But leadership IS a team role …

April 26, 2007

Employers are increasingly valuing team players over leaders, says a futurologist. But where does that leave team leadership? We look at the claim from a research perspective

In a BBC interview, BT Futorologist Ian Pearson says that employers are recognizing the virtues of interpersonal skills (sometimes called soft skills, and as a differentiator between masculine and feminine behavioral styles).
The impression left by the article, is that team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers. Also, that women are better team-players, and therefore also more valued by employers than are men. The arguments leading to such conclusions need a bit more examination.

The situation seems to have been reduced to some either-or propositions, such as ‘we either have to chose good leaders or good team players’. It also implies that there is a universalistic recipe out there. If a century of research into leadership has revealed anything, it is the absence of a theory of leadership that provides universal propositions. In other words, we might wish to study the hypothesis

H: team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers

[Or the form preferred in many research methods courses
H: team players are not becoming more valued than leaders by employers]

Either hypothesis when put to empirical testing will quickly be shown to be highly context dependent. At which stage, the researchers begin to mutter about ceterus paribus , or contingent variables, or in everyday terms ‘other things being equal; or ‘it all depends’ . Unfortunately, empirical research catches popular headlines more easily if it can be reduced to a simple statement. We have to work at the proposal to sort out the factors behind he assumptions. So let’s do a little more work on it.

Are team workers becoming more favoured over leaders by employers?

Yup, you guessed it – it all depends. It depends on what the statement means by leaders, team workers, and even (less ambiguously) by employers. It depends on the sorts of employment, and the sorts of team task. As stated, the issue can be tested. Are employers placing team working skills above leadership skills in making their selection and recruitment decisions? Has that become standard practice in BT, to take the specific case with which Professor Pearson is particularly familiar? What is the evidence that the same applies to other private sector organizations in our global marketplace?

For what it’s worth

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think is going on, and what sense I can make of it.
First, long-held views of leaders and followers have come under some scrutiny. The old ideas was that leader took the decisions, the followers carried them out. ‘Good’ followers ‘obeyed orders’, but you can see where I’m going there. More recently, this view lead to tricky dilemmas of leadership which have not gone away.

Among the most promising of attempts to deal with the dilemma of ‘followership’ was the search for methods of power-sharing, so that followers all had status differentials removed, and all became members of the same team. (I know a very large organization that actually banned the word ‘manager’ in the height of enthusiasm for a team-based approach). With empowerment came motivation, and the end of the economist’s bane, the economic free-rider. From that perspective it was an easy step to develop the idea of distributed leadership.

But what happens to the ‘old style leader’. This is where I think I can make common cause with the Pearson thesis. The weaknesses of the old style leader have been rumbled. The special one has to become a special team player. More than ever, in team work, the leader is nor more, and no less than a team player. And as such, the team player needs those desirable soft skills.


Creative Leadership: Ahmadinejad 1 British all-stars 0

April 16, 2007


The people have spoken. And they don’t like the decision to permit fifteen members of HM navy to be paid for stories of their mystery tour in Iran. But in the wider scheme of things the story reveals a lack of creativity from British political and military figures. This contrasts with the theatrical but effective performance from President Ahmadinejad of Iran

‘OK I made a mistake. It’s all my fault. I’ll resign. I’ll fall on my sword’

A state of near hysteria is reached in the political climate in the UK following the release this week of fifteen sailors from their unexpected visit to Iran. Under such conditions, groupthink favors a search for a scapegoat over more productive efforts.

In rapid time, the scapegoat was found in the shape of Defense Secretary Des Browne. And so it came to pass that he faces a very public trial in the House of Commons on Monday. Support from his own party will be calculatedly luke-warm. Attacks on Tony Blair and Gordon brown will be largely neutralized. I suggest that the episode has revealed a sad lack of creative leadership from the British side.

Too much like Chicken Little?

A few months ago an American economist suggested that the European view on climate change and global warming was too much like Chicken Little. We tended to dash around, crying out that the sky was falling in. I didn’t agree with that.

Chicken Little showed signs of clinical hysteria. The European stance on global warming seems more an understandable anxiety that there are too many in the global hen house in a state of denial.

But in this case, it is a bit more like Chicken Little, but with more and more creatures raising the alar, with little substantive cause.

