Leadership, Schmeadership.

Preston Bottger is Professor of Leadership and General Management at IMD. For 25 years he has combined teaching, research and consulting in leadership development and strategy execution. Before joining IMD, Preston Bottger was Professor of the Practice of Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke.  His recent book (editor) is “Leading in the Top Team”, Cambridge University Press, 2008. His current research interests are focused on “how individuals develop various capacities for leadership in the context of their organization’s strategy”.

And here he was at the Swiss Embassy in London addressing about 100 of us – a mix of young thrusting IMD alumni, senior executives, professional networkers and some rubbernecks like me.

He’s tall, eager, vulture looking (viz. bald and hungry) and very keen on the kind of interaction he does so well but which I find so irritating…”so what’s in front of you? Paper…yes…good…white paper…yes, yes….paper with nothing on it…’nothing on  it’…’nothing on it’… does that strike a chord with you? …naked…oh yes…nude…better…sex…oh now we’re getting there…sex…oh yes, now we’re on song…excuse me.”

He’s very good at what he does, highly rated but his premise starts and ends

  1. In the past…this is how leadership used to be – I’ll call this the Hitler School of leadership so we know where we’re coming from and
  2. In the corporate world of the USA  – where Chairman and CEO truly is only one figure and is  like Mr. President in whom a kind of god-like sanctity is invested

Let’s review what he told us and what it provoked in me…I’m in bold mostly.

  1. How do you lead a business for up to thirty years without keeling over?
    By keeping a calm, low profile. By never losing one’s sense of humour. By staying ordinary.
  2. Leadership definition: “having responsibility for other people’s lives and money”.
    Not bad. Worrying about your people and their families comes top. And if anyone mentions fiduciary duty I’ll punch them.
  3. There is no model that fits all leaders…you need to find your own leadership voice. To do this if you want to be a leader you need to invest 6-8 hours every month of your working life reading, thinking and being mentored on the subject.
    Yes. The cheapest and best way of staying ahead is being mentored by someone who reads, abridges and teaches latest management theory. Also someone whose main aim is to make you feel good and confident.
  4. You must know what you, personally really stand for because the higher you go the tougher it gets and the more ruthless and self interested your peers and stakeholders will be
    Enjoy the game or it’ll get you. Never stop smiling. See above re mentors.
  5. In a well run company a lot of leadership doesn’t actually need to happen.
    So utterly true. We are over regulated, over bureacratised, over managed. Light touch is the key. But be ruthless with mavericks or they’ll kill you.
  6. People divide into many groups but the people who visit an IMD or Duke divide into instructive niches:- Prisoners; Tourists; Learners (critical ones –‘why’ merchants) and creative ones (‘what if’ merchants).
    If you say so Preston…Preston what sort of name is that. Preston North End…but I ramble.
  7. Big question: what happens to people on the way up? Or what will you be like aged 70 ? Mr or Mrs Cynic or Mr and Mrs Denial. Victor Meldrew or slightly rusting Iron Man? What in short does 10, 20 or 30 years of criticism, resistance and subversion do to you?
    It’s about never taking yourself too seriously and always trying to make the place where you are better in all respects than when you arrived. As regards the politics shrug and tease them…it’s only business.
  8. Next big question (actually same big question asked differently) “what is the deal you have with your company and with your ‘future self’?”
    Sententious nonsense. Follow Jack Lemmon’s dictum: “when you get to the top send the elevator down for the other guys”. The only deal is the legacy you leave. Period.
  9. At 40 we are ½ way through our lives and our working lives. This is the time to review and plan what we really, really want.
    I’m finishing my working life (in theory). In fact I’ll never stop. Much too much fun sitting here on the bench, having an occasional kick and laughing at the antics on the field.
  10. Imagine the concept of the ever raised bar. As a promising high jumper the challenge is fun up to 5 feet and then the potential leader will ask “what resources will you give me to do this never ending increased target?”
    Use every legal, ethical strategy to improve. Stop being an egoist. The big word today is “we” not “I”.
  11. Is workaholism such a bad thing? Depends on your view of humanity.
    Fact is some of the most powerful people are workaholics. Love work. Love life. Today the word is “bleisure” – where there’s no break between leisure and business.
  12. Are dealers born or made is simply not a useful conversation.
    That’s what he said…so we moved on. I commend this to you as a conversational killer and I’d remind you I don’t find conversation a useful practice. This could catch on.
  13. Isn’t it true, asked one  who described himself (with pinpoint self knowledge) as an annoying interruptor, that in a rapidly changing world you need a different style of leadership
    Yes it is. “We” not “I”; team not leader; coach not headmaster.
  14. Two leadership definitions:-
    • “Leadership is about the capacity to create new behaviours”
    • “Leaders make things done that must be done but aren’t being done which everyone agrees are important to be done”.

    I hate these. How about “leaders inspire people about the possibilities of the future and make all their people perform better than anyone expected. Above all they make this a place in which people want to get involved and where working is fun?

  15. Final statement from a 40 year old UBS executive. “I’m 40. My best man is the same age. He works for Accenture very stressed running a division of 4000 people. I have no one working for me. We both earn the same. Should I worry about lacking leadership experience and skills?”
    Unless you manage people you’ll never get a line job (if you wanted it) but whatever you do (Private Banking as it happens) involves customer service at a high level…maybe time to start coaching a team to have your skills; maybe time to send that elevator down.

It was an interesting evening but one felt as though one was being drawn into a theological debate about the desirability of a career as a leader…a masonic group earning merit badges and being put in charge of commercial empires for increasing unrefusable sums of money.Prestonsaid “imagine looking out of your chateau” and that did it for me. After all “who wants to be a millionaire?” Oh, OK quite a lot of you do.

How about this to add to the above? The new type of leader we need today is the sort who can get an increasingly diverse and questioning group of people to use their brains and efforts to the utmost in pursuing an agreed common objective.

Think of it like this. Leaders are like butlers in big mansions which Generation Y are taking over.Butlersare old fashioned, ridiculous (often), sometimes useful and have a deep sense of history. They also understand today’s great and much needed skill. Customer service.

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