What is being said is more important than the way it is being said

27 06 2011

As often happens with my blog, two things come together to make me think about a topic.

This week I read a piece in The Guardian that suggested that women “are held back from reaching the very highest levels in business because of the difficulties they find in striking the right tone of language during high pressure meetings.” and last night I watched the latest episode of The Apprentice.

I don’t really like The Apprentice but I am an addict, partly because I tweet, and viewing and dismantling the programme later on line is compulsory, but also because of morbid curiosity – it’s like watching someone walk into a lamp-post or ride their cycle into a bush. You don’t really want to watch but you can’t take your eyes off the impeding crash and can’t help laughing. Last night a young woman, I don’t know her name but she wears too much make-up and a permanent sneer, was in the boardroom with two men; the tecky one and the toffy one as it happens. She hadn’t done very well in the task, she made a few sales and spoke French, a useful but non-essential skill in Paris, but her overall performance was poor.

Her performance in the boardroom was the usual mix of petulance and finger-pointing, both literally and metaphorically, but it was Lord Sugar’s comments that made me sit up and take notice.  He commended her for being ruthless, for being prepared to eat people and spit people them out for breakfast, for being prepared to walk all over people. And Karen Brady said she had put the boys to shame.

So it would appear that the attributes more closely associated with men, aggression and ruthlessness, are what Lord Sugar is looking for.

To return to The Guardian article for a moment, women were seen to use phrases like  “I am probably speaking out of turn, but…” and “sorry to cut across you like that but…” but self-deprecation can lead to women appearing defensive and weak.

But surely it’s not about behaving as men do but about being  assertive without being confrontational.

My contention in the debate that continues about getting more women into the boardroom is that it is not about gender, it is about attitude. If we appoint women who act like men then we may as well just choose men! Even if we adopt a quota system to address the difference in numbers of men and women in the boardroom if the attitudes of the board memebers is just the same as each other then we haven’t truly tackled diversity.

What we need is a society  where what is being said is more important than the way it is being said.

Leadership …. hmmm

6 06 2011

My focus for the past 6 months has been on leadership – of finding and  supporting the authentic voice of women leaders. This quest will  culminate in the Inspiring Women Leaders launch event on 15th June in Edinburgh.

However I’ve always been more interested in where we are heading rather than who is leading so I thought it would be interesting to take a sideways look at leadership.

If we are all heading to the promised land, and we could all clearly see the promised land ahead, I’m pretty sure we could all get there without a leader. The problem, as Moses discovered, comes when the destination isn’t reached quickly enough, or if others think there is a better promised land in a different direction, or if some people move towards the promised land more quickly than others or if people decide that they can’t be bothered going to the promised land after all. And what if the promised land isn’t full of milk and honey when you get there?

Leaders are needed when the destination is distant, unclear, disputed or unattractive.

So, if I wanted to take you somewhere you didn’t want to go, how might I do it? How could I lead you there?

I could extol the virtues of the destination. Believing that the streets are paved with gold has taken many a poor person to London. If the promised land held riches beyond the dreams of avarice most people wouldn’t take much leading! Promise of 72 virgins in heaven can even lead some to kill themselves and others. The problem with this “it will be worth it when we get there” model of leadership is what happens when the destination isn’t as it was published in the brochure?

I could pay you to go there. Isn’t this what happens to most people most of the time? The company needs to reach a destination, a profit target perhaps, and people are paid to get there. In this situation people often don’t even know the destination, they are just rewarded for taking small steps in the right direction each day. This isn’t really leadership, more like crowd management.

I could exagerrate the proximity of the destination. Just like when you take small children on a car trip to the seaside and spend most of the journey saying “not long now, we’re almost there.” The problem here is it is difficult to sustain. How many corners need to be turned without seeing the sea for the lie to be uncovered? And what of the next journey? Even very young children will not believe that Blackpool is 5minutes from Congleton more than once.

I could force you to go – by bullying, threatening and pushing. People can be forced to do the most awful things for fear of what might happen if they refuse. And pushing really isn’t leading is it? And it seems an unlikely option in the 21st century but in practice when we feel that there is no other option open to us we will often take a path that we would otherwise never follow. We are easily, if reluctantly, led.

I could go there myself and bring back stories of my travels. If I also bring back great wealth that would help to attract followers too. The “I can do it, you can do it” school of leadership can inspire many to follow; the magical combination of a charismatic adventurer and increased personal wealth beloved of so many leadership gurus.

I could stay just one step ahead, like Good King Wenceslas with the Page following in his masters steps. The final destination might never be known to the follower. The page never sees the big picture but rather has faith that the King is a good man and will not lead him astray. This messianic mode of leadership is a favourite of big auditorium gurus. But, like Brian, what if they are not the son of Christ? And if you only ever look at the backside of the leader you’ll never glimpse the promised land.And if you intend to lead in this way it is surely micromanagement rather than leadership?

All of these, and probably more, are ways of getting people to go where you want them to, even if they hadn’t thought of going there themselves. The thing about an effective leader is that you are never really sure which of these techniques is being used to make sure that you follow! And an effective leader will make you think that you chose the destination and that you wanted to go there anyway!