LEADERS FOR OUR TIME

Growing up in post war Britain my education was laced with a mixture of standard academic learning, sport and a good dose of patriotism. Winston Churchill was still revered for his perceived leadership role in saving the country and, some might add, the world from the grip of Nazism.

In our household it was a different story, the mere mention of Churchill led to my dad erupting into a rage. He was a coal miner and the bitter memories of the 1926 General Strike, where the government of the day called in the army to keep order would never be extinguished from his mind. He laid the blame solely at Churchill’s feet.

My personal interest in Churchill did not surface until many years later when I felt it would be possible to make a balanced judgement of this sometimes mythical character. I was intrigued about the contradictions that surrounded him.  A tortured early home life, his obsession of being centrally involved in war situations, his treatment of those around him, including his devoted wife Clementine. His failure in the Dardanelles campaign which led to his resignation and the disaster which was Gallipoli.

The further I researched his life the more it drew me to pose the question, “Would his identified skills be effective today?”

His leadership strengths came in the form of two strikingly important gifts which masked all his many other perceived frailties.

Clues to these skills can be found in many of his parliamentary speeches where he relentlessly returned to make his point on mainly defence issues. It was a brand of resilience and stubbornness, the like that had rarely been seen in modern times.

Churchill’s famed resilience appears to have a place in today’s landscape where continually a myriad of problems bombard companies. It is certain every manager will reach a point in his or her career where their resilience is tested. How they approach these challenges will determine their success.

The second and undoubtedly most proficient skill was as an orator, crafting and delivering speeches of such greatness that he was able to instil such confidence, although in reality the overall war effort appeared hopeless. Reputedly spending one hour per each minute of the speech he was to deliver, from this seemingly pedantic approach he produced such masterpieces that people around the world listened in awe. The “fight them on the beaches” speech being probably one of the greatest of all time.

Today we live in such different times, where the population is much more sceptical about rousing speeches from people in either government or authority. Motivating staff in our organisations is a much more difficult proposition and provides many challenges for management.

The CEO, speaking at forums or AGM’s about the value of his or her people, has to work really hard to gain traction to convince the audience that the sentiments being expressed are genuine. It is understandable given the events of the past two years, when such pronouncements have been followed by people experiencing large and smaller scale redundancies due to the global financial crisis and loss of accumulated wealth.

The leader of today has the unenviable task of rebuilding a level of respect between people and their companies, examining relationships and the hardest of all, establishing trust which has been severely eroded in recent times. Additionally there is no doubt the labour market is improving, bringing with it skill shortages where employers will come under increasing scrutiny from candidates on the values it holds and how it treats its people. There is a requirement for organisations to tackle the serious issues currently being encountered due to generational transitions. They will not, contrary to the belief in certain quarters, magically disappear. The bottom line being that people want to see clear demonstrations that companies care before they show their personal commitment. It is time to consider new approaches. How do we deal with these challenges?

In the noted writings by the author Daniel Pink, (A Whole New World), he suggests society will gravitate to a right brain emphasis which displays characteristics of empathic and emotional behaviour. The traditionalists may see this as heresy but there is a rising tide of voices that say a new range of strategies need to be pursued.

Is it that owners of companies and boards could do well to develop leaders and a leadership model centred on how the whole issue of people are handled in their respective organisations? The impact of powerful speeches has been mainly lost as a means of motivation.

This is not to say a leader or manager will not deliver effectual stirring speeches. There will always be people who rise above the pack and see the bigger picture, it is convincing the population that rhetoric can be backed up with tangible action.

So I leave the final answers to readers. Should we be looking for new ways to motivate our people? Has the landscape changed irrevocably or do we rely on the lessons of history and of the towering feats of the likes of Winston Spencer Churchill?

Postscript

Churchill, the war over, contested the next General Election and was comprehensively beaten. The feedback from the electorate; he was a man for his time but not for the future (He was re-elected in 1951 as Prime Minister showing once again his tenacity for never letting go and accepting defeat).

Ken Wood