There are believed to be more than 15,000 books presently in print on the subject of leadership. It is extraordinary, therefore, that so many people currently in positions of political, corporate and public prominence appear not to have read any of them. This depressingly long list includes senior figures in Whitehall who continue to fail to recognise their responsibility for breaking lockdown regulations which they were willing to impose on others, a chief executive who sacks hundreds of staff members by video call and then informs a House of Commons Select Committee that he was well aware that he was probably acting outside the law and a Hollywood actor who should be a role model in society at large but is apparently incapable of elementary personal control at an event watched by millions.
The ironic counter-example, and it is a very substantial one, is that at exactly the same time as all of these instances of profoundly deficient leadership have been observed, there has been a stellar case study of how to conduct yourself as a leader and it has come from a former professional comedian.
What the Equity FD Blog wonders can we learn from all this and what does it mean for business?
There are probably many potential answers to this question but here is one possible solution.
It is that all of the millions of words which must run across those 15,000 plus volumes on leadership can perhaps be crushed down to three fundamental principles.
The first is the ability to distinguish between self-interest and the public interest and to subordinate the former to the latter.
The second is the capacity to personify your cause in a manner that is credible to other people.
The third is that creating the right culture comes before setting the right strategy, not the reverse.
Voldymyr Zelensky illustrates these arguments magnificently. There have been many miscalculations made within the Kremlin in advance of the decision to launch a full-scale invasion of the Ukraine but among the most basic was the assumption that the moment it was evident that tanks were heading in the direction of Kyiv, the response of President Zelensky, his Government and his wider entourage would be to abandon their posts and run for safety, probably with half the country’s gold reserves stuffed in a few suitcases. This would, after all, clearly be in their own immediate self-interest. It is what has happened so many times before when it is clear that a regime is about to fall (such as in Afghanistan last August) or that a nation is about to be conquered (Saddam Hussein, Iraq, 2003).
The President of Ukraine did not, though, place his self-interest ahead of the public interest. The public interest was that he stayed put, even if it placed himself in considerable danger. Churchill’s memorable speeches in the depths of 1940 would not have had the same effect if they had been delivered by radio from Canada. This awful episode might still end tragically for Mr Zelensky but his first decision, to remain where he was, provided the platform for him to offer others leadership.
Which he has done by sticking true to the second and third principles outlined earlier. He has shown the capacity to personify his cause in a manner that is credible to other people. Much of this is the result of rhetoric and symbolism, to be sure, but rhetoric and symbolism have always been at the heart of effective leadership. He has astutely combined very simple moves (largely discarding suits and ties for the green battlefield clothing that he is asking others to don to defend their country) with an extremely sophisticated social media operation. He had won the war for hearts and minds elsewhere long before his compatriots proved to be highly effective at pushing back the long line of tanks which at one stage seemed set to overwhelm their capital city. He may well need to pivot his message as the conflict enters a new stage, with the Russians having been obliged to focus on taking the east of Ukraine while attacking the rest from a distance, but he will find the words to do that.
This can be stated with such confidence because he has understood – unlike British political figures, rogue corporate executives and egotistical actors – that creating the right culture has to precede setting the right strategy.
This is not an especially original observation. The phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” has been around for a very long time as has the debate as to whether it was really the management guru Peter Drucker who first said it (the documentary evidence for this is thin but it sounds like the sort of sentence that he might have articulated). Yet the importance of it is consistently underrated. When matters end up coming off the rails whether it be in politics, in a company or the social sphere, it is invariably because a culture has been so corroded and corrupted that no amount of new strategy, even that devised by the most expensive sections of the consultancy community, can save it.
A shrewd venture capitalist is at least as interested in the people as the proposition in an early-stage company before deciding whether or not to invest in them. The people at the top (the leadership) shape the culture. That culture incubates strategic choices. Strategic choices will establish outcomes. That can be seen so starkly right in front of us. Zelensky and Ukraine are now in a place where they will win even if they lose. Putin and Russia, by contrast, are now destined to lose even if they win.
What should all of this mean for the humble Chair, CEO or CFO of a company? Quite a lot really. For a start this Q1 2022 crash course in what is not and what is effective leadership has reduced the need to work through 15,000 books (although some of them will still be worth the time) or pay excessive sums for outside experts at the upcoming summer team away day (but again some of them will add value). As a discipline, however, something akin to the three principles set out here are worth considering. Are we certain that as a board we are acting not in our self-interest but the wider interest? We might have a slogan, an ethos, a mission statement but are we sure that we are personifying that cause with sufficient credibility? Have we thought deeply enough about creating the culture that has to come before our strategy? Do we have the right people to shape the culture? If the candid retort is “no”, then do we have the courage to admit this and to correct it? You cannot just hope that a Zelensky will turn up as a leader at the right time. You have to make it happen.