Northern Power Women – Levelling up by Powering On

Introduction

I commend this excellent report, which I read it between Christmas and New Year.  It is available at https://www.northernpowerwomen.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Levelling-Up-by-Powering-On-Report.pdf.  It is required reading to help us all to sharpen our leadership focus at the start of this new decade (assuming you subscribe to the view the decade starts this year not last).   

Through both fortitude and good fortune – “Diligence is the mother of good luck,” remarked Benjamin Franklin – the paper should be regarded as being like the blue touch paper on a firework.  When lit it should ignite a dazzling blaze of considered and considerate action to change the composition and competence of organisational leadership across the Northern Powerhouse, as well as everywhere else. 

In an article entitled “The pandemic has eroded democracy and respect for human rights” published in mid-October by The Economist, see https://www.economist.com/international/2020/10/17/the-pandemic-has-eroded-democracy-and-respect-for-human-rights, Freedom House, a Washington DC based think tank, says their research exposes growing pressures being imposed by many, male populist leaders around the world to stifle democracy and constrain human rights.  It is on that taut, global canvas that NPW has chosen to paint its brighter, rosier more compassionate picture of the future. 

Leadership – style and substance

The report’s intention to define the “new traits of leadership” may not demand too much effort, although the search may go off in the wrong direction by misusing the word “trait”.  This is the singular major flaw in NPW’s report.  A major issue arises when key words start to be carelessly used at odds to their original tenor.  Yes, language evolves, but blithly swapping one label for another risks undoing proven theory and weakening the likelihood that its practice will be ineffective. 

Originally, traits related to predispositions or natural behaviours, not delivered behaviours.  They are one group of the three components of underlying personality, the other two being motives, i.e., drivers that cause people to behave in a certain way because they enjoy doing so, and values being underlying belief systems, which can be secular, or faith based.  A recent blog discussed this distinction between personality and behaviour, see https://www.tsp-uk.co.uk/leader-of-leaders/self-insight/knowing-me-knowing-you-part-2/#more-3225.

While each group of personality components inform how leadership behaviour may be delivered, they do not necessarily equate to any observed behaviour.  Accordingly, let us restrict use of the word trait to discussions concerning personality; as we will see later, a core, reliable and valid theory is that of the “Big 5 Trait theory of personality”.  Instead, our focus should concentrate upon those observable behaviours that are delivered in a constant, consistent, culturally appropriate, and competent manner. 

Values and motives

How these two attributes of personality interact must be understood.  Are leaders doing something they consider important so in accord with their values, and do they enjoy doing it so providing motivational stimulus?  Consider a local GP who is the fourth generation to practice in his mid-sized market town.  He very much regards the role, i.e., its service to their community, as important, yet gains no joy from it.  How effective in role are such people likely to be? 

How many young people are being corralled into careers they will not love and enjoy?  In his one-man Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen cautions parents, “…you do your best to not lay too much of your own bull**** on them.”  Are we too busy shooing our children off to university?  Consider this excellent opinion piece by India Knight in last weekend’s Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/exams-are-off-but-that-may-be-no-bad-thing-pgx55q60m.

David McNally wrote a book “Even Eagles Need a Push”, which makes the central point that parent eagles shove their offspring out of their nests from which point they learn to soar themselves.  Are leaders giving employees a chance to demonstrate their potential by involving them in new developments, so allowing them to show their initiative.  Smart leaders adopt the ten-pin bowling approach – they put some buffers alongside the lane to contain risk. 

I know it is dated, but is Monty Python sketch still apposite, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqQlCOmXuHM.  And, if not a lion tamer, what about being a lumberjack?

How big a jump needs to be made?

The shift in behavioural delivery that leaders need to make is not overly dramatic.  It is not akin to switching from an analogue to a digital system, rather it is more like upgrading from 4G to 5G.  It is an issue of capacity – what can be accomplished at greater pace and far sharper definition? 

As Simone will attest, I like my musical analogies.  In the lyrics of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, there are these two lines, “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”   My argument is there will be no sustainable change if we merely swap one demographic group of leaders for another.  If those different sets of buttocks occupying the seats around the top tables and in the offices of the C-suite continue to do what is done now, then global society’s ship will remain holed below its water line. 