“It’s a calamity” cried chicken Cameron.
“It’s a shambles” chirped chicken Chris Huhne.
“He’s made a terrible mistake” crowed chicken Simon Hughes
“Where was he when he should have been making a statement? ” piped up Portillo
“Heads must roll” chorused another group of chickens on the Downing Street squawk-line.

Creative Leadership

Creative leadership involves processes of thinking and acting in ways that are both effective and relatively unexpected. The process may be temporarily restricted to a bounded view of what is effective, excluding considerations of moral intent or action. If we accept such restrictions, there is no doubt that President Ahmadinejad (perhaps representing a wider group of Iranian leaders) demonstrated creative leadership, and no-one particularly did on the British side.

So should heads roll?

Beats me. Public opinion seems to be in line with politicians in outrage and lust for a victim. If Browne is humiliated, it is how our democracy works. We get the leaders we deserve, and can sometimes sooner than later dispose of leaders we feel have let us down.

How creative thinking might refocus attention

My preference is to work harder to find more imaginative and beneficial ideas. A well-established principle is to search widely and chose wisely. For example, the focus of political attention last week was essentially ‘How to get the sailors back safely with out major concessions’. The focus was on negotiation where negotiation was difficult. It seemed rather sensible.

This week the focus seems to have been ‘how to punish whoever allowed the sailors to sell their stories’. I would like to have seen more attention paid other ‘How to’ challenges:

How to change operational procedures so this sort of thing is less likely to happen again ..
How to communicate what has happened, effectively and without upsetting people.

Other suggestions please to the Admiralty and No 10 Downing Street …

It’s not all black farce

The developing story of the release of the sailors and marines was interwoven with other events with more tragic overtones. There were fatalities to British troops in the middle east on the very day of the release. There was more fatalities when two helicopters collided earlier today (Sunday April 15th 2007).

These are the events that we expect our politicians to be dealing with. Don’t we? We will hear predictable and widely shared expressions of regret and condolences for the families of the dead servicemen. I will watch for evidence of some creative leadership from the British political all-stars as the battle enters another phase in the House of Commons this week.

Planning a project, planning a wedding?

April 12, 2007

A student tells me she is planning her wedding using a mapping approach. Sounds a good idea for project planning as well

What Jane did before her wedding

Maybe it’s preserving her sanity as she completes an MBA and prepares for her wedding. Anyway, to help in planning her wedding Jane says she is using a mind-map that she came across in class.

I’ve been a big supporter of mapping complex projects since working with Tony Buzan, some years ago. Tony has introduced his mindmaps (Buzan Diagrams) to millions of people around the world.

Mind-maps team building and communicating

At the start of a project, a mind-map is a neat way of team-building and communicating. Maybe that’s why it works for a wedding, too. I still like the older methods of flipcharting, but there’s a lot to be said for a team working collaboratively on an electronic version.

The mind-mapping approach has been found popular all over the world. I remember a lively group of Singaporean students who particularly enjoyed the approach. They practiced it by drawing up a mind-map for one of their favorite hobbies (‘Shoppingla‘)

I’m not sure, but I think they also called the mind-maps spider diagrams, and the map-maker spider map woman.

Why not try mind mapping?

You can find plenty of examples of free mind-mapping through the web. And you may even find you can plan a wedding using them (best to involve two partners, and any other members of the supporting cast you feel you can cope with).

Here’s another wedding planner. With some creativity, you may be able to use the system for project planning as well …

Airbus chess battle reaches tense middle-game position

April 3, 2007

The Airbus chess battle reaches a tense middle-game position with both official and unofficial strikes across its European sites. If the corporate Power8 plan has failed to become a shared vision, neither has it become a common enemy against which resistance has been focused and mobilized.

The battle has elements of a multi-dimensional chess game. In France and Germany, Union-backed protests are putting pressure to bear on the works council of the company. In the UK, an unofficial strike was accepted as understandable, but not given formal Union backing. Even in France, two minor Unions did not support strike action, on the grounds that such action might make matters worse at the moment.

According to a BBC report

Workers from CGT and Force Ouvriere unions took part in the strike on the eve of Airbus’ works council meeting .. They marched behind a banner that said Airbus’s best-selling A320 plane should continue to be built in Toulouse … chanting “No to Power8,” an estimated 2,500 workers gathered at the aircraft maker’s headquarters in Toulouse .. One of Power8’s planned measures is for the plane to be built exclusively in Hamburg.
“We are treating [the works council] with caution and we intend to keep up the pressure,” a Force Ouvriere works council representative said.

