Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Fierce Mother of all Leaders

Susan scott writes in the Australian that whether your goal is improved workplace relations or improved market share, your most valuable currency is relationship; emotional capital. In her book Fierce Leadership: A bold alternative to the worst 'best practices' of business today (Hachette Australia) she argues that leaders fail when they fail to connect; when their conversations are one-sided, directive or lacking in imagination and emotion.
Apparently, a fierce leader commits to a way of life, not a business strategy. Not having a business conversation but a human one.
Well - clearly there may be demand for the College of Z after all. No university is better equipped to teach its students how to be human!
But while we mull that over at our leisure I want to pick up on this concept of "Fierce Leadership".

Hands up all those who have experienced a fierce leader? Mmm. Yes. Is it just me or does fierce leadership conjure images that are not quite sparkling with positivity?  I have not read the book yet so I cannot be sure I have grasped the notion correctly. Suffice to say when I think of fierce anything it is generally with fear and trepidation.

Could this be what was intended? Let's assume fierce is intended to bear its ordinary meaning - it is a title after all - and is not defined in any other way - and have a think about what this might mean for us.

I have not known many fierce leaders in the workplace. I had a fierce dragon boating coach at one time. Though he was really a harmless Chinese man by day, he could mix it up with the toughest sporting heroes come training on Canberra's Lake Burly Griffin at dawn of a Tuesday and Friday...

I also had the misfortune of being taught by at least two fierce teachers at primary school. They were both old school fierce - screamers with imposing bosoms and high heels to match, coiffed hair and wooden blackboard dusters. To a spineless 7 year old they were reminiscent of fashionably dressed witches - long rulers rather than broomsticks and clicking teeth and sharp words rather than spells and potions.  

In the workplace I have benefited from working (for want of a better word) - under (again for want of a better word) - a range of leadership styles. Among my personal favourites were:
the Best Friend, 
the Aloof Dandy, 
the Misogynistic Old Perve and 
the Mr Wine 'em and Dine 'em. 

Less accomplished were:
General Ex-SAS 007 (curt, self-congratulatory, arrogant and muscular), 
The Shy Guy and 
Oh-God is that a Woman I see Before Me. 

There have been many more - indeed:
Short Man and His Entourage, 
Wake me Up when He Stops Droning about his Ski-trip and Kids and 
By Golly am I Really a Partner Tigger types, 
but nowhere have I encountered fierce leadership, as it were. I have rarely even seen angry, hungry or stalking leadership (other attributes of fierce animals such as lions).

I have seen some great leadership qualities, I should add. Amazing vision, intuition, empathy, technical excellence and leading by example. I have witnessed somewhat dubious feats of client handling finesse and brave and ambitious achievements in one-up-man-ship, and yet at no time was there anything approaching fierceness.

It occurs to me now that this brand of leadership might be peculiarly Australian. Having spent most of my career in the UK, I may be ill-equipped to speak to this topic. Perhaps it is an Australian style of fierceness that Scott alludes to. We are a fiery (funny how that word changes spelling with the "y" added) race are we not - stuck down under, craving attention and recognition? Sun-burnt, outdoors-y and seemingly laconic? No, rather we are a people of grave contradictions. We seem laid back and relaxed in our board shorts and flip-flops, surfing and branding cattle, but just look at us on the cricket pitch or the rugby field (no one mention football now ok!). Just look at us on the casting couch.

You cannot deny that a certain talent, drive and focus, indeed hunger must be present to catapult the likes of Minogue, Kidman, Watts and that guy who starred in Avatar to the heights of success they enjoy. Now I know they are not exactly leaders - but role models perhaps? And they surely embody some of those fierce attributes, no? Who would you prefer lead you? Russell Crowe's Gladiator or Simon Baker's Mentalist? Either!! Either, I say!!

