An ABC of leadership and management

Inspired by teaching his 18-month old granddaughter new words, here is the first half of is David’s leadership alphabet with his thoughts about the real meaning of some of those vital words we all use; more next month!

I am enjoying teaching my 18-month old granddaughter new words using wonderfully colourful Dorling Kindersley books .  It’s marvellous as we go for walks around our village and she spots cats, dogs, horses, cows, birds and butterflies (pronounced blies).  Using the word “despondent” to describe Eeyore is beyond her pronunciation ability yet, but I succeeded in getting my eldest daughter to describe herself as obstreperous (“optrous”) by the time she was two.  We’ll see how my granddaughter’s eloquence progresses over the next six months. 

This joyous activity gave cause to this Grandad to consider how some of the keystone words from the lexicon of organisational leadership are used… and abused.  Accordingly, here is the first half of the alphabet with my thoughts about the real meaning of some of those vital words; more next month!

A is for accountability

If you have direct reports, you are accountable for their performance.  At the same time, they are personally responsible for how they perform (and develop).  As a manager, you can’t bask in the glory of any exceptional outcomes they achieve and shy away from them should performance slip. 

Due to you being accountable, you must have candid, frank conversations about the situation (when it is a spot not a festering boil), coach, develop, nurture through good times and bad.  Constant and consistent good performance should warrant recognition and reward, possibly promotion; lots of bad should warrant alternative consequences.

B is for behaviour

People’s skills, knowledge and experience provide the threshold capabilities to do any role.  Behaviours provide the positive distinguishing performance features.  Behaviours are observable, e.g. how they engage and interact with others, their ideas generation, their initiative, their acquisition and use of information. 

The behavioural needs of every job should be concisely and precisely defined and then recruited and selected against.  Evaluate performance and development against these behavioural benchmarks. 

It is not just what you do but how and, in many instances, the how is far more important and, long-term, delivers enduring success.

C is for company

I keep reminding myself of the point often made by Mark Goyder, the founder of Tomorrow’s Company, see, that the etymology of the word company is “breaking bread”. 

For me, this suggests a convivial, collegiate and collaborative environment.  Why then are so many organisations’ culture and climate toxic, rendering them less appealing places to spend so much of our waking hours?  This is not to suggest organisations should be passive and benign because the vast majority of them must compete to win. However, the environment need not harm people’s health and well-being. 

Treating people like mushrooms does not produce anything tasty to accompany the bread.

D is for delivery

I recall Matthew Barrett, once CEO of Barclays (colloquially called “The Beast of Montreal”), saying the sexy side of strategy was delivery, far more so than determining it. I regard both sides of the coin to have equal importance.  Poor determination tends to result in heading south when you should be going north. 

Other Ds are “deftness” and “dexterity”. While one may determine a particular direction to travel, in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, “sh*t happens”, which requires judgement (see J) about which course changes to make.

E is for ego

In one of Saville’s psychometric tests, there is a terrific piece of output contrasting motive and talent.  Why do we seem to be overrun by people riven by an egotistical motive that sees them believe they are entitled to be in charge yet utterly lacking in relevant talent, behavioural capability and values? 

Let’s dust down David McClelland’s work about personalised and socialised power; let’s find more leaders like Julian Richer who’s committed to enhancing his colleagues’ wealth through shared ownership (see W). 

As someone once described my late father, “He was the best effing bastard (“BFB”) I ever worked for.”  Being a tinpot, dictatorial “FB” is as easy as falling off a log; you just shout and swear more.  Acquiring the four-letter accolade of “best” demands a different quality of leadership, one born of empathic humility (see H).

F is for finance

The recent decision by America’s Business Roundtable to reorient the focus of attention in business away from shareholder value, i.e. hard currency, to that of stakeholder value has received considerable attention, see

Will this soften cultures in those organisations where the cost of everything is known to six decimal places on an SAP ERP system to one in which far greater attention is given to the well-being of employees, not gouging suppliers and treating customers with far greater respect and appreciation?  Also, will a growing acceptance of “polluter pay” emerge to the benefit of the environment and host communities?  

Or, when a bear mauls the longest running bull-market, will a stiletto sharp focus on value once again eviscerate values? 

G is for gender

There is a rich, rigorous and vigorous debate about gender raging into which maelstrom I do not wish to wade, although I believe my gender and generation have a lot to be blamed for. 

I liked this from Alice Thomson in The Times on September 18th, see, especially the quotes from US drag artist Ru Paul, “Do whatever you want to do with your life as long as you don’t hurt anyone else,” and “You’re born naked, honey — all the rest is drag”. 

Within the broad arena of inclusion and diversity, alongside gender sits race, religion, sexual orientation, different mental and physical abilities, factors relating to socio-economic background. 

