Back to the future

27 July 2017

Back to the future image

There seems to be a hot streak for everything retro. That's even made me, who hates looking back, and loathed history at school, peer in the rear-view mirror. I've been looking at what, or which, old leadership models work in the new world. And that got me thinking; what is perceived as old-fashioned management, and to what extent those approaches are relevant now?

There’s a serious point here, even if it seems like I'm jumping on the bandwagon, and writing something that might seem very retro (albeit minus any harping back to the good old days of mullets, flares and platform shoes).  So here goes...

From where I'm standing, it looks like the best leaders use a deliberate mash-up of old-world management, the retro approach, and new-world leadership, its modern equivalent.

This combination of old and new is both positive and necessary, and here's why...

Let’s go with the debated, disputed, but valid idea that the "old world" was one we could at least understand; where:

- business seemed to change in a fairly even and more predictable way 
- big problems could be solved with reasoned responses, and
- we often knew our position on the grid.

Back then I had two powerful bosses. Both had big energy, huge passion, and took their responsibilities very seriously. Each threw their considerable (metaphorical) weight behind ideas and initiatives. But what I really remember was their range of reactions. They could be calm and collected, and yet angry sometimes. I took the brunt of some outbursts, and had to soak up some blunt feedback. Neither hesitated to make decisions, and I made sure I did what they asked - out of loyalty, and because it made sense. Oh, and there was just enough fear to make sure I delivered what was expected. And I always, always, knew where I stood. With the benefit of hindsight, I think what I received was a clumsy form of situational leadership. Yet I was completely hooked and inspired. 

The "new-world" is very different, it’s more like a big tub of random magnetic letters - where sense is only made when you see a pattern, and make words to stick on the fridge. It's becoming an occasionally-ordered (and often random) set of circumstances and events, lacking obvious predictability, missing previous norms, and creating a compelling need for a new way to think about leadership.

For me, the "new-way" is all about mastery. First, leaders need to master themselves, and I love the idea of this being around four intelligences:

  • IQ,
  • EQ (Emotional Intelligence)
  • PQ (Physical Intelligence)
  •  and SQ (Spiritual Intelligence).

Here at Henley, we're also talking about a fifth; We-Q; the ability to collaborate brilliantly.

Second, leaders need to master leadership - meaning moving smoothly between the different working styles of telling, directive, facilitation, mentoring, coaching, and even as far as more therapeutic intervention. Think of it like a Newton's Cradle, with each of those styles being one of the swinging spheres. 

 So, what’s the role of anyone supporting our leaders?

We need to offer them learnings in both old-world management and new-world leadership styles (in a 70:20:10 way, but minus those silos). For example, coaching skills need be refreshed and rehearsed. Coaching needs to be worked like a muscle, taut and ready to go, but we need to accept that coaching isn't right for every situation. I'm talking about mastering all of these areas, and not just one.

Your best leaders must be given permission to use all the styles (even when a more telling/directive approach makes them appear to be pushing hard) without worrying about petty politics and silly sensibilities. And if pushing hard means a return to old-world management, where there's just a little wariness and plenty of honest conversation, then so be it. Employees need to accept their responsibility to provide #value and must understand when they don't deliver. We shouldn't hide behind performance management and company procedures.

Now, let me clarify. I wouldn't recommend that leaders scream and shout. What old-world managers said was sometimes over the line, and we don't want blustering bullies. But there's a time and a place for everything - if you were in a perfect storm you'd chart a course, tie everyone down and shout above the noise. 

I've used more clichés here than I ever do, and I hope it makes the point. If I sound a little reminiscent, then maybe it's because I am. Let those two worlds collide. The new world requires a grown-up approach, and returning (sometimes) to old-world leadership may be more important than you think. Like going to an 80s-themed party, playing vinyl records, or listening to 70s playlists on Spotify, sometimes leaders just have to go retro.

 

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For more information please contact Mark Swain by email at hp@henley.ac.uk or by phone on +44 (0) 1491 418 855.