Friday 28 August 2020

Is there any nobility in our leadership?

I’m not the first to think about whether the qualities of nobility are at risk from being disconnected with leadership. In our 21st century context, this is not about inheritance by bloodline or title, but those qualities that lead others to deem one as ‘noble’, such as,

  • Being honest, courageous, kind, admirable, virtuous, reputable… and many others 
  • Having or showing outstanding personal qualities or high moral principles
  • The notion that leadership is about others

In our fair isle the legends of King Arthur, whether real or idealised, are exemplars for old-school nobility, albeit rooted in a male, monarchic context. Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien speaks about ‘the blood of Númenor’ and a golden age in Middle Earth; this is often interpreted as alluding to Atlantis or the Biblical fall of mankind. I suggest that being of the early 20th century he may well also have been lamenting the decline of Europe into fascism and any number of other ‘isms.

Noble leadership of the kind I suggest at the beginning transcends blood, race and gender. Covid-19 has demonstrated clearly where good leadership at an international level has minimised impact, and where it has been a right ham’s ear. You countries know who you are!

But I really want to talk about leadership at a level closer to home – what of our inspirational industry leaders, project managers, technical leads and supervisors?

I’ve had the privilege of working for some great leaders; people who inspire you to go the extra mile, keep you in touch with their thinking, give you latitude to do your best and also to challenge them. I remember one such case where a big cheese from the US came over to the UK and took time to meet every one of our team informally, in person, in every UK branch office – she did not need to do this. Another case, where I headed up R&D and every experiment, whether success or failure was studied, with enthusiasm by our leader, who really drew out the best in us. The camaraderie on an intense project only works if the leaders join in. Through these people I’ve nurtured my own leadership qualities, admittedly having made mistakes along the way.

I’ve also known individuals who raise to positions on the basis of charisma and ego, have no manifest talent over gift-of-the-gab and might put Doctor Who’s ‘Daleks’ to shame in interaction and cooperation skills. I saw a case where one day someone was a board director and on various government committees, the next day he was in prison for corruption. I’ve seen groups of companies join to go plc, only for it to fall back into shambles, after the directors collected their loot. I’ve been employed on jobs where the bosses really haven’t a flying fiddler’s clue what I do or what I’m capable of. And I’ve seen young people thrust up to management level, where it is evident they do not have experience or greater vision to thrive. And a million more such anecdotes.

So this is why I think there is a crisis, which might have been with us for a very long time.

Without gushing too much on the need to be good and so on, as we all need to hustle sometimes, here’s my take on how to be a noble leader on engineering or construction projects; there could be many more, but I hope you find these of value:

1. Look after your own

This might seem strange to say, but I’ve seen projects where leaders persist in keeping silos separate, they divide and conquer, and even drop proverbial bombs on their teams from time to time, just to see how they cope. They even make spurious promotions, for example removing the subject expert on so-and-so to manage a totally different team! Be fiercely loyal to your team and you stand a chance they will be the same to you and perform over and above. Be anything else at your own risk.

2. Value the importance of the venture, not the leader

The venture is the important thing, not you, the leader, nor your ego. In some Taoist traditions, anyone elected, yes elected to be leader actually had a lower status than the team. Leadership was a special role that meant you were given time and space to truly serve your team. In First Nation cultures, the leadership role was often rotated, so everyone would be leader and follower at some point in their lives. Therefore, watch out for any leader who continually uses language such as, ‘my project!’

3. Be clear on your strategy

This is the one that gets me the most if broken. OK, it is a leader’s prerogative to change strategy, but when it happens on a weekly basis, come on! Also, when leaders do not share their strategies and leave it to you to second guess them, only to be told, ‘no, that’s not it, try again’, you wonder if they really have a clue themselves or are just being disingenuous to cover up inadequacy. When a document gets to draft version 97, you know the top is weak.

4. Avoid micro-managing; trust the expertise of your team

Another one that really gets me. Especially if one goes from being ignored one month to having every action in their day measured, the next. The first duty towards your teams is to ensure they have the knowledge, skills and tools they need. If they haven’t, then invest your time and money in training and then invest in some more. To not train up your teams under the risk they might take their expertise elsewhere is a no-brainer recipe for disaster. Micro-management – the clear sign of inexperienced leaders, who do not know, nor trust the capabilities of their teams.

5. Be accessible to your team

We’ve all experienced it, a psychological ivory tower that surrounds the boss’s office. Snobbery, cronyism, inner circles. We’ve all experienced hierarchies that make the pyramids look flat; as such there is no way you could even go up the line and reach the boss. Definite no-no on both counts. True, the boss does not want to be bothered with every trivial problem, but projects are successful when the leader offers an open-door policy, at least for some of the time.

6. Take interest in the tactical detail

And yes, I know leaders employ managers and experts to run the detail and deal with the problems. But time and time again, especially some project managers in this funny new world often do not have a clue about the technical detail of a project, over and above the glib external messaging – it’s just lines and numbers on a spreadsheet, or if you’re really professional, a Primavera P6 schedule. The best projects I’ve been on are where the top person is a hawk and can tell if drawings are uncoordinated; if a hedgerow has been specified wrong or pipe risers don’t match up. 

7. Be the culture you want to be

If I see my leaders running around like bluebottle flies, too busy to answer emails, too busy to offer any time or counsel, too busy to take any interest, even too busy to delegate; is that really the culture I would want to perpetuate? Maybe it's the culture they want? Focusing on the next generation of young leaders, is this such an excellent role model? I thought not.

8. Look to the future (please)

No, not a Nodder Holder Christmas line, but remember the plc anecdote above? The concept of a job for life has now firmly been banished from consciousness, especially so in the minds of our younger generation. This might, in part be due to a cyclonic convergence of 2nd, 3rd and 4th industrial revolutions, causing such abrupt change in technologies and overnight obsolescence. I do not necessarily advocate trying to build a business for the next 200 years - it is wise to think about beginning, middle and end, yes end of your business. However, please have responsibility for your own (we come back round to no. 1 above), people who will want to give their life blood to you, who will move with you, sign up to mortgages relying on you, 'for the love of Camelot!'

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