Let's learn to lose control

Roger Trapp looks at a book which contends that bosses get better results by devolving power
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The Independent Online
JUST about the emptiest rhetoric around in management circles concerns teamwork. All the time that consultants, executives and academics are extolling the virtues of groups of people working together, the literature concentrates on leaders. There is even a book containing a series of chapters headed with the names of well-known chief executives.

Not that Peter Wickens could be accused of falling into this camp. A former executive of many corporations, most notably Nissan, he points out in the revised version of his 1995 book The Ascendant Organisation (just published by Macmillan) that although much literature seems to "suggest that leadership exists only at the very top", leaders in fact "achieve results by working with and through people and can and should be present at all levels of the organisation".

In a view that has much in common with work being done at the Center for Creative Leadership in the United States, he says most of the leaders given so much space in the business press and in books "are creatures of their time and place", and while they may build or transform their organisations, they tend to offer few transferable lessons. And if this is not enough to confound the consultants, he adds: "Although the top leader is often vital to the success of the organisation, can set its tone and sometimes transform its values, such leaders, working alone, achieve nothing."

His message that everyone can exercise leadership seems especially important at a time when for all the talk about delegation and the dreaded "empowerment", middle managers are under the cosh. The latest bad news from British Steel, for example, makes it clear that many of the thousands of jobs to go in the next part of the company's efficiency drive will come from the ranks of middle managers.

As he says, most people are not able to become chief executives, "but that does not mean that they cannot exercise leadership in the jobs they do". As soon as people have just one other to supervise, one process to influence or one facility to control, they can exercise leadership.

One problem, though, is that leadership is too often associated with confrontation. Mr Wickens describes how Sir Neville Bowman-Shaw, former chairman and joint owner of the fork-lift truck maker Lancer Boss, behaved autocratically when the organisation bought a Spanish company - threatening the workers that if they messed things up, the factory would be closed.

Nor, apparently, was this out of the ordinary at Lancer Boss. Labour turnover in the British factory was as high as 30 per cent at one point and works managers often left out of frustration, says Mr Wickens. A few years later, German banks withdrew their support and the company became part of the German group Junghein-Rich, soon after which "every possible performance indicator had improved dramatically, including labour turnover down to 8 per cent and absenteeism down to 3 per cent".

This is not to say there is never a place for confrontation. Mr Wickens claims that the readiness of Sir Michael Edwardes to take on the extremists at what was then British Leyland paved the way for others to build the company now known as Rover Group. But he argues that simply concentrating on getting control back to management "is no way to run a company".

Instead, he quotes with approval Bill Hewlett, co-founder of a continuously successful US computer and electronics group: "What is the Hewlett-Packard way? I feel that in general terms it is the policies and actions that flow from the belief that men and women want to do a good job, a creative job, and that if they are provided with the proper environment, they will do so."

Mr Wickens also describes how Jan Carlzon, president of Scandinavian Airlines, told Nissan managers in 1990: "The role of the leader will be that of a visionary, a strategic leader, who gives the objectives, who guides the way to reach those objectives".

Although he stresses that there is no single model, he believes there are certain "behaviours and characteristics that can make for success in the ascendant organisation". Personal attributes include general intelligence, empathy with people at all levels, the ability to act intuitively and be right most of the time, high levels of personal integrity and the drive to achieve. Meanwhile, a good leader's strategic perspective might include such aspects as a concern for all stakeholders, an ability to develop a vision based on this perspective rather than immediate issues, and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

The ability to communicate in all sorts of ways is also of great importance. But Mr Wickens - who strays far beyond leadership in his description of the sort of approaches that businesses must take to achieve sustainable success - says: "Perhaps the most important ability a leader can possess is having the wisdom to employ good people and give them headroom."