We need leadership to be refreshed and revived.  Drawing on another song’s lyrics, Edwin Collins’s “A Girl Like You”, in which he distinguishes between protest singers and protest songs, the distinctive issue in leadership today concerns what is done, by whom and how, i.e., who is singing what song to which tune?

We need organisational leaders to assume genuine “cabinet responsibility” rather than allow the consequences of petty, childish, behind the scenes, internecine power struggles to spill out into the public domain – particularly in politics.  We need far less individual ego, consider this short piece by Art Tawanghar from 2016 distinguishing “ego” from “eco”, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ego-vs-eco-why-art-tawanghar/?trackingId=gN%2FCKxqzR0%2BB0Z%2FzhmtnGw%3D%3D.

Competing egos always cause confusion and rancour.  We need to ask, “Are we all in this together or not?” and give a brutally truthful answer.  Perhaps the symbolism of the eight-seat rowing boat hanging from the ceiling of TGI’s restaurants (anyone remember going out to eat?!) needs more extensive adoption?  Sloughing our egotistical, reptilian skin is not easy.  It demands we temper our contemporary celebration of unfettered ambition, personalised power, egregious wealth, and celebrity. 

The changes we need to see made in leadership practice concern demonstrating core humanitarian values.  While monetary vectors demand priority attention, e.g., cashflow, especially under current circumstances, in the longer-term these are ends rather than means.  Consider this about Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/359946, values-based behaviour provides the solution to the firm’s cashflow crisis.    

The substance of authentic, humane behaviour will always achieve more than showmanship style. 

Leadership theory – too long a male preserve?

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By reviewing existing literature about organisational psychology and allied fields there are many valid and practical examples of best practice to be re-discovered.  Upfront, let me acknowledge that almost all these founding principles were conceived by men.  As with Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of DNA, on the rare occasions that women did participate in scientific studies their contributions were disregarded at best, more often dismissed (for an uplifting alternative watch the movie, “Hidden Figures”).

This paper from PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/109/41/16474.full.pdf, states, “In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant.

“These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.”

While the tendency to dismiss is beginning to wane, there remains much further still to travel.  As this recent list of most influential organisational psychologists reveals,  https://www.humanresourcesmba.net/30-most-influential-industrial-and-organizational-psychologists-alive-today/#:~:text=%20The%2030%20Most%20Influential%20Industrial%20and%20Organizational,assistant%20professor%20of%20psychology%20at%20New…%20More%20, only four of the 30 names listed are female. 

Female writers bring humanity

Outside the academic school of organisational psychology, some extraordinary material is being produced by women such as Margaret Heffernan.  A testimonial about her latest book, “Uncharted: How to map the future together”, from the “management guru of gurus” during the 1990s and early 2000s, Tom Peters, states, “I have never read anything quite like Uncharted. I was captured on page 1 and captivated to the very end. Margaret Heffernan shook my core beliefs and made me look at the world – and myself – differently. It doesn’t get any better than that.”  This is encouraging as it indicates even the strongest mindsets can change.  Another Margaret, Margaret Wheatley, of the New Science movement of the late 1990s that considered how complex organisations are rooted in nature, wrote A Simpler Way with Myron Kellner-Rogers.  Their view then was organisations comprise people – they are organisms.  I consider this still to be entirely valid. 

This list, https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/inspiring-leadership-books-for-women, cites 19 important books on leadership written by women, including:

  • Malala Yousafzai’s “I Am Malala” (Malala spoke at an event in 2014 organised by Liverpool-based charity, World Merit, now QS World Merit, led by Marlou Cornelissen, included in NPW’s Top 50 Future List, see https://www.qs.com/qs-world-merit-charity/).
  • Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly”, whom I see quoted in numerous blogs especially about the topic of “vulnerability”. 
  • “More than Enough” by Elaine Welteroth in which she discusses the topic of “imposter syndrome” so frequently mentioned across the NPW commentary (and, of course, by Michelle Obama in her book Becoming). 
  • Angela Duckworth’s and Carol Dweck’s books, Grit and Mindset respectively, are other noteworthy additions to the canon. 

I openly admit to not having read these cover-to-cover but “dipping in” and reviewing summaries of them, all appear to draw on aspects of long-standing, core leadership theories. 

