"Frank's skill in asking the right questions is un-mistakable, and is at the core of his leadership philosophy.

The power of these questions cannot be underestimated, especially if you want to lead and not manage."
—John Cave
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Captain James T Kirk

‘Was Captain James T Kirk a great leader?’

Yes, I have just put this question into a search engine and, no, I haven’t got too much time on my hands.

I just wondered whether it had crossed anyone else’s mind that this fictional character often exhibited good leadership qualities.

Well, with the number of ’search results’ at some 1,950,000, it seems that quite a few people have a view on my question.

Incredibly, the original Star Trek series was aired over three ’seasons’ from 1966 – 1969 and yet the style of leadership exhibited remains imprinted on many minds. I recall a leader who:
  • was happy to have a diverse team around him including a quite different second in command (Spock)
  • could manage the differences among team members to the best advantage of the all
  • would lead by example
  • was sufficiently charismatic that people would rally behind him
  • could be tough and make tough decisions when necessary
  • sought the opinions of others but was able to make up his own mind
  • was empathetic and sympathetic when this was called for
  • never forgot the mission and his role in it.

Sounds like a pretty good leader to me.

And he also did not mind the occasional grammatical lapse (’to boldly go’ – split infinitive!).


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Here’s a leadership dilemma for you.

You are the Director General of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Some $225m in revenue for the corporation is generated by a show which is massively popular in the UK and—as the revenue figure suggests—around the world.

One of the reasons for the show’s popularity is that political correctness is set aside for an hour and the presenters say what they like. This is particularly the case with the lead presenter and he has already been given a ‘final warning’ not to cause any more diplomatic or other kind of upsets with his comments.

Then you hear that this presenter lost his temper with a producer on a shoot. After a long day’s filming only cold food was available. This led to the presenter browbeating the producer for half an hour and then punching him in the face. The producer had to go to hospital to be checked over.

You hold an enquiry to understand the facts.

And then your dilemma…

If you sack the presenter you’re waving goodbye to huge domestic and international audiences. The BBC is funded by a license fee from every household with a TV so you won’t do this lightly. The show’s popularity means you’ll have a lot of disaffected viewers.

There’s also a political dynamic. You know that the show’s audience found its tone of voice refreshing given the Corporation’s reputation for political correctness and left-wing bias.

And, finally, there’s the straightforward problem of an assault having occurred in the workplace and whether that should be tolerated.

What was the decision?

Well, the presenter’s contract has been terminated, notwithstanding all the other issues. It was deemed that, already on a final warning, he crossed a line.

My view? I agree with the decision.

Do you?


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Narcissistic Leadership

Narcissism is an unpleasant personality trait—yet one that seems particularly prevalent in our time.

I was thinking this as I reflected on a world of Facebook and other social media and their ‘look at me’ ethos. A world where people seem quite comfortable spending their time taking endless pictures of themselves… the so called ’selfie’.

The Encarta online dictionary defines narcissism as excessive self-admiration and self-centeredness. You have to extrapolate this a little bit further when considering narcissistic leaders. They will have only one priority in the way in which they run things.


I thought I might have invented the term ‘narcissistic leadership’ (which is a bit narcissistic of me!) but a quick look at Wikipedia proves me wrong. Apparently Linda L. Neider and Chester A. Schriesheim in their 2010 publication ‘The Dark Side of Management” already defined narcissistic leadership as being driven by ‘unyielding arrogance, self-absorption and a personal egotistic need for power and admiration.’

Other commentators on the phenomenon of narcissistic leadership include Neville Symington who writes in ‘Narcissism: A New Theory’ that ‘one of the ways of differentiating a good-enough organization from one that is pathological is through its ability to exclude narcissistic characters from key posts.’

Mr Symington is definitely on to something here. If I visit your company and find some narcissistic tendencies at senior management level then I know something fundamental will have to change if things are to improve.

So, are you a narcissistic leader, surrounding yourself with nodding cronies and focused on your own self-aggrandizement? Well… we all know what happened to the original Narcissus, don’t we.

Careful you don’t drown admiring your own reflection.


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Blame Culture

My last blog entry prompted me to reflect, once again, on different types of organization culture.

In particular, I have to say that in my experience, no matter how positive and forward thinking an organization’s culture might be, there is often an unfortunately rich seam of ‘blame culture’ to be found.

And, believe me, blame culture is really bad news.

A blame culture leads to fear in even the most robust members of staff. Fear that if they get something wrong they will be subject to at best, humiliation, and at worst some kind of disciplinary process which might cost them their job.

This fear is incredibly inhibiting. Organizations need to have individuals who are prepared to take risks and to explore new ideas and areas. If people aren’t doing this then the companies they work for will stagnate. Those companies will also suffer because staff will be spending an inordinate amount of time and energy documenting what they are doing or even covering their tracks rather than getting on with their roles.

And in a worse-case scenario, people won’t speak out where they feel that things aren’t being done right for fear of blame. This has cost lives in care homes and hospitals.

