“What do you think makes a good leader?” I asked the chairman of the impertinently-sized investment company Second Coming Asset Management as we visited The Fund Merger & Manager Change for a pint or two of An Area Of Overlap We’ve Honestly Only Just Spotted This Minute. “Oh no, no, no,” he replied, wagging a finger. “You won’t get me that easily.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I’m sure I wasn’t trying to ‘get’ you – not in any of its many hundreds of different meanings.” “Yeah, right,” said the chairman. “I know how this song goes. You ask me a seemingly innocuous question and I answer in all good faith – only for you to quote some allegedly authoritative survey that’s aimed at making me look a little bit silly.”
Blast, I thought. More than a decade after our first drink together and it’s possible the chairman has finally figured out how our game works. I was just about to admit defeat by casually changing the subject to something less serious – perhaps the FSA’s reimagining of the Retail Distribution Review – when I noticed the chairman hadn’t actually stopped talking.
“So in this particular instance,” he was saying, “I might suggest the true mark of an effective leader – at least in my own sphere of expertise, the wonderful world of investment – is knowing the precise strategic moment to ring the changes in terms of personnel and fund ranges … and then acting on that knowledge about two years afterwards.
“Nevertheless, I’m sure you will now produce some cutting-edge piece of business thinking that proves it’s actually more important in this day and age to be able to look good on the television or maybe hire the most perfectly balanced human resources team. So, come on then, don’t keep me in suspense any further – what is nowadays seen as the Holy Grail of good leadership?””Well, I’m delighted you ask,” I said. “Though perhaps less delighted at the length of time it took you to get around to asking. Still, according to a survey undertaken by the good, good people of Common Purpose – and I suspect this is certainly a point with which nobody would wish to argue – it seems that it differs depending on whether you ask the leaders or the led. So it would appear the quality people most look for in a successful leader is good communication skills, which beats off competition from ’empowering’, ‘inspirational’, ‘visionary’, ‘decisive’ and ‘integrity’. Incidentally, why is it nobody can come up with an adjective for integrity?” “Beats me,” shrugged the chairman. “Probably because ‘integritous’ sounds silly.”
“Probably,” I agreed. “However, if you come at this from the other direction and ask the decision-makers how they would describe their leadership, ‘communication’ is in second place followed by ’empowering’, ‘integritous’ – sorry, thought I’d try it on for size but you’re right, it really doesn’t work – and ‘strategic’. In first place, however, we have the thoroughly implausible ‘approachable’.”
“Implausible because you don’t believe that’s how leaders really believe themselves to be or because you don’t believe that’s how leaders really want to be seen?” asked the chairman.
“Bit of both, I suppose,” I said. “I suspect they feel – or have been told – that’s the right answer to give in such surveys, but I doubt many are kept awake at night by the efficacy of their open-door policy.”
“Certainly not me,” said the chairman. “So who’s behind this survey again?” “Common Purpose?” I replied. “I’m told they’re an independent leadership development organisation that aims to improve the way society works. It operates in the UK as well as Ireland, France, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, India, The Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa and Turkey – one or two of which don’t quite seem to fit.”
“Too right,” said the chairman. “I mean, leadership’s not exactly a quality one associates with France nowadays, is it? So I’m supposed to aspire to be a good communicator, eh? And that’s what the troops want too? You know, they do say you should be careful what you wish for because there were some things I wanted to communicate to the staff about our structure this very afternoon.
“Me and every other fund group, apparently.”