By Sarah Sands, Partner
The Platinum Jubilee celebrations were about 70 years of history but they also turned into a discussion of the character of leadership. The Queen is an outstanding example of servant leadership. As Charles Moore wrote in the Daily Telegraph, the Queen’s role is that of sacrificial service. She does not seek power, her motivation is vocational.
Commentators have contrasted this selflessness with political leadership which is about grasping and retaining power. George Osborne is quoted as saying about the potential coup against the Prime Minister: “Power is not given, it is taken.”
With handy timing, Hawthorn Advisors and Spencer Stuart, both of whom work with corporate leaders and search for them (we’d prefer “find and advise them”) held a dinner on the theme of the future of leadership.
The premise of the discussion was that we are undergoing a generational change in expectations of leadership. Power cannot be assumed, it has to be earned and new qualities of collaboration and empathy are required.
We are witnessing a passing of conventional leaders and followers and in its place a new form of social contract. While we see old style authoritarian leadership across the globe – most tragically in Russia – it is on the wane in corporations. Prepare for challenge – if not quite as dramatically as seen at Westminster.
Hawthorn Advisors and Spencer Stuart assembled for their round table discussion leaders of the future and the present. There were two One Young World ambassadors, Zubair Junjunia and Dara Latinwo. Zubair is an educational activist who founded ZNotes an online learning platform which reaches 3.5 million global students. Dara creates digital disruption at Deloitte.
Also at the table, representing experience and optimism, was John Flint, the former group chief executive of HSBC and now the chief executive of the UK Infrastructure Bank. Next to him, was Freshta Karim, founder of the charity Charmaghz, which runs a mobile library in Afghanistan. Freshta represents the beacon of citizen leadership. When the Taliban outlawed girls’ education, Freshta devised a way of allowing them to read.
Dr Eliza Filby provided academic credentials for our theories, drawing on her work on Generational Intelligence, from baby boomers through to post 2010 generation alpha. Poppy Mills represents transformational change, as the director of Ubitricity, formerly working on Shell’s renewables business. Sasha Dabliz, head of marketing at Waverton Investment Management knows how to direct the flow of money responsibly and profitably.
Kristina Ribas, senior strategy manager at Shell, who began her career at Goldman Sachs, was also questioning of traditional routes and warned of the conflict of using past leadership models to predict the future. Stephanie Edwards, Head of Sectors Strategy at Cop26 was at the heart of transformation, while Charlotte Appleyard, Deputy Director of Development at the Royal Academy of Arts showed the pluck of a young woman leading distinguished elders down new paths. This, said Katy Jarratt, from Spencer Stuart, was the way of the future. Spencer Stuart are busy appointing under 35s to boards and watching the response of the 60 year olds who must answer to them. Generational Intelligence in action.
John Evans, CEO of Hawthorn Advisors, described the entrepreneurial opportunities and challenges of rapid growth with a diverse work force. Zubair began the discussion by talking of motivating volunteers; this requires passion, purpose and mission rather than didactic instruction. John Flint called this catalyst leadership. He also defined the boundaries of leadership; you can set a strategy but you cannot “ lead” on process, such as technology. You are leading people. He added, with the wryness of experience: “ You have to know yourself, and knowledge comes with scars.” You can avoid vulnerability by staying behind your desk but only by risking vulnerability can you achieve a modern kind of leadership. There are two ways of leading, by fear and money, or positively. Inspiration has the longest tail.
Eliza agreed that change has come.
“There has been 30 years of turning humans into robots and robots into humans.”
What does it mean to talk of human leadership? Sasha asked about the evolution of leadership. Are leaders born or made? Learning is now a more communal process and the new work force is drawn to the creative and the unconventional. John Evans called for the alchemy of new ideas combined with experience. Theories have to work in practice.
Dara pointed out that we look for omnipotent leaders in our entertainment, the Marvel superhero. How does that square with vulnerability? Dara posited that leadership needn’t be visible and voluble. It could be invisible and valuable. Mobile libraries in Afghanistan could be an example of leadership as doing good. If leadership becomes communal there are consequences to that. Katy asked which leaders are prepared to take on all the baggage of others. Narcissism is a familiar characteristic of leadership, even among the good leaders. The dangers of leadership were underlined by Eliza – it can’t just be about an ability to have followers. This allows for populists and maniacs.
Freshta talked of the hard choices affecting leadership, including engaging with the oppressor. She said that the leadership open to all of us, is to do what we can, and to encourage open debate even if means sacrificing popularity, or worse. Freshta’s aim is to work for a “ better truth,” through grass roots platforms. Leadership is a facilitation of this. Leadership also demands example.
Several round the table warned about corporate spin without substance. Beware those who got to the top merely by having the sharpest elbows and the determination to shape their own mythology. The different framing of leadership for women and for men was also raised. Eliza picked up that Poppy used the word “ accessible “ leadership rather than “vulnerable. ” Poppy agreed she chose the word carefully. Women are wary of being described as vulnerable.
Charlotte pointed out that leadership under scrutiny changes expectations. Decisions made in jobs in which the public have an awareness or a stake are much more glaring. Stephanie spoke up for the outliers, the radicals, for example on climate, who push the boundaries so that the middle ground shifts slightly for the realists and the pragmatists. She also laid down one essential for leadership, evidence that you care for those who work for you. James Nicoll at Spencer Stuart added the virtues of resilience and empathy.
Who got the table’s votes as role model leaders? John chose Alison Rose, Chief Executive of NatWest Group as an example of modern leadership, Eliza went for Margaret Thatcher as a leader who led rather than followed, Sasha chose Peter Harrison, CEO of Schroders, for his moral compass and for wearing leadership lightly. John Flint said those who speak truth to power and named Alexei Navalny and in happily different circumstances, his predecessor at HSBC Stuart Gulliver.
Freshta wanted a leader who could end wars, Stephanie called for Dame Barbara Woodward, UK ambassador to the UN, Charlotte for former US ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun and for the artist Ai Weiwei, Dara for Sasha Romanovitch, former CEO of Grant Thornton, for sticking to principles, Katy for Bernard Looney, CEO of BP who leads with vulnerability and transparency. Turning to the world of sport, James Nicoll of Spencer Stuart suggested Toto Wolff, the CEO of the Mercedes-AMG F1 team, who leads through a management style of empathy and empowerment. Zubair thought for a bit, then came back with Muhammad Yanus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur who pioneered microcredit. All leaders who make a difference rather than serving time.
The collaborative nature of the evening was achieved partly by swerving political leadership. Hard power is not the same as soft power. Hawthorn Advisors and Spencer Stuart will continue discussions of the nature of leadership through different forums and events during the next years.