So, dear leader, is a blame culture or sub-culture stifling the operation of your business? Ask your senior managers what they think.

If they seem reluctant to talk, by the way, then you already have your answer!


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What Happened?

I am not a great fan of workplace motivational ’sayings’ and quotations but I quite like the following which I spotted on the club noticeboard at a local swimming pool.
The notice said that there are:
  • those who make things happen
  • those who watch what happens, and:
  • those who wonder what happened.

I have traced the quote to the late Mary Kay Ash, an American businesswoman and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics.

The quotation is particularly apt when considering leadership styles, of course, and it goes without saying that a very necessary leadership quality will be to make things happen rather than be passive. I also suspect those leaders who watch what happens all too quickly find themselves in the ‘wonder what happened’ category.

I would like to add a fourth bullet point to Mary Kay Ash’s three. In my experience, there are those at all levels in an organization but all too often in middle and senior management positions who criticize what happens as others strive to act or implement change.

Not acting yourself but expending all your energy criticizing those who do. Now that really is a serious fault. Don’t do it!


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Undercover Boss

I have reflected in this blog before about the lessons one might learn from watching an episode or two of ‘Undercover Boss’.

I recall writing …

‘Armed with this first-hand experience, the CEO was able to return to her management team fully versed in the key issues facing their business …and quickly set about making the necessary changes.’

…and encouraged all leaders to diarize time on the front line.

I caught up with this series again the other day. On this occasion I was struck not so much by what the boss learned about his business – but what he learned about his staff.

He learned about the people working for his organization who were taking personal safety risks to clear jams on conveyor belts. He learned that people were working hard for his organization then going home in the evening and looking after their children and trying to put themselves through college. He learned that people on the front line were brave enough to take difficult decisions (he was ’sacked’ by one of his staff when trying out for a job!).

And while he was learning all this, I learned that his organization lacked a proper process for recognition and rewarding people appropriately.

This is not the first time I have thought this watching ‘Undercover Boss’. When, at the end, each employee is called in to see the CEO you get the shock of realizing that this is a man who they had been working with ‘on the shop floor’. And then you get those who impressed being rewarded in some way.

But what about a leader’s several thousand other hard-working and dedicated individuals?

All leaders need to reflect on the hard working dedicated members of front line staff they never meet and whether more needs to be done to recognize their commitment.


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Which Are You?

Two blogs ago I was talking about information overload, how destructive this can be and, oddly, how addictive ‘apparent multitasking’ can get.

Re-reading that blog entry I am struck by the absence of the word ‘overwhelmed’.

‘Overwhelmed’ staff certainly won’t be efficient. But worse than that, if they continue to be overwhelmed they might soon be on long-term sick leave.

How can this be prevented?

Well, as their leader, you can do a lot to make sure this does not happen. From reducing the number of emails you’re pinging them through to the number of objectives you’re setting them through to a sympathetic leadership style, you can help them a lot.

But even more than these initiatives, you can help them by allowing them to set boundaries.

Look …if I was a member of your staff and said to you that I:
  • was going to look at my emails between 10.00 and 10.45 each day and at no other time
  • would like to review my objectives with you to be smarter and a more manageable number
  • intend, going forward, to stick to my core hours and break the habit of staying ’til late each night
  • will be reducing my weekly meeting attendance time by a third.

…how would you react?

A poor leader might react badly, perhaps even aggressively.

A good leader will agree to explore my suggestions—although perhaps diarizing a review of how the new approach is going and what lessons have been learned.

Which are you?


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Get Off Your High Horse

A response from the Co-CEO of one of Africa’s largest banks to the question ‘What makes a good Chief Executive?’ struck me as particularly apposite.

Sim Tshabalala, Co-CEO of Standard Bank, said that while being a good Chief Executive was ‘about knowing your industry’, it was also about ‘having the ability to lead people who know more than you’.

I liked Mr Tshabalala’s answer because of the implications it has for a successful leadership style.

I have always believed, for example, that there is no room for an arrogant approach that assumes because that you’re the leader you know best. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but a good leader has to have humility without this undermining his or her authority. You need to be able to seek the opinion of experts and then weigh up the best way forward.

A corollary of this is, of course, that you need to have the experts there in the first place! This means thinking hard about the knowledge capital necessary in your business for the right business decisions to be made. Compare what you and your employees have in terms of skills and expertise and what’s required. What are the gaps? If there are none, then that’s great… but if there are some, then your training/recruitment planning needs to plug these as soon as possible.

‘Having the ability to lead people who know more than you’ is a challenge. For some, knowledge is power and they might not want to share their knowledge with you willingly. Others might feel cowed by an overbearing leadership style and therefore afraid to suggest a more informed course of action. In the end, it’s all down to communication… getting amongst your staff, and putting in place devices like ‘two-way information sharing’ meetings.

Perhaps you’ve already adopted this style of leadership?

If not… then perhaps it’s time to get off your high horse?!


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