This did not chime with my recollection of the company’s announcement of its Power8 restructuring plan, so I looked it up again.

The Airbus Power8 announcement

The Airbus Power8 announcement of 28th of February indeed seemed to be saying something different:

A third A320 Family FAL [Final Assembly Line] will be set up in Hamburg immediately to cope with the steep production ramp-up currently under way. This FAL will be established in already existing facilities and will have full type flexibility when demand for A320s exceeds rate 14 per month. The A320 will continue to be assembled in Toulouse up to 14 [per month]. Hamburg will also perform final assembly of the future New Single Aisle family.

Furthermore, in order to allow parts to be fitted in the most logical place to optimize the overall cycle time, some upstream preparatory A320 and A380 cabin installation work will be transferred from Hamburg to Toulouse.

Which suggests that the protesters at Toulouse know something different from the plans outlined by Louis Gallois, or they have been misled about what Power8 is all about.

Killer facts revisited

In an earlier post, I suggested that there were various killer facts associated with the problems at Airbus:

1 The mighty and innovative airbus 380 project has been mired in technological challenges (particularly over gigantic wiring problems) at the Toulouse plant.

2 The governance of EADS has been an extended story of struggle between French and German interests (in which the Franco-German co-leadership plays a part). British political influence disappeared after UK defense and aviation company BAE Systems announced its plans to sell 20% stake in Airbus to EADS last year.

My assessment of ‘blame’ over the wiring problems was based on UK reporting, and Der Speigel made it clear that the technology at Hamburg lagged behind that in Toulouse. However, the first killer fact remains, namely that Airbus faces technological challenges particularly over gigantic wiring problems. Furthermore, the struggle between French and German political interests continues.

Power8 seemed to be a strategy seeking to remedy the operational frailties of the company, while accommodating its multiple constituencies. Toulouse seems to be coming out of the proposed plans rather well. The strikes this week indicate just how difficult it is for corporate leaders to communicate such change initiatives so as to deflect anxieties and suspicions of a work-force under threat.

The evidence also suggests that there are disagreements among the various unions on the appropriate way to protest against the plans. If the corporate plan is not achieving that much-desired ‘shared vision’, then neither is there a common enemy around on which resistance has been able to focus.

While there is no clear winner emerging from the chess gave, it can hardly be called a stalemate either. It was what the famous Russian school of chess theorists taught was a position full of dynamic tension, requiring the most precise calculation to avoid sudden collapse of a carefully constructed position.

Virgin rail crash is a leadership challenge for Richard Branson and John Armitt

February 25, 2007

220px-richardbranson.jpgA crisis brings its particular leadership challenges. The Cumbrian rail crash has revealed the various kinds of challenges for the emergency service teams, as well as for the roles demanded of leaders, such as Virgin head Richard Branson and Network Rail’s John Armitt

The London to Glasgow Pendolino train derailed in a remote region of Cumbria late in the evening of Saturday 24th February 2007, killing one passenger and injuring another two dozen. The majority of the 120 passengers were relatively unscathed. The high speed train with its innovative tilting technology had been introduced successfully over the last few years. The scale of human loss could have been far greater, and this appears to confirm the claimed robustness of the structural design of the train. Failures to the track-maintenance appear to be the likely immediate cause of the accident. In times of crisis we look for leadership. So what happened?

Leadership visibility and contributions

Leader of the main rail union Bob Crow was one of the first to get to the site of the accident, and provide a statement for his members and the wider public. He indicated the preliminary evidence as pointing to points failure. There was some mild criticism of him for the statement prior to a more detailed investigation. Crow’s information turned out to reflect accurately the focus of investigation subsequently.

Richard Branson was reported as having cut short a holiday to get back to England and the scene of the crash. He also visited casualties in hospital. His statements were widely reported, and he spoke eloquently about the heroism of ‘his’ driver, Iain Black who was among the injured, as well as of the human suffering. He also conveyed the message that the design of ‘his’ train had been a major factor in minimizing the scale of suffering that occurred.

