The ‘ART’ of Leadership

Aug 2, 2019

Charles and Nick are both alumni of the University of Manchester, Alliance Manchester Business School.  For a recent programme that they both contributed to, they recorded an interview with each other on the nature of Leadership.

The interview was turned into an article with an introduction to both of us: we have left the interview very much as it was when it was published on the Business School website.

Vice Admiral Charles Style CBE

Charles is Executive-in-Residence at Alliance MBS and regularly contributes to Executive programmes at the Business School.  After university at Cambridge, Charles joined the Royal Navy, commanding five ships, including the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious on operations, and later the United Kingdom’s maritime force.   He rose to Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for operations in 2006.  His interest in education continued as Commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.  He came to Manchester to study on our Advanced Management Course designed for ex-military leaders transitioning to civilian jobs and was subsequently invited to be one of our Executives-in-Residence.  He is a Visiting Research Fellow at Kings College, London and previously a member of the Advisory Board of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.  He is a Trustee and Vice-Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Foundation for Disabled People and contributes to a number of other charities.  He edited and contributed to a book “In Business and Battle’ which draws out international leadership themes cross-sector.

Dr Nick Clifford, MBA, PhD

Dr Nick Clifford is a Senior Fellow in Executive Education at AMBS and directs the Manchester Leadership Development Programme.

Following an invitation to speak to the Manchester Leadership Development Programme about key issues involved in gaining trust in leadership Charles shared some stories from his time commanding naval vessels with diverse and large ships’ companies.   Nick and Charles discuss this in the article below.

Authentic, Reassuring and Trusted Leadership

Nick: Charles, for you, leadership is essential in any organisation – we all want to get things done; we want to take people with us, we want to get everyone on the same page – and given your military background, we want people to be ‘marching to the same drum’.  But what is it, in human terms that makes good leadership happen?

Charles:  In one sense it’s obvious!  “It’s simples”, as the meerkat might say.  It’s about a human deal between leader and led.  In essence, the ‘led’ consent to be led and the leader attempts to leadon the basis of mutual trust and confidence – this has to operate both ways.   Of course, if an officer in a ship says ‘Fire’ or ‘turn hard a’starboard’, it’s unlikely to be the moment to have a debate!   Orders tend to be orders in a Naval environment!  But, wherever you are, in whatever type of organisation, leadership is about trust and this requires as much openness as possible.

However, a leader tends to get only one shot at this.  If you blow it, you blow it.  In a ship heading for an operational theatre some years ago, with what felt like impending change in the air, I promised the ship’s company that I would never deceive them. Then highly sensitive decisions were communicated to me.  In the first instance, I couldn’t share them; so I told the 1200 people onboard that our tasking was likely to change soon, that I knew what the changes amounted to, but that I couldn’t – for good reasons – tell them about them at that time.   I said that I thought the likely changes in the ship’s programme were a positive development; and that there were no reasons for any concern in the meantime.  This approach seemed to pass the integrity test.

Nick:  Drawing on your considerable experience in the military, you appear to have boiled down leadership to a number of key principles.  One of these is authenticity; do you feel this is an essential feature of trust in leadership?

Charles:  People tend to put greater trust in people who are demonstrably themselves – the ‘manufactured self’ is rarely one who commands trust.  Everything is fine so long as you don’t pretend to be what you are not. 

You have to be authentic.  You can be softly spoken or noisy; considered in your decision-making or swift; an accomplished artist or an advanced nano-biologist (or both!). But you have to be yourself.  If you do that it’s usually obvious to others.  But if not, then people will begin to wonder: ‘is he/ she hiding the real person, and if so, what else is being hidden’? 

I once had a senior English colleague whose normal accent was English.  However, each time when flying west across the Atlantic, he would gradually adopt a wholly unnatural American twang. This would persist until we were flying back; then it would quietly fade away.  It was completely extraordinary!  Perhaps he thought he would somehow be more acceptable to our US colleagues if he became more American; or perhaps he didn’t even realise this was happening.  But it certainly didn’t sound at all authentic.  Inevitably we began to ask ourselves whether other aspects of his character were similarly ‘mouldable’.

Nick:  What would you say should be our approach to ‘noticing’ these things about ourselves?

Charles:  I would say that being ‘open’ to learning is critical.  Open minds tend to lead to ‘open organisations’; and open minds and open organisations can get you a long way.  Not everyone in every organisation can take part in every decision.  Nevertheless communication needs to be as uninhibited as possible; amongst other things this encourages good ideas to emerge and the confidence in those with good ideas to express them. The authentic, trusted and open leader must explain his/her intent fully and give instructions that match that explanation.

