There have always been leaders who get people to follow them – presumably through sheer force of personality rather than by inclusive behaviour. That can be evidenced in a number of ways. However I was reflecting the other day on one in particular who demonstrated the latter approach. General Sir Martin Farndale KCB was a senior officer in the British Army in the 1980s. More relevant was the impact he had on those under his command. For someone who eventually rose to become Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine his ability to engage with all levels under him was a joy to observe.
Unlike many of his ilk he didn’t operate by diktat – preferring a more inclusive behaviour. The result was a spectacular improvement in the morale of his own officers which flowed down through the ranks. Men believed in what he had to say because they felt connected with what he was trying to achieve through their efforts. This was all the more impressive when considering the backdrop of uncertainty in the politico-military sphere of the time. Iranian hostage-taking; conflict in Lebanon; Irish terrorism and a huge question mark over where the Soviet bloc was headed.
So what lessons does this inclusive behaviour offer to C-suite individuals today?
Farndale bothered to take time to find out what people thought. He mingled and discussed as an equal with soldiers many ranks below his status. In turn this meant they trusted his judgement. On one memorable occasion he was chairing a conference of his Divisional Artillery Officers in Lübbecke and walked into the conference room a little late on the first morning. The reason was that he had been listening to the news. Overnight the US Special Forces had entered Iran in a botched attempt to rescue their Embassy Hostages – crashing a couple of helicopters in the process. At 9am the whole of the British Army in Germany was put on alert pending clarification of just what the Soviet Union might do in response. Farndale’s opening remarks drew everyone’s attention to the dilemma and were followed immediately by “and now – what are we here for?” He was so evidently in control of the situation that nobody panicked. By coffee-break there was plenty of animated discussion but the assembled delegates knew their boss. They knew if he wasn’t overtly worried they had no need for concern.
Now think through how a similar scenario played out in the commercial world.
When the twin towers were attacked in September 2001 I was at a day-conference with a client in Manchester. The subject was a reworking of a core part of their proposition – equivalent in some ways to the content of the aforementioned military conference. The side-effect of world news was rather different. In Manchester there wasn’t the same degree of confidence in the senior management and the day’s efforts went largely astray as minds focused on the TV screens in the bar areas. But they should have been thinking about the impact of their own processes on their own business which was in trouble. Lack of inclusive behaviour generally meant that a large proportion of the staff didn’t understand where they were headed or why. In truth that was one of the reasons I was there but this very dramatic sequence of events highlighted it in ways previously not imagined. The C-suite were simply not inclusive by nature. The effort needed to bring staff on-side was proportionately higher at a time when resource was already stretched.
As a result of the ensuing lack of focus on matters in hand the divisional director was sacked for failing to deliver. The lesson is obvious. Be inclusive. And if you aren’t by nature – then do something about it.