it’s something you are born with or not is irrelevant when the leadership issue presents itself. Followers will spot pretty quickly whether that leadership spark is there or not and they will let the leader know in their own way. It could be leaving, going sick, dreadful stand-up arguments, silence in meetings, etc. I am sure you have felt or witnessed the absence of leadership. I readily accept that some people don’t learn and aren’t good leaders.
Following the leader
Leadership is all very well but spare a thought for the followers. If you are in the business of following you need to know whether you are destined for greatness or random management. Whether you are a follower who wants a future, or are planning to bring a leader into your own organisation, you face the tough task of spotting a leader. Here are some top tips:
- Does she have a clear, inspiring central idea to drive the organisation or mission forward?
- How are her communication skills? Does she create the emotional and intellectual rationale for the job in hand? Face to face, on paper and through the media?
- Does she have good interpersonal behavioural skills? Can she crack it in a one to one, face to face situation, small group situation, room full of people?
- Is she dependable? Not consistent to the point of dull but dependable when a decision is required?
- How are her problem-solving skills? A flexible, wide-ranging toolkit or just a hammer and everything looks like a nail?
- Just how creative is she? You don’t need Björk, lovely as she is, but you do need creative thinking to keep you ahead of the game.
- When it comes to judgement how does she weigh up the odds, can she communicate how she reached the decision? Does she rely on intuition or logic, can she be relied upon for her judgement and is her decision predictable and consistent?
- Does she have the ability to learn?
- What is the quality of her work like? Does she have criteria for what constitutes a good piece of work and how did she arrive at that opinion?
- Can she motivate you?
- Does she have planning and organising skills or the ability to generate those skills in the team?
- Does she have and show initiative?
- Is she actually interested in the work?
So much for distilled text books. In my own experience I have also noticed some impressive generalisations about leadership which may also be of use to followers. Take Bill Sweetenham for example, the famously direct swimming coach. “The Romans conquered the world, not because they held committees, but because they killed the opposition. That’s where I’m coming from”. You can just tell what kind of a leader Bill is and the particular type of organisation he would create. For him it’s a have lunch or be lunch world and that creates a particular type of leader. On the other hand, the Financial Times last year published details of a report saying that managers and professionals might “change the way they deliver services in a way that improves the performance of the indicator while not achieving improvement in services delivered to users.” This suggests a very different type of organisation and leader where bureaucracy is the enemy.
The truth about leadership is that great leadership is defined mainly by context. The main thump in the headache for followers is knowing what kind of organisation you are and what jobs you face – both of which determine the leadership skills you need. If you are in one of those “rewiring the Boeing 747 in flight” stabilisation situations you need some very particular management skills, whereas creative leaders need insight more than they need an MBA.
If you do have the ideas, understand the role and understand the internal and external context – the future awaits your transition from follower to leader. But what about the future context? In terms of what leadership challenges face us now I think there are two thoughts to leave you with; first a warning that an obsession with cost control makes organisations focus on internal matters instead of staying close to audience motivation and external context which give all important insight. Second and perhaps more importantly, I think the designer Peter Saville was on to something when he said “The codes of rebellion are now a look, not an attitude. There’s so much posturing, it’s like a pantomime”. We need to keep the arts challenging, imaginative and inspiring and we need to be ceaseless in our pursuit of that or run the risk of being irrelevant.
Howard Raynor is Chief Executive of Bridgewater Hall