Control or freedom to listen?
Britain is beset by contradictory tendencies. Its parliament refuses to attend to the voices of the 17.4 million that, by a decent margin, voted for Brexit while a handful of remarkable organisations take the art of listening to new heights. The results?
At a macro level, GDP in the three months to November 2018 slowed from growth of 0.4% to 0.3%, with a further drop to growth of 0.2% in the three months to January 2019 (by way of comparison, American GDP grew by 3.1% in 2018). What is more, the GfK Consumer confidence reached a low of -13 in March 2019, 8 points lower than at the time of the Brexit vote with consumer fears over global trading prospects. Moreover, the CBI Business Optimism Indicator for the UK fell to -13 in the second quarter of 2019, from a high of nearly 20 following Brexit.
Best practice away from Parliament
While Britain’s Parliament remains deaf to the voice of the people and economic indeces continue to tumble, some remarkable organisations in Britain are scaling dizzying heights by turning away from the autocratic, self-important behaviours typical of so many Remainer MPs to something vastly more inclusive.
Sevenoaks School, judged top of Britain’s independent schools in both 2008 and 2018, achieved a remarkable grade average in its international Baccalaureate exams in 2018 of 39.5 out of a maximum point score of 45; significantly, the leadership style is highly inclusive with the Head, Dr Katy Ricks commenting that she ‘hates being told what to do’ and tries to remember that others may feel the same way. She appears to be true to her word since a colleague commented on how inclusive she is, with strong listening skills, a focus on encouraging autonomy and creating a shared vision, and factoring everyone’s views into her decisions even when she is in the minority.
This is a world away from the style of the Prime Minister who put her EU deal to the vote no fewer than three times.
Other shining lights include the giant recruitment firm, PageGroup and Royal Mail Sales where MDs share offices with staff, listening and building what they hear into new ways of working. The 40,000 employee Network Rail too where this listening and inclusive mindset can build bridges with customers and the SME property asset management firm, APAM, now part of a multi-billion pound operation just eight years from start-up. In terms of individuals who stand out as inclusive leaders, these include Alex Ferguson, the football legend who, in his 26 years as Manchester United Manager, achieved twice as many domestic and international trophies as the next-most-successful English football team manager. Also remarkable was Colin Marshall, under whose leadership the fortunes of British Airways were transformed in the 1990s, creating a workplace that led a former Customer Service Manager to speak of Marshall’s tenure as creating ‘the best working years of our lives’.
Aside from their British origins – an encouraging factor in discussions of Brexit – the uniting feature of these disparate organisations is Inclusive Leadership, the subject of a new book by myself exploring how this winning style of leadership is practised in business, education, sport, commercial aviation and the army. The book also explores the perils of sticking to traditional autocratic or ‘transactional’ leadership, a topic which takes us back to Parliament and beyond.
Why Parliament’s autocratic leadership spells disaster
In the video that accompanies the book, the former director of Sales of the Royal Mail Group and now Chair of the Association of Professional Sales, Graham Davis, states that Inclusive Leadership is about listening and that ‘once you’ve listened, because you haven’t got all the good ideas, you need to demonstrate that you’ve listened by changing things. People need to feel that they’re included’. It follows that Parliament’s failure to listen to the views of the 17.4 people who wanted a clean break from the EU not only puts a stop on change, producing stagnation, but also excludes over half the adult voting public from the so-called democratic process.
According to the MD of PageGroup, Sandra Hill, female Leader of the Year at the 2015 Women in Business awards and also featuring in the video, a 360 degree feedback process at PageGroup ensures that leaders are measured against inclusive leadership competencies. So where, you might ask, are these checks on MPs’ behaviour? Should they not be accountable to their constituencies as also senior leaders of public sector bodies such as local authorities, schools, universities, the police and the NHS? Doing this would merely be to follow Best Practice Human Resource Management.
If there were any doubts as to the perils of autocratic or transactional leadership, then the examples in the book should put pay to that. There is the case of Lord Greenbury of Marks and Spencer, the first retailer to top the £1bn profit mark but at the expense of valued staff and tacit know-how, precipitating the dramatic drop in the company’s profits from £1.15billion to £0.14bn over the period 1998-2001. Ironically, the words embroidered on a cushion in his office read ‘I have many faults, but being wrong is not one of them’.
At about the same time, in France, Jean-Marie Messier was turning French utility company General des Eaux into a media empire through the acquisition in 2000 of Canal Plus and Seagram at a cost of £100bn and it was not long before the French multi-media giant Vivendi experienced massive losses. Only time will tell where finally the riots in France will lead, a reaction in part to Macron’s autocratic style and protesters’ exclusion from the political process.
The book shows how the British Civil Service now appraises managers not just on their results but how these have been achieved, a move that has reversed the previously high levels of stress-related absence. Other sectors have yet to follow suit, with senior academics in Higher Education showing how this still functions with autocratic leadership, leading one Professor in a well-regarded University to speak of ‘a mismatch between staff expectations of University life and the reality of this’. Separate research evidence points to a mismatch too with student expectations given students’ strong preference for approachable rather than autocratic leaders across the hierarchy.
The road to excellent: inclusive leadership
In fact, there is a tried and tested antidote to autocratic leadership, namely inclusive leadership. Not only is it deployed in successful organisations but research I have led in both industry and education has shown its remarkable benefits. For, in surveys of employees in major organisations, and university students in the UK and Norway, there is a remarkably high correlation between the perceived presence of Inclusive Leadership across the hierarchy and enhanced self-perceptions of employees’ or students’ own productivity, engagement and mental well-being.
With autocratic leadership in the British Parliament and the French Presidency leading to poor economic performance or civil unrest, who could possibly ask for more? Fortunately, the solution is ready to hand and with a solid track record to provide confidence in its application. In fact, to persist with autocratic leadership in these circumstances is, in Shakespeare’s words, ‘mere folly’.