If Branson is seen as an energetic, empathic, decisive leader, Bob Crow should also receive accolades. Their involvement compares favourably visibility, decisiveness and efforts of political figures, and (it must be said) with the efforts of John Armitt, chief executive of Network Rail. He eventually provided a statement acknowledging that the accident may have occurred ‘on our watch’. As far as I am aware he was not reported as visiting the scene of the crash, or the hospitals. Earlier ‘on his watch’ he drew praise for his leadership during the Potters’ Bar crash. Mr. Armitt has a track-record as an empathic and hands-on leader, but it may not be coincidence that his retirement date has already been set for later in the year.

Even Mr Armitt’s modest contribution stands out in comparison to those of politicians who have been jostling for media attention this week. Is this the result of a calculated decision to keep away from the whole business? We will probably learn more in the coming days as a report of the accident comes out.

The Role of leaders

According to Weber, leaders traditionally drew authority from their acceptance as intermediaries of transcendental forces. They were indeed the chosen ones, or the special ones. Later, the chosen ones became accepted as having unchallengeable rights as leaders of tribes and nations. Weber developed his theorizing of charisma around such ideas. One relevant aspect of his ideas is the role of the leader in a crisis to bring comfort and reassurance.

More recently, political and management scientists such as Alan Bryman have been working out a new leadership model. His earlier work has been updated recently in a chapter on the post-charismatic era of leadership.

Bryman, with co-author Ken Parry, have marshaled considerable evidence indicating the limitations of the long-familiar notion of leader as heroic figure. They also draw attention to the way leadership is more of a shared (distributed) effect than was previously realized.

We defer elaboration of this to future posts. However, we note that researchers have become more concerned with the way in which leaders influence intentionally or unintentionally the cultural agenda. In terms we have been using, this involves production and consumption of cultural messages.

Assessing the leadership contributions

Richard Branson behaved according to expectations for a charismatic leader. He was decisive, empathic, and provided powerful images through the media. Bob Crow had less access to the media, and his impact was accordingly diminished in the eyes of the public. John Armitt may have made a peripheral impact (although his admission of possible culpability within his organization was a cut above the more common PR-mediated messages often resorted to by leaders fearful of admitting liability or weakness).

Weber’s broad ideas of a leader offering solace at times of crisis seem more convincing than the 1990s models of ransformational leaders offering powerful and uplifting visionary guidance.

Clearly there need be no either-or. However, the role of ‘just being there’ may have been under-estimated, as has the damaging impact of ‘not being there’


Update on Richard Branson planned for September 2014

Local pain, global protest for Burberry. Endgame?

February 15, 2007

Burberry announces the closure of a factory manufacturing its polo shirts. The story has familiar features to it. The factory is the main source of jobs in the former mining village of Treorchi, in South Wales. After a local campaign which attracted celebrity support, the factory closes. (Updated posting)


Today a local community completed the first stage of its grieving over the loss of the Burberry manufacturing site. The march by the workers from the gates of the factory was accompanied by many from the community and the internationally celebrated choir associated with the village. The action was in the first instance for those directly affected, and caught out the media circus that had pitched up to witness the event.

Not for the first time, I remember the words of Dylan Thomas

Do not gentle into that good night..

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

The Original post

The closure comes as a shock to the community. The high-profile company had been recording successful financial returns, and had been expanding internationally. A well-organized campaign seeks to reverse the company’s closure decision.

Burburry has been around for a century and a half, during which time its products have become associated with a special aspect of British cultural life, the Establishment as fashion- setters. Its high profile brand image and its luxury clothes and accessories can be found wherever celebrities and gentry gather together. Even its recent embrace by members of that recently identified sociological group the chavs seems somehow an inevitable if unhelpful endorsement of its essential Britishness.

Over the last few months, a high-publicity story has developed after the company announcing its intentions of closing its factory manufacturing polo shirts, in South Wales, with the intention to shift manufacturing to China. The reaction against the decision quickly grew, and gained support from a range of celebrity figures (with rumours that a certain member of he Royal Family with Welsh connections was far from pleased with the decision).

To assess the developing story, a little history will not go amiss. Burberry was founded in 1856 by the young Thomas Burberry, an ambitious Draper’s assistant. By the 1870s the firm had specialized in clothing for outdoor pursuits catering to the well-off to such good effect that its wares became increasingly fashionable. Thomas strengthened his reputation through his invention and patenting of gabardine with its unique characteristics of water resistance and yet moisture permeability. By the turn of the century Burberry was providing extreme climate gear for intrepid Arctic and Antarctic explorers. In the First World War, the thriving firm supplied British Officers with trench coats, an item that has been reinvented as a fashion item ever since. The famous Nova plaid pattern arrived in the 1930s, emerging from its discrete location as a lining for those elegant military trench coats.