Pleasingly, all remove the dry as Saharan sand tone of many academic texts by being invested with considerable human spirit and joie de vivre.

In practice, female leaders lead

Considering section 5.1 of the report, I see that the female leaders who have steered their countries through Covid-19 possess in their personality the value (note, not trait) of compassion.  A strong trait of rationality underpins their reasoning (although they also appear to rely on some degree of intuition). 

These female leaders have considered the many what-ifs, the “unknown unknowns”, i.e., those low likelihood of happening risks that have massive impact if they materialise, e.g., a global pandemic! Consequently, they are on the front foot, they are prepared

They have clarity of purpose; they unequivocally understand for what they are accountable and to whom they are responsible, namely their citizens.  We are all responsible for our own actions.  In addition, leaders are accountable for what their teams do collectively and individually.  As a leader are you willing to stand to account for success as well as failure?  When the latter occurs, does the finger of blame point back at yourself rather than accusingly at “them others”. 

Their Emotional Intelligence gives them immense empathy that infuses how they engage with their diverse populations. 

They possess a strong ability to win buy-in to their ideas or, if you prefer, vision.  They can strategically influence or rationally persuade.  You may wish to consider they can “sell”.  By successfully selling their aims, they “won” hearts and minds and people willingly collaborated.  It was a genuine team effort.   

In whole, their behaviours inspired others to motivate themselves to act with determination and commitment.  Inspiration and motivation are not the same thing.  Person A can inspire person B to embark on something new or improve an existing capability.  Person B must then self-motivate themselves to do what A has inspired.  Inspiration travels between people, motivation is internal.  My friend Professor Dr Brian Smith has as his strapline on Skype, “Inspire, Motivate, Achieve”. 

Here are three articles that support the view that female leaders are more effective, particularly in a crisis. 

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/dec/16/female-leaders-make-a-real-difference-covid-may-be-the-proof

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-female-leaders-do-better-job-of-saving-lives-in-pandemic-hnpm8fd7c

https://hbr.org/2020/12/research-women-are-better-leaders-during-a-crisis

This fourth article suggests there is some statistical manipulation behind these claims, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/female-leaders-found-to-be-no-better-in-covid-crisis-vstc8l53h

While NPW’s report and this essay focus on the qualities of female leadership, it is worthwhile considering this description of one of the UK’s currently most prominent, male leaders.  One description of Chancellor Rishi Sunak says he is, “clever and talented, immensely hard-working, ambitious, eager to learn, disciplined, always well prepared… as well as authentic, humble, approachable, gentle, modest, friendly, empathetic, thoughtful, respectful, sensitive, a listener.”  Not the mould in which most male politicians are cast.

Inspiring and Influential Women

The BBC recently published its list of 100 inspiring and influential women for 2020, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-55042935.  It includes Sanna Marin, Finland’s Prime Minister.  In a separate interview when asked about answering reporters’ questions, she says she does not prepare, she simply answers their questions honestly.  I find her response entirely inspiring.  As George Orwell was reputed to have written, “In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  I like to think Marin’s honesty will foment the required revolution. 

In confronting climate change, the biggest challenge of our age, two women are very much in the vanguard of crucial work.  One, Polly Higgins who died in 2019 (see her obituary at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/22/polly-higgins-environmentalist-eradicating-ecocide-dies), campaigned tirelessly to introduce the law of ecocide to stand alongside that of genocide as a crime against humanity. An intrepid group of campaigners continue her work. 

Another is round-the-world, single-handed yachtswoman, Ellen MacArthur. Her work is galvanizing global firms to adopt the principles of the “circular economy”. This aims to shift the consumerist economy away from a linear model of take, make, use, discard.  (Prince Charles is about to launch an initiative, Terra Carta, this week, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/prince-charles-signs-up-big-business-to-save-planet-6kzvmwn82

The late US folk singer, Pete Seeger expressed it this way, “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.” 

Are leaders across the Northern Power Women network applying “the Seeger principle” to what they do?  If not, why not? 

