Sometimes it’s not what you say that counts or even should be counted; what you don’t say can be incredibly more effective in producing the optimum result Leadership still draws more opinions, words and books than almost any other subject in the world of business. Effective leadership involves a variety of styles matched to the needs of the situation, the nature of the team and, not least of all, the makeup of the leader. Yet despite this, the picture painted of the average leader is that of the powerful, thrusting individual, soundbite opinions flowing, forcing the direction towards the desired result.
One of the great leadership learning experiences that took place during my mid career years concerned a situation that frankly gave me real pause for thought and sleepless nights up front. When I became managing director of one of the major firms in this particular industry, I joined the industry trade association and sat on the governing council (comprising some 16 CEOs of the largest members). I had been a little over-awed not only as the youngest member on council but being the only one who had not spent his entire career in that same industry, I had been talked down to and treated very much as the junior. So, having kept a low profile for the first couple of years was then astonished to be asked to take up the role of president. At first I couldn’t work out what had raised my profile to warrant the appointment. But by the time I made my acceptance speech and took the chain of office in one of London’s oldest clubs and with a Government Minister as my guest, I had worked out what lay behind my appointment.
Long held, polarised and explosive views were held across the membership on a range of partisan issues. The association (which set technical standards for the whole industry and ran a highly effective parliamentary lobby group) was facing a particularly critical issue at the time that threatened to pull the association apart. I perceived that none of my largest competitors (which were and still are household names) wished to be seen to preside over an issue that could be a PR disaster for them. On the other hand, there were a large number of member firms in the association holding the opposing view. An additional and uncomfortable fact was that the CEO of my largest UK competitor sat alongside my boss (our European President) on the board of a joint venture company in Italy. I had already experienced the effects of some highly misleading information that had been fed to my boss via this relationship. Had I been elected as a scapegoat? Was I being set up to fail? Would the whole process be represented to my boss as a calamitous failure on my part?
Deciding on a policy of diplomacy for my year of office, I felt I had to ensure that all views on the subject should be heard and taken into account before a decision was made. I had clear views of my own as to which route the association should take but reasoned that making these views known was only going to make my task harder. And, anyway, I calculated that my company could exist equally well under whatever regime emerged. Attempting to force my views on council was not going to work given my image as the outsider who was believed to know less of the industry than anyone else around the table. Therefore I decided that the process should take priority, be seen to be inclusive and fair and should lead to whatever the membership ultimately decided.
I ran my council meetings in the classic chairman’s style, ensuring all views were fully explored but never revealing a viewpoint of my own. I found that by a policy of correct process, questioning and ensuring everyone’s’ opinions were sought, all relevant opinions and options could be uncovered. I carried this process through to the wider membership travelling to regional meetings up and down the country where I again chaired the meetings to ensure that every aspect of the subject was explored and again never taking sides. I also ensured that I held one-to-one meetings with the holders of the most entrenched views (large and small companies), always travelling to meet them in their own offices. At the end of the year when the time came for a decision, the vote was almost unanimous with everyone feeling their view had been heard, considered and the right decision made.
One surprising and pleasing outcome for me was that several of those who had held some of the most rigid views at the outset felt able to cross over to the opposing side without losing face. Additionally, the few members who voted against the final decision, came to me and said that although disappointed they felt that the process had been fair and the decision was one they could support.
In the course of my career I have certainly been faced with a very wide variety of situations including those where I had to demonstrate clear and decisive leadership. However, looking back I gain immense pleasure from my time as the industry association’s president because it gave me the chance to be a quiet leader; one who found that seeking out all views, really listening and trusting the team could, in those particular circumstances, produce a sound result (and one that has endured the intervening years). It’s a technique I’ve returned to many times when the circumstances warranted and it has invariably worked.