Dec 15 2021| Leadership | leaders | Values
by Phil Eyre Leaders' Founder
A case study in how not to lead
In Phil Eyre’s most recent Business Brief article, he describes a case study in how not to lead. He focuses on James, who had worked for BZA Funds for most of his career. He’d started as a junior, rising to become team leader. At the beginning of the year, he had been promoted to the prestigious Managing Director role. Carly, the inspiring, outgoing Managing Director, had offered him the following advice at her well-attended drinks party:
‘James, remember that the leading role is not about controlling the outcomes, it’s about propelling the people - our people, our clients, anyone who interacts with the company - forward with vision and courage into uncertainty and ambiguity. Controlling the future is an illusion, despite our desire for certainty. The amazing thing is this: opportunity lies far more in ambiguity than certain, fixed outcomes.’
Felicity, a team leader in the business, had overheard this speech and observed as James nodded knowingly. Unfortunately, she hadn’t realised that James didn’t understand Carly at all, his enthusiasm informed more by the company car and share options that went with his new role.
A year on and it was clear: James was a control-specialist.
Felicity had enjoyed his mentoring oversight when working on projects. He had helped her to achieve deadlines, trained her well in the company’s processes and spotted her occasional errors. They had pulled ‘all-nighters’ to remedy some poor housekeeping in a recently acquired business, spurring each other along and enjoying solving the errors as the ‘RAG’ sheet gradually switched from alarming red to glorious green.
But since his promotion to Managing Director, Felicity’s working relationship with James had deteriorated. He seemed permanently frustrated with her. He was interfering in everything she did and was unappreciative and hyper-critical. It was as if James’s anxiety was cascading down to her. The whole team - in fact the whole firm - felt it. Previously exciting team meetings had become low in energy, with increasing numbers excusing themselves. The icing on top of the cake was when James publicly shot down another team leader for suggesting that client take-on processes could be improved. That was enough for Felicity to shuffle her idea for improving the website quietly under her meeting papers, instead offering a quiet shake of the head when invited to offer her thoughts to the meeting.
James was letting his team and the wider company down by:
‘There doesn’t seem much point to the work I do anymore,’ Felicity mused, wondering why her passion for creating great experiences for the company’s clients had evaporated. At that point, James swept into Felicity’s office, clearly exasperated. Before she had a chance to speak, James flung the quarterly risk report on her desk. ‘They cannot be serious!’ he exclaimed. ‘I need you to get these numbers changed and changed now!’ Felicity sought to convey that the facts were, well, facts but to no avail: it was clear that James wasn’t interested. He muttered something that Felicity couldn’t quite hear as he left her office, eyes glued to his phone, messaging someone else furiously.
Felicity decided to take the action that she’s been putting off for weeks. She pulled her prepared resignation letter from her drawer, dated it, signed it and phoned James to ask for a chat. ‘No time,’ he said, and hung up. ‘No surprise,’ she thought as she left her letter on his desk, the third that he would receive that week.
As Felicity left the office, she walked past the giant poster displaying the company’s three values. ‘Innovation, Curiosity and Autonomy’ were proudly displayed with a flourish. ‘Yeah right,’ Felicity said as she closed the door for the last time.
What we can learn from this case study is this; that the control-specialist traits that might make for successful task management do not translate well into a leadership role. Effective leadership is inspiring, adaptable, people-focused and enabling, not controlling. The good news is that leaders who are willing to learn can put the steps in to make this transition, often emerging some of the most effective leaders that we work with.