But humans are much less effective communicators than we tend to think; or perhaps we should say there are limits to precision in language. We think we are precise in the use of words, and yet time and again messages are misunderstood, especially if they are being expressed across cultural boundaries.  You may say ‘that dog is white’; the listener may hear ‘this cat is black’ – almost literally.  Hence you need to ensure that what you have said has been understood.  “Back briefing” is a technique I learnt long ago from an American General.   ‘Explain your plan” he said, “give your orders…. pause … then get the team to repeat back what you have asked of them.  You will find it will ALWAYS be wrong the first time round”.  It usually takes 2 or 3 iterations to get robust ‘commonality’ of understanding.  But eventually you get everyone on the same page.   Of course communication is about much more than just the words; but that’s possibly for another chat at another time!

Nick:  You’re right, we only have a short time together now.  I have a few more questions!  So, if you are open, authentic and attempting to build trust, will everything be fine?

Charles:  Well, not if your behaviour doesn’t match up!  People won’t trust you indefinitely if you have a tendency to be wrong or make decisions that are clearly injurious to the team.  You need to earn trust. When I became more senior and had to read management reports on performance of officers there was a famous officer’s report which used to make us all laugh.  It read: “This officer’s men will follow him anywhere …. out of a sense of morbid curiosity“, or something along those lines! More seriously though, professionalism, competence and proper practice must be a given for anyone holding a leadership position. 

Nick:  Ok, so leadership requires authenticity, trust, openness – any other skills that are needed?

Charles:  Well, there are some other skills. One is instinct.  At sea one day, I suddenly felt an urgent need to be on the bridge.  When I got there, I found that the ship was in thick fog, and the officer of the watch frozen in terror. He hadn’t told me; in fact, he had done nothing, not even to slow down.  By instinct, I manoeuvred the ship with my head in the radar.  I managed to avoid the nearest ship by a very small margin.  At the moment I got to the bridge collision was probably, at the most, a minute away.  Many ship’s captains tell similar stories.  It was instinct that took me to the bridge, it was instinct that guided my manoeuvre.  Interpret ‘instinct’ as you will, but always keep your mind open to its prompting – you will find, as I did, that your instinct will often be an important guide.

And yet this story cuts both ways.  I actually knew that the ‘frozen’ officer of the watch was weak.  Luck was on our side on that occasion.  In my experience as a senior officer, trustee, ordirector, I have on several occasions sat round tables where decisions are about to be made which are both important and wrong. Yet peoplechoose to say nothing. You can always tell when this is happening: they suddenly find overriding needs to consult their notes, heads down, no eye contact ….

A notable example of this – in which obviously I played no part – was a particularly fateful decision to launch the Challenger space shuttle.  The recorded conversations leading to the launch showed that a much heightened risk of explosion, arising from engineering experience of the properties of rubber at very low temperatures, was over-ridden by the launch ‘imperative’. It happens every day in organisations because people don’t want to put their heads above the parapet; they perceive there is safety in numbers; they don’t want to risk being wrong; or they are frightened of the boss.  Although instinct and experience are telling them they are right, they may remain silent, even if the stakes are high.

Nick: How do you counter this instinct to remain silent when your real instincts are telling you to speak out?

Charles: As I have implied, this is of course much easier to do when the senior leadership creates an atmosphere in which – within constraints of discretion and good order – open expression of views is encouraged.   Beyond that,courage is almost certain to be required.  I sometimes passed this test; I once substantially failed it.

Nick: So would you say there are some critical elements to leadership that are crucial in being effective as a leader?

Charles:  We must not forget that leadership will on occasion demand tough decisions, often on incomplete information.  This requires decisiveness, the ability to ‘set the course’ and to take the team along with you.  Again this may well require courage, and the acceptance of risk. But I don’t mean here careless risk, or risk for its own sake.  I mean considered risk, based on experience, professional judgement and – yes – good instincts.   At such moments leadership may be a lonely business.  We are likely to be more effective at it, make a higher proportion of the right decisions, if along the way we have done our best to do the things we’ve been talking about: build open confident teams, who will question and challenge as well as support.  Leadership doesn’t work as leadership without trust up down and sideways within teams.  So authenticity, reassurance and trust (ART – a central theme at the Manchester Business School) are indeed important elements of good leadership because they enable productive relationships to be built between leaders and led.  Leadership is certainly more ART than science.

Nick: Charles, it’s been a real pleasure listening to your reflections on your learning around leadership development, thanks so much for your time.

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