Showing leadership

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I recently took part in an Emerging Leaders course at the University of Sydney. In order to be selected, I had to write an old-fashioned essay examining how leaders strike the  balance between focussing on financial outcomes and tolerance in the workplace. I tried to approach the topic through my experience as a journalist, especially considering what makes a good media manager.

I think the topic of leadership in media is particularly interesting so shortly after the scandal surrounding Roger Ailes at Fox News in the USA. As journalism continues to change at a blinding pace, the media business needs strong, sensitive leaders, who know how to deal with different types of problems. 

Here’s my attempt at getting to the nub of what is important:

A strict focus on only financial outcomes is an old fashioned approach to business leadership which can breed short-term thinking and a lack of sustainability. At the same time, a leader having a tolerant attitude can have good and bad ramifications for a company, depending on what that behaviour actually entails. Instead, it’s better to adopt a flexible approach, to be the type of leader that the situation demands. 

When a business leader focuses purely on financial outcomes, it can bring short-term gains, but also long-term pain. The extreme example of Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap shows what can happen when a CEO’s focus on the ‘bottom line’ is too strong. Dunlap developed a reputation in the United States in the 80s and 90s of ruthlessly downsizing struggling companies to turn them around. His focus on profits had catastrophic effects on company morale and history will record him as one of the worst executives of all time.

While a company’s end result is to make profits for stakeholders, a leader is better served focussing on the business’ purpose. Most of the time in Australia’s service-driven economy this is about pleasing your customers – this is the same if you are a restaurant, a construction company or a tech startup. If those consumers don’t keep coming, your business won’t last long. As a leader, it’s your role to guide your employees in a way that will see them engage and retain the most customers they can. Then, the financial outcome should (more or less) take care of itself.

As a leader, a tolerant attitude towards everything can work well, or not so well, depending on how you define tolerance. Is it about acceptance of difference, or just indifference?

Times are changing in the business world. Millennials – with a new set of priorities – are showing up en masse in the workforce, while corporations are growing a moral conscience as they notice humankind’s impact on the environment and society. Showing an appreciation of the interests and preferences of your employees, will make them happier in the workplace and therefore more likely to pull in your direction. This could mean approving measures voted for by them, like installing areas at work to relax or regular work outings.

But, if a leader’s tolerance spills over into indifference towards the company’s employees or purpose, then the outcomes are likely to be catastrophic. If you let your workers come to work wearing whatever they want, but they regularly have to interact with customers face-to-face, then it’s a recipe for disaster. Also, flexible work time starts are not appropriate at a production line facility. A leader’s tolerance needs to be something that corresponds with the company’s purpose.

When it comes to a company’s public image, a leader can play an important role by showing he or she really cares about something, too. Engaging in the environmental or societal impact of your company is something that could mean more to your customers than the price of your products. This relates to the leader’s role as a figurehead and is especially relevant in the era of the internet and social media, as rumours about companies and their behaviour can spread quickly amongst consumers.

Perhaps the best definition of leadership is that it is always changing. Daniel Goleman wrote in the Harvard Business Review that there are six main styles of leadership – coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and coaching. He argued that each style stemmed from different components of emotional intelligence.

The affiliative approach, for example, where a leader values individuals more than tasks or goals, is best used when trying to build team harmony, Goleman says. An authoritative style, characterised by enthusiasm and clear vision, most often leads to positive outcomes, while the coercive approach should be used only rarely. But Goleman adds, they all have their place and no style should be used exclusively.

In my view, top leadership will see employees join the leader on the business’ journey, so they are loyal and embody the company’s purpose, thereby passing this on to customers or to their work. To do that effectively as a leader you need to think on your feet, be flexible and inventive, but most importantly, make employees see your way of thinking.

As one wise ex-CEO once said to me: Leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do, because they think it’s a good thing.

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