Alan's corner: What it takes to be a strong leader?
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Alan’s corner: What it takes to be a strong leader?

Alan’s corner: What it takes to be a strong leader?

In being good leaders they are also being great followers

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I recently read The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, written by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. It outlines how corporate greed and scandalous activities caused a level of cheating that was unprecedented. Enron was the energy giant that collapsed in 2001, also causing the demise of Arthur Anderson, one of the Big five accounting firms at the time. Why did it fail? It was a combination of factors that included creative market trades and dodgy accounting practices. But all of that was facilitated by bad leadership, an insider boy’s club and a terrible culture, where leaders were motivated to do wrong for high reward.

Recently, I wrote a piece in this column about leaders. I shared my ‘Leader’s 6-pack’ on what it takes to be a strong leader. I was really surprised at the number of mails, texts and calls I received. It clearly excited a lot of people. But I’m happy to say that this pandemic has certainly shone a light on those great leaders that have empathy for others. Larry Fink is CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest investment management company. In his letter to the CEOs of the companies Blackrock invests in, he advised them to be clear about their plans for sustainability. From January to November 2020, investors in mutual funds invested $288bn globally in sustainable assets.

“I believe that this is the beginning of a long but rapidly accelerating transition,” he said. I appreciate some will read this with cynicism saying that he is motivated by return on capital when he also says, “We know that climate risk is investment risk. But we also believe the climate transition presents a historic investment opportunity”. I’m okay with this, as there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between doing the right thing and making money. In this example, it’s the portrayal of responsible leadership that inspired me.

Leaders need followers

Today I also want to spare a thought for great followers, namely middle managers. In my experience, I find that they often have the toughest job in an organisation. They are the buffer between the boardroom and the front line. They are the ones who have to execute the strategies on the ground, by rallying their people and keeping them motivated to deliver to a standard, on time and on budget. More often than not in large organisations, you can see a correlation between three sets of data. KPIs, customer feedback and employee feedback. For those divisions that score highest in all three, much of the recognition for that deservedly goes to the local leader.

Those followers get direction from their bosses. They make sense of what they’re asked to do and they then interpret it in an appropriate way at local level. In being good leaders they are also being great followers. They take accountability for their brief and just get on with it. 

Tips on how to be a great follower

When you get good direction from your line manager, be a great follower by being accountable and deliver. In my role over the last 30 years, this is the one characteristic that I believe is in short supply. Whether we are leaders, managers or whatever, we all have a duty to take ownership for our part in the jigsaw puzzle and connect our pieces into the bigger picture. If you can’t deliver due to obstacles outside your control, then find your voice and speak up. Provided your supporting arguments are reasonable and valid, you cannot be accused of being difficult. If however it’s a case of ‘you won’t do it’, then consider if this role is right for you.

If you are unsettled by being asked to do something that is inappropriate, then stop for a second and think. Measure what you have been asked to say or do against the agreed values of the organisation. This enables you to push back in an objective way rather than with your own subjective viewpoint. If your company does not have a set of agreed values, then rely on a common set of values that include decency, respect and honesty. Who can argue against any of those? I also appreciate that situations like these can be extremely stressful. If you need help, find a trusted confidante. But do it quickly rather than procrastinate.

The Last Word

There is a fun video on YouTube that shows a lone guy dancing at a music festival. He is left on his own for some time until he is joined by the ‘first follower’ after which the crowd forms. In a nutshell, while leaders are essential, it highlights the important role of great followers. We can’t all be leaders, but we can all show up and be great followers.

Alan O’Neill is an author, keynote speaker and owner of Kara, specialists in culture and strategy

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