In 1955, the firm was acquired by Great Universal Stores, the conglomerate that had developed from the Manchester based mail-order business of Abraham and George Rose founded in 1900, and transformed since the 1930s, by Isaac Wolfson into one of the great British institutions and the source of wealth of the Wolfson foundation.

For several decades Burberry retained its increasingly plaid and staid image until the late 1990s with the arrival of a dynamic American fashion expert. Rose Marie Bravo had been a well-regarded President of the Saks Fifth Avenue fashion outfit, having worked her way up the firm. She brought additional wide fashion experience to Burberry, and and succeeded in transforming the brand using top models such as Kate Moss, and Footballer David Beckham. In should be added that fashion insiders considered that another important factor was the contributions from the top fashion designer Christopher Bailey whom she head hunted from Gucci in 2001. http://www.bockinfo.com/041116postcard.htm Share value was to increase eight fold in five years.

[A leadership note: Aside from the main story, the changes at Burberry offer plenty for the student of leadership. Attempts to explain the changes as coming from a superleader seem less convincing than approaches involving a complex mix of leadership roles, i.e. distributed leadership]

Corporate Governance at Burberry

In 2003, one of the earliest of shareholder protests in the UK was led by The National Association of Pension Funds (a pressure group) against the financial package agreed by Burberry with its American CEO. The arrangement would have paid her in excess of £13 million on dismissal. The NAPF made it clear that they had no concerns about Bravo’s remuneration, and her high worth to the company. Their concern was the lack of performance incentives in the overall package. RMB was clearly an extremely valued asset to the company. In retaining their prize asset, Chairman John Peace said at the time that the group was aware that some aspects of its executive pay policy “might be construed not as best practice from a UK perspective”.

The Difference for Treorchi

By that time, there had been repeated stories that GUS (as it had renamed itself) was preparing Burberry for its sale. And so the spin-off from GUS took place, in late 2005, followed by the decision to close the Treorchi factory.

The economic argument was made that the Polo shirts produced in Wales were costing nearly three times as much as they would if manufactured in China. This has been a familiar story as countless manufacturing jobs have been lost to the Far East over the last decades. Why should this be different?

Several factors are deployed by the vigorous campaign against the decision, which attracted widespread celebrity support and which spread internationally. First, the firm continued to report growing profits, and the Factory in Wales could not be shown to be making a loss for the group. That alone has not protected units from dismemberment within a company under pressures to achieve ‘the numbers’. Here, however, the Company brand rests on its unique heritage, the quality of its goods, and their Britishness. Will this brand image survive a campaign pointing to the willingness of the Company to source overseas? M&S grasped that nettle some years ago, and the decision may or may not have contributed to its subsequent bumpy financial ride.

Corporate social responsibility

Another factor may also come into play. In reading the current report from Burberry I was struck by the Corporate effort to address matters of Corporate responsibility. It has strengthened its executive efforts in this area. The Keep Burberry British campaign on its home webpage simply let the Burberry statement on Corporate Responsibility speak for itself.

‘ For Burberry, corporate social responsibility (“CSR”) involves considering those social, environmental and ethical issues that if managed improperly could pose a threat to the Group’s assets, reputation and the Burberry brand.. Michael Mahony, the Company Secretary, is responsible for CSR matters and chairs the CSR committee which meets regularly ..[The company is dedicated to] maintaining acceptable labour, environmental and social practices in the Group’s supply chain, and to providing a working environment that is conducive to the recruitment and retention of the widest possible range of talented staff, and which is a safe and healthy place to work …New members of the CSR committee in 2005 include a dedicated CSR Manager, focused on ethical supply chain issues, the Director of Audit and Risk Assurance and a Quality Assurance and Supply Operations Manager. The Group continues to draw support from a team of external CSR advisers’.

A critical theory perspective

Reading the company report I had been struck by the corporate claims of social responsibility. Many social scientists are turning to critical theory to explain such behaviour. Writers such as David Collins and David Boje would have a field day starting from an examination of the Burberry CSR statement. It struck me as one that will require a great deal of explaining by the Corporate PR agents (and its leaders). Increasing it is a web-based issue of campaigning interest, and one that is coming more and more to public attention.