Graeme Yell: Spring has sprung – it’s time to throw out the pessimism

Our management guru confronts leadership naysayers and invites spring in with all of its good feeling

At the time of writing, spring seems to be in the air. I happened to mention this to a client yesterday who said “oh, don’t worry, it’ll get worse again!”

Now I realise that he is probably right – there will no doubt be more grim weather to come before we feel that we are fully out of winter. However, there is a point about pessimism too. As well as being a spectacularly unattractive trait in a person, there is a dark side to institutional or cultural pessimism. But more of that later…

Today’s special subject is leadership. In fact I write about leadership in every column but nobody has complained yet so I’ll keep going. It also happens to be (in my view at least) the metaphorical marmite on the toast of all social systems. I use the comparison deliberately as, like the extraordinary yeasty stuff, leadership polarises opinions (and indeed actions) – it can create or destroy value, motivate or disenchant, do good or evil. 

There are many common misconceptions about leadership.

On an incredibly increasing basis, I hear people (including some very senior leaders) telling me “leadership doesn’t matter”; “it’s a ‘nice to have’”; “it isn’t measurable”; “you can’t get better at it”; “people are motivated by money not by leadership”, the list goes on and on. I don’t know about you, but I feel sorry for people who work for a leader like this.

On that note, I’ve had a series of meetings recently with ‘high growth businesses’.

In my experience (with a few, fabulous exceptions) these are companies where these beliefs can be particularly prevalent – there’s an underlying acceptance that being aggressive/getting results at whatever cost is more important and effective than anything as ‘fluffy’ as trying to take other people with you.

When you think about it, the underlying arrogance of this point of view is astonishing.

Effectively it’s like saying “it doesn’t matter how nasty I am to my people; we will get results and success whatever it takes, and that is all that counts”. There’s an implicit assumption that the organisation could not be improved through better leadership, or higher levels of motivation; or at the very least that the cost of any efforts to create these would outweigh the benefits of any successes. 

How can any rational person cling to this belief?

Try thinking about the best boss you ever had, compared to the worst – and the difference you experienced.

Everyone knows that they worked harder and were more productive for the better boss – and, significantly, enjoyed their job more. Why is it okay to ignore this (or deny it altogether) just because you happen to be part of a business which is growing fast?

Undoubtedly organisational growth creates specific ‘stretch’ challenges as leaders deal with increasing areas of responsibility; but that is not a good enough excuse to ignore some fundamental truths. It’s like claiming that colours don’t really exist just because you only wanted to buy a black and white printer.

‘Sustainability’ is a trendy word with lots of interpretations; in leadership terms it means creating lasting high performance from teams and organisations. Leaders who don’t do this, or organisations whose cultures ignore or demean the importance of leadership, are “swimming naked”, as Warren Buffett would have it – it works for as long as the tide (of growth, or of willing recruits) is high.

I saw some excellent research from Norma Cohen of the FT the other day about falling UK productivity per employee – and indeed I am currently doing some research on declining levels of leadership in UK organisations. Watch out, all you skinny-dippers!

So, given my earlier comments about pessimism, am I being (yet another) prophet of doom? (It’s a pretty crowded field these days with all the misery in the media, surveys, polls and forecasts of every description).

No, I’m not. I have a deep belief in the ability of leaders to grow, and do a better job, and faith that organisations who haven’t realised this already will do soon. Let’s do away with pessimism of all sorts though. Yes, there might be some rubbish weather ahead (in fact, it’s raining now) but this is going to be an amazing year for London and the UK, in all sorts of ways.

Graeme is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, specialising in leadership and talent management. He is a passionate advocate for the role leaders can (and should) play in business and society, and likes to spend his spare time socialising, cycling, and thinking.

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