At the beginning of my career in organisational and leadership development stands one outstanding leadership example: the CEO of a major global soft drinks company announces with some panache that, “there is no such thing as racism in my company”. A year later and a stupendously high amount of American dollars lighter (having lost a lawsuit brought by the companies black workforce) the very same CEO, announces, this time with considerable less panache, “I wouldn’t say that again”, or words to that effect. I wonder: was this man self-appointed? And if not, who appointed him? On what criteria? And who follows such a leader?
Several decades later the CEO of another global company prides himself on an outstanding example of an organisational inclusivity policy. On visiting the man’s impressive new head office I glance at the larger than life size posters greeting me, and every other visitor, in the reception. The first is of a man and his son playing the guitar, a second of a man and his (male) colleague smiling as they lean over a computer screen, the third is of an all male boardroom and the final one of a female secretary pouring coffee. I imagine that these images were carefully selected to convey some kind of essence of this organisation?
As if that hadn’t been potent enough, the same afternoon I am sent home equipped with the latest copy of the company’s advertising brochure. 21 photos adorn 21 pages of the glossy magazine. Two of the photos are of women, one again making coffee and the other of a woman taking minutes during a boardroom meeting. I am given to understand that this magazine is used to recruit the organisation’s future workforce and is routinely given out at local schools – boy’s schools, no doubt, and I again ask myself… who appoints these leaders? And for what qualities? Who follows these leaders and given these fairly prominent discriminatory behaviours, does anyone notice?
The crowning glory – and you can see where I am going with this, is a US based global telecommunication company. It has been criticised for an exclusively male leadership (at this stage I didn’t think it was prudent to ask about its percentage of disabled, black or LGBTIQ + workforce…). When I questioned its (all male, white) executive team about what’s behind this two reasons were given. One, that they believed that women simply wouldn’t attend leadership meetings and two that they tended to get pregnant and that it was therefore a waste of time to appoint them to leadership positions. It later transpired that its weekly leadership meeting took place at “Hooters” restaurants…!
“ In Gestalt terms boardrooms are “intimate systems” (Trefor Bentley 2010) and working with these systems can greatly improve relationships and enable directors to operate with greater authenticity and clarity.”
Again, I ask myself who appointed these leaders? And what qualities were sought? And who follows these leaders? And does anyone notice?
The Independent Enquiry about Child Sexual Abuse in Britain (IICSA) reached its conclusion towards the end of 2021 that the Catholic Church, the largest and longest established global employer ever, has consistently and systematically demonstrated that it is unable to protect its most vulnerable members. Instead it has been found to protect is own (exclusively male) leaders, however neglectful and abusive, from the simple parish priest to a Cardinal Archbishop in Rome. Even Pope John Paul II only recently canonised appears to have not only shielded but also promoted serial child abusers. How do these leaders get elected? On what criteria? Who holds them accountable? Who follows them?
Turning our attention to the political domain at the time of writing a number of (male) leaders seem to have entered the competition of who would win the race in search of that elusive single brain cell. Trump Has been quoted as being the “worst president ever” closely followed by Bolsonaro of Brazil who with a total absence of qualifications became leader of 210 million people. Hungary’s Ordan (considered by some a systemic threat to the rule of law), Putin (referred to by the late Senator John McCain as, “a thug and a murderer and a killer and a KGB agent,”) even our own Boris Johnson has come under criticism.
These populist leaders have a number of characteristics in common. Nick Duffel, in his publication “Wounded Leaders” (2014) describes the Strategic Survival Personality as being largely concerned with the maintenance of a façade of confidence and success, masking emotional illiteracy and intimacy avoidance. Over time and when unchecked these may christalyse into grandiosity, masochism and pathological rebellion.
I am a Consultant Psychotherapist in London who specializes in leadership development. I do so by working with organisations (for a list see www.naosinstitute.com/organisations/organisations-we-consult-to/) from the charitable to the highly commercial and not dissimilar to the ones described above – in the banking, IT, political and spiritual arenas. We train women and men in leadership and engage in support through individualised work – executive coaching.
Historically speaking consulting to leaders has meant that experts tell others how to do their job better: senior bankers tell more junior ones how to make more money etc. This model aligns itself to the medical doctor who gets called when things need both diagnosis and cure.
Nowadays consultants in leadership development – such as myself – tend to focus on process – what processes supports a healthy organization, such as alignment to certain values, collaborative relationships, teamwork, inclusivity, globalisation – as well as the professional, and to some extent personal, qualities and competences of an effective leader. The maxim being: it is not possible to lead others if one can not lead oneself.
This firmly places the development of leaders – who often experience isolation and the inability to ask for support, for feedback and training in the realm of relationships. A good relationship between leadership coach and leader is therefore of the essence. Traditionally this work challenges pseudo competence (the ability to pretend to be competent and to get away with it) and instead juxtapose this with a leadership culture based on transparency, sustainability, support in proportion to the challenges and the desire to learn. It explores more sustainable ways of being effective and teaches a number of skills.
My experience in the boardroom is usually that the most basic communication skills: conflict resolution, relational and feedback are missing. Usually these are summarised, and dismissed, as ‘soft skills’ more suitable to HR than to the executive boardroom. And yet they seem to be the hardest thing to practice.
The way forward is to teach executive boards ‘intimacy’ skills: the ability to develop a strong bond in pursuit of a shared goal. If intimacy is aligned, that creates a trusted environment. Trust, shared goals and a common pursuit in the correct environment are what makes for good leadership.
Disclaimer: unless in the public domain care has been taken to protect confidential material. Identities therefore may have been changed and case scenarios adjusted.