Cover Story : The heart of leadership

“Why should I follow you?” hospital nurse asked Chris Clarke, then CEO of Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, few years ago. Clarke, now CEO of World Vision New Zealand, admits he was briefly stumped. His eventual reply: “In one sense I can’t answer that, but what I hope is that over the next year my actions will show you.”
Not bad answer, in light of recent shifts in leadership thinking. Dr Donna Ladkin, professor in leadership and ethics at Cranfield School of Management in the UK and author of Rethinking Leadership: New Look at Old Leadership Questions, says that while “traditional” leadership skills like strategic visioning remain important, leadership is equally, if not more, about inspiring people to follow you in the here and now.
Ladkin, in New Zealand last month at the invitation of Massey University’s School of Management, is proponent of what she calls aesthetic leadership, or “leading beautifully”. She believes how leaders lead is as important as what they do.
“People are always assessing whether they can trust you, if you’re someone they want to follow,” she says. “Whether you’re worth following.”
Followers start making that decision from their very first glimpse of leader. Ladkin talks about the “felt sense” that employees experience, the immediate, visceral reaction as to whether they feel safe, for example, or challenged by leader. It’s gut impression, heart-felt reaction, as opposed to the rational assessment we all like to think we make.
So, do our leaders need to add an aesthetic awareness to their operational, political and communications skills? The short answer: yes.
Leaders must decide how they want to lead, what kind of leader they aspire to be, Ladkin says. “A lot of the old recipes for leadership are bit tired, I think people are looking for something new. The aesthetic is part of who we are as humans. You can pooh-pooh this, but whether or not you think it’s relevant, it’s happening.”
But the aesthetic isn’t something that can be tacked on to long list of competencies: it can be learned, but to be truly effective, it’s an outward manifestation of what’s within.
Ladkin cites three core aspects of leading beautifully: mastery, coherence and purpose.
Mastery is being “really skilled at what we do”. Moving into leadership role often takes managers out of their functional expertise. But they need to be masters, say, of their sector, or of relational abilities, and of understanding what makes the organisation tick in its market. key aspect of mastery is being able to understand the possibilities of the moment.
Coherence is how leader presents him or herself, Ladkin says, and that’s about authenticity. “People will always look at what you’re doing rather than what you say,” she warns. Mannerisms, body language, the way you hold yourself – Ladkin uses the old-fashioned word comportment. But comportment operates on deeper level, too. She cites the example of leader who claims to want to listen to his subordinates, but comports himself in way that says, “Go away” – not making eye contact, not taking time to listen.
“People are very quick to identify authenticity,” says Chellie Spiller, lecturer in the department of management and international business at the University of Auckland Business School. “When we start to cover up, to manage an impression, people see through that.”
Spiller finds Ladkin’s thinking “extremely relevant and timely… Whilst it’s commonsense, it’s not common.” Spiller finds that discussion of an organisation’s or leader’s less tangible elements is well-received in her work with Māori businesses and trusts. But in more “Western” businesses, people can be wary. “The barriers go up quite quickly,” she reports. “If you ask manager, ‘What’s your felt experience,’ that can be quite challenging. It can be seen as too soft.”
Ladkin emphasises that leading aesthetically doesn’t mean being soft touch. “Beauty is tough. It’s exacting, discerning. When you think about the All Blacks, they are masters of what they do. The way they play is beautiful… they’re working with their skills, but precisely tuned into the moment.”
World Vision’s Chris Clarke is fan of focusing on aesthetics – and not just because he’s in an organisation where the softer values are more naturally prized. Clarke teaches part of Oxford University’s biannual Strategic Leadership Programme. His “students” are all experienced leaders, it’s assumed they know the technicalities. The programme pulls in the aesthetic side to help leaders recognise and develop their “softer” strengths – and the number of leaders applying to the programme is growing steadily.
“We have these guys conducting orchestras, horse whispering, doing theatre improvisations,” Clarke says.
Like Ladkin and Spiller, Clarke says there’s difference between soft and too soft. Consensus is part of the leadership suite, but “there are times when leader has to step up and say, ‘I’m calling on you guys to support this because I strongly believe in it’.” He adds, “But there are very few times like this in leader’s life.”
He points out that the only power leaders have is that which followers give them – and as Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak recently learned, when followers decide to stop following, power vanishes. Power is given on the basis of trust… which comes right back to leader’s authenticity.
“The flag-up, follow-me approach to leadership doesn’t work that well any more,” agrees Andrew Nugent, director of business and organisational development consultancy Grafton. “If you look at the All Blacks, Richie McCaw doesn’t say, ‘Here’s where we’re going’ – there’s lot of ‘working with’. It’s about having people engaged with you.”
Purpose, the third strand of Ladkin’s definition of leading beautifully, is big part of engagement.
Beautiful leadership will have “good” purpose, Ladkin says. While that may be more easily identified in the not-for-profit sector, any leader in any sector can incorporate an ethical dimension to leadership.
Chris Clarke agrees. “I’ve yet to meet anyone who goes to work with the express intention of maximising shareholder value. That doesn’t get people out of bed.” Purpose, he says, does get people out of bed. To attract and retain bright young people, businesses need to recognise that those bright young people demand certain ethical standard of their leaders and their organisations. Extraction industries – oil and mining, for example – are finding that their spotted history in terms of environmental and safety concerns does them no favours in the recruitment stakes, he says.
But pinning on new set of ethics is not the answer – people will spot fake. The truth shows up in the company culture, in who it partners with, how it relates to customers and stakeholders.
Clarke believes the aesthetic approach to leadership gives voice to people who may not otherwise be heard. “Strategic planning works well for people who are particularly verbal or conceptual,” he