What needs to be done to swing open the doors of opportunity still wider, what more must organisations do to demonstrate their first need is capability?  Surely, the “wrapper” enveloping such talent is immaterial. 

How much more engagement should there be between business and education to provide a chance for youngsters to see the numerous routes available to realise their ambitions?  People such as the following are doing much to open doors. :

Indeed they go further In their work; to paraphrase Michael Caine in The Italian Job, they’re “blowing off the bloody doors”.

H is for humility

I remain a great fan of Jim Collins’s Level 5 Leadership, i.e. having humility and fierce resolve.  Surely, the swagger and braggadocio of the showboating egotists has reached its sell-by date?  Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, about introversion merits reading. 

While, perhaps, Steve Jobs was not especially humble, his quote “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” points towards suppressing the non-humble tendency that makes someone believe they must be the smartest person in the room. 

In a simple model of behaviour, see above, being Red, Amber or Green is far less effective than being Blue.  Being Blue is another way of showing you are a BFB rather than a dysfunctional FB.  

Here are two blue anecdotes. In Bryce Hoffman’s “American Icon” about Alan Mulally’s turnaround of Ford when he got up from the Board table to shake a colleague’s hand for being truthful about his project being “red” in the weekly review meeting is apposite.  His predecessor’s habit would have been to “chew him out”.  The executives had acquired a bad case of learned helplessness.  The second is Tim Cook’s assertive, “Why are you still in the room?” to a colleague following a discussion about production problems Apple was experiencing at Foxconn.

I is for introspection

Who makes then takes sufficient time to review and reflect on the outcome of events?  Without doing so, how can performance be raised?  

The marginal gains approach in many fields of sport, see Steve Peters “the Chimp Paradox”, uses an array of data to analyse and understand what went well and what didn’t helps inform future coaching and development plans. Increasingly, many organisations are are following suit. One positive aspect of Agile practice is the allocation of time during and at the end of sprints and scrums for introspection to occur.

From 20-odd years ago, a watchword at Disney was “review and refine”.  German business has succeeded through an approach called “incremental innovation”.  Consider this about the Mercedes F1 team led by Toto Wolff, see

J is for judgement

Decisions concern the exercise of judgement.  What are the facts and evidence, what corroboration has been obtained?  Conversely, how much intuition is being relied upon; does that draw on expertise and experience or is it pure gut feel and “seat of the pants” perception? 

What is the consequence of seeking more information and slowing down decision-making – does it increase the risk of missing an opportunity?  Does a more gung-ho approach see a fence leapt over landing straight into a manure heap?   To judgement, I will add discretion by which I mean two things.  One is a qualitative factor, i.e. the decisions made are well-founded, well-grounded and cause no undue harm.  The other concerns protecting others’ right and privacy. 

K is for knowledge

What do you know, what do you not know and all the other permutations of Donald Rumsfeld’s tongue-twister, see

The half-life of knowledge is getting shorter; consider the graph above. How do we comprehend and manage this explosion in content without suffering the fate of Kate Blanchet in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, see–ySA?

Given the graph comes from IBM, my ex-Barclays colleague, Mike Hobday, see, who has recently morphed from Big Blue to an Ant will no doubt say our skulls won’t explode if we make judicious use of AI and machine learning. 

L is for learning (which absorbs training)

A simple, alliterative learning cycle is acquire (knowledge), assimilate it, apply it.  Yet, how much learning is acquired yet never fully understood or applied?  According to Harvard Business School article, “The Great Train Robbery”, the US spent $165bn on corporate L&D and 90% decayed to have zero impact on performance within 12 months.

Multi-day training courses are being displaced by modularisation and commoditisation into bite-sized nuggets of content. Like a McDonalds chicken nugget, they may sate an initial pang of hunger (learning inquisitiveness), but too many of them represent a poor learning diet.  My recent blog “We don’t need no education”, see, says more. 

Knowledge is a richerprocess than cramming more “stuff” into the heads. Much requires debate and discourse, i.e. social engagement afforded through effective pedagogy.  As my friend, Dr Brian Smith of the University of Law says, “… there are five levers to pull on.”

M is for management

Peter Drucker’s quote alongside is still relevant and valid.  Yes, we continue to require checks and balances but do these need human managerial or supervisory oversight? Are there alternative technological solutions that may act in a more preventative manner than recovery mode?

Pleasingly, leadership that provides a galvanizing “true north” purpose encompassing people and planet as well as profit is becoming more commonplace.  However, this clarion call by leaders must not be erudite, chest-thumping rhetoric; actions must match the fine words.   Another of Drucker’s quotes is, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Actions speak louder than words.

Robert Locke and J.C. Spender’s book, “Confronting Managerialism”, merits reading.

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