Or even La Paglia in "Without a Trace" for that matter, or Hugh Jackman being all wolflike? Any of those trumps tepid Horatio (CSI Miami) or even Morse (God Bless him). I won't start on Wallandar or those Mad Men (my argument might fall apart), but I think my point is valid, nonetheless.

Where was I? Leadership. Yes.

I would like to draw on a couple of examples of times when fierce leadership has paid dividends in my personal life.

A couple of years ago when the youngest Off-Spring outgrew his cot and began sleeping in a bed (mattress on floor) and could no longer be penned into his little cage (like a small fierce zoo creature), the whole like clockwork bedtime routine suddenly went out the window. With one small logistical move came a virtual riot of upheaval in the bedroom. Children were climbing out of their sleeping positions to disturb one another, talking, laughing and generally being merry and unsettled after 7.30pm.

After two or three nights it occurred to me that some fierce leadership was needed. Not only did I need the peace and solitude that bedtime occasioned, the Off-Spring needed their rest. So I called in the big guns. The Dragon Lady. Now the Dragon Lady must not be confused with the Lady Next Door. 

The LND made a few appearances circa 2005 but was abruptly removed when a story about emotions was read out at school causing quaking and tears from off-Spring Number 1 who thought the drawing of the angry faced child in the book resembled the horrific and threatening LND who was want to visit at bedtime when troublesome children failed to observe the required etiquette of lying down, closing their eyes and falling asleep promptly. The Nursery teacher took my aside at pickup and told me that Number 1 had been upset by the story. She gently inquired - her finger on the speed dial button for family services no doubt - whether we had a rather cruel or frightening neighbour.

It was all a bit surreal as the LND was a figment of our imaginations and did not really exist. She was a creature who had made only a short and swift appearance in our lives. No more were needed, let me tell you. Who was she, you ask? She was me - stony faced, unsmiling and flinty eyed, standing in the doorway growling in a low voice - "Bed time. Go to sleep."

Let me say that she never raised her voice. She never yelled or smacked. She merely glared fiercely. Bed time order was restored immediately upon the mere threat of a visit from her. Indeed, the return to a calm and collected bedtime regime was well and truly achieved by the time the book at school brought all that fear and worry back!

Suffice to say she was never mentioned again...
Hence, three years later, the Dragon Lady was invented. Similarly effective. Unlike the LND she never showed her face. Her steely voice could be heard ringing through the flat though as the minute hand ticked ever closer to the twelve.

In short, fierce leadership is certainly capable of delivering great results - for the leader.

The curious thing about writing a book and calling it Fierce l
Leadership though, is that one expects to read that anger, fear and threats are the order of the day. And yet, Scott's thesis is quite the contrary. She argues that human and emotional connections are the key to successful leadership. Hardly the domain of the fierce?

So, yes, I had better buy the book and work this out properly.

Or perhaps I need to wake up to the fact that calling a book - the "drippy leader" or the "girly leader" or "leading with heart" is not a recipe for bestselling success. But "The heart of leadership" could work...

At the end of the day, the essence of effective leadership must be the ability to blend a lot of things together; to be flexible and resilient, to set an example and a tone even when no one appears to be listening, to be consistent and rational in the face of challenge from without and within, yet to be approachable, vulnerable and human too. Ironically, many of us will never be "leaders" but we have long ago mastered all of the skills.

Perhaps there is another book to be written - the Mother as Leader. Personally I have learnt more in my time as a mother about how to influence people, negotiate outcomes and lead a group than I ever learnt in university or at work. Moreover, the scope for creative and innovative thinking is quite staggering. Finally, who else in their leadership commits as wholeheartedly to a way of life, as espoused by Scott, as the mother?

I do not want to suggest there is not a lot to be said for the Father as Leader as well, but (for once) I am sticking to what I know best. 

I really do think that the workforce, the ranks of the leadership elite and the gurus of innovation and management ought to find a way to tap the expertise and experience of the motivated mothering masses...

(NB - no children, managers, fathers, actors or animals were harmed in writing this blog)

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