Iron fists and velvet gloves: What's the best way to be the boss?

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The Independent Online

The battle for corporate leaders' hearts and minds is back. In one corner, advocates of "hard" leadership, championing a single-minded focus on ends; in the other, believers in the power of "soft" leadership, telling executives to get to know employees, build networks, and enthuse.

This is a much discussed subject on MBA courses, on which leadership is taught in many different ways. In recent years soft leadership seemed to have won the day, but over the past year hard-headed manager has made a comeback. In November, the Institute of Leadership and Management published a poll of 1,500 managers which found that most would choose a harder boss focused on getting the job done, rather than a more consultative manager with less drive to deliver.

David Pardey, a senior manager of research and policy at the ILM, says the ideal is Major Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell's fictional hero of the Napoleonic wars, who knows his men but does not consult them before sending them to battle.

The ILM's research follows a study by the University of Chicago which also struck a blow for steely grit against consultation. Chicago academics looked at 313 chief executive candidates for private equity firms. They found the most important traits for success to be those of hard leaders: persistence, setting high standards, attention to detail and analytical skills. Teamwork, enthusiasm, adaptability, and listening skills were less important.

Soft skills advocates are fighting back. Richard Crawley is the director of external relations at Lancaster University Business School. Autocratic methods, he says, may work in the short term to address particular situations, but that efficacy may rebound.

"You may lose goodwill, you may lose colleagues, and you're unlikely to hear the truth from people who work with you," says Dr Crawley.

The result is that autocratic leaders do not hear the uncomfortable facts they need to know, he says. That is bad news for management, bad news for corporations and, when it leads to a blind short-term pursuit of profit, bad news for society as a whole.

Others point out that hard leadership's popularity is no surprise. "There are a lot of people who like it because they think they'll be in charge of it," says David Sims, the director of the MBA programme at Cass Business School. "And there are also a lot of people who find it comforting to hand over responsibility to someone else."

Popular, but not the right choice, argues Sims. "The trouble is that no one really has the breadth of vision, the wisdom, or even the knowledge to make that many decisions," he says. "There's so much that people at the top don't know is going on."

The danger is not that people do not trust their boss, but that they trust them too much. They may spot problems but assume the leader knows about them. Sims says people are often drawn to hard leaders because they are decisive. There always has to be a time when debate stops and a decision is made, he says, but smart managers wait until after consultation. "The really effective leaders are the ones who know what to lean on other people for," says Sims. "They make sure they have a good network of people."

That is why business schools spend so much time and money helping students develop the skills they need to build these networks. Manchester Metropolitan University organises workshops and residential activity courses for its students to build their soft skills. Henley Management College MBA students have to prove they have achieved personal development, or fail the course.

Cranfield School of Management has its Personal and Professional Development spine, while Warwick Business School has a module in practice of management, guiding students in the art of persuasion. And Manchester Business School runs a soft management skills programme, integrated into the "hard" subject electives.

Different approaches, but with one principal aim: self-knowledge. Hard and soft leadership advocates agree that the first and most important lesson in business leadership is to know yourself. "You need self-knowledge," says Rob Goffee, the professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School and a co-author of Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?.

Goffee encourages that self-knowledge in his students by getting them exposed to "360 degree feedback", finding out what everyone you work with takes from working with you.

Whether leaders use that knowledge to address their weaknesses or to grittily overcome them is up to them, but as Professor Goffee says: "Leadership is a relationship. You can't be a leader without followers." And whether followers like it or not, leaders need them to pull their weight.

'Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know when to step back'

Alan Speakman, 41, is an engineer at Sellafield Limited, based at Risley. After two and a half years as a part-time student he graduated last year with an MBA from Manchester Metropolitan University.

"How do you teach leadership? You can't just sit someone down in a classroom and tell them how to be a leader. You can only bring it out in people.

At MMU they had several development arenas. Initially we went on a development weekend, doing raft building, that kind of thing, where we had to use physical and mental skills on tasks. There were business games. And there were also groups working together for presentations. Different people came to the fore in the different tasks.

I found that leadership is situational. Whoever is best skilled at any task at any given moment is the best to lead it. So, for example, in our collaborative work if we were working on a marketing issue, the marketing expert in the group would lead on it.

You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing when to step back is as important as knowing when to come forward. It's about gaining respect. If you order people around, you won't get many people following you."

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