The language of leadership lacks love

In 2011, Gary Hamel wrote an article entitled “The Hole in the Soul of Business”, from which I quote, “Here’s an experiment for you. Pull together your company’s latest annual report, its mission statement, and your CEOs last few blog posts. Read through these documents and note the key phrases. Make a list of oft-repeated words. Now do a little content analysis. What are the goals and ideas that get a lot of airtime in your company?  It’s probably notions like superiority, advantage, leadership, differentiation, value, focus, discipline, accountability, and efficiency. Nothing wrong with this, but do these goals quicken your pulse? Do they speak to your heart? Are they ‘good’ in any cosmic sense?

“Now think about Michelangelo, Galileo, Jefferson, Gandhi, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. What were the ideals that inspired these individuals to acts of greatness? Was it anything on your list of commercial values? Probably not. Remarkable contributions are typically spawned by a passionate commitment to transcendent values such as beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, charity, fidelity, joy, courage and honour.” 

If we are to evolve leadership style, is it in this vein that the change should occur?  We should be kinder to one another, which attribute of human character Roald Dahl described as its greatest quality.  We should not exploit people for our own gain, we should exploit their qualities, skills, and capabilities for the common good.  The recently passed civil rights activist and Congressman, John Lewis, campaigned peacefully throughout his life to cause “good trouble” so as to create the “beloved community”.  Check out “Walking with the Wind” or, on Sky Documentaries, John Lewis: Good Trouble.  Two hours sitting in front of the TV you will not regret.  Can NPW do more to provoke good trouble? 

Professor Roger Steare, see https://www.linkedin.com/in/rogersteare/, writes and speaks frequently about the word “love” not appearing a great deal in the business lexicon.  While I agree with Roger’s broad sentiment, we need to be careful which type of love we are talking about, see my blog https://www.tsp-uk.co.uk/general-leadership/danger-someones-said-i-love-work/

Of the seven styles of love Stephen Fry discovered in his studies of Ancient Greece, we appear to have a surplus of “Philautia”, i.e., love of self (at its strongest it turns a person orange). 

I would like some gin in my gin and tonic

Hopefully, anger or anxiety about a continuing patriarchy is not a reliable or rational reason to dismiss the original theories; their “genetic principles” are healthy.  Indeed, I know some Northern Power Women role models who cut their leadership teeth practising these principles and they continue to influence how they serve as leaders and develop new leaders. 

Kurt Lewin remarked, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Disappointingly, I find there is a tsunami of new, impractical ideas and concepts that are washing away the reliability and validity of the founding principles.  

How do we collectively determine what is merely superficial style rather than substance? What is, to use a contemporary word that will hopefully disappear from use soon, “fake”, what is reliable?  One behavioural competence that distinguishes good from mediocre leadership performance is “Critical Information Seeking”.  Exercising this behaviour enables you to affirm or dispel any twitch of doubt, be it in one’s nostrils or in the seat of your pants. 

One neat and effective filter is provided by this simple model[1].

Figure (1)

Applying this model helps sift the deluge of new theories.  Popularist, puerile and pedantic ideas do not transfer into leadership practice that creates, nurtures, and sustains an organisational climate that is psychologically safe, healthy, vibrant, inclusive, diverse, innovative, and genuinely stakeholder oriented.  Worryingly, I see the next bright, shiny, novel idea catching far too many leaders’ eyes like trinkets do jackdaws’. They quickly turn out to be pyrite rather than real gold.  Leadership must move beyond the puerile (thanks to Emma Baker-Langman, @allegedly_emma on Twitter, for coining this marvellous phrase).

My palate informs me that too many contemporary ideas about leadership are akin to a gin and tonic that has been split between two glasses, topped up with tonic, split again, topped up and this process of dilution repeated over and over until you might as well be sucking the ice cubes still floating in the original glass.  Any taste of the spirit of the original pragmatic principle has been lost.  I like to taste my gin! 

In my follow-up article, I will run through a baker’s dozen of valid and practical theories concerning organisational leadership that do not merit being dismissed. Instead, they should be understood and, more importantly, applied continuously. 


[1] Anderson, N., Herriot, P., & Hodgkinson, G.P. (2001).  The practitioner-research divide in Industrial, Work and Organizational (IWO) Psychology: where are we know, and where do we go from here? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 74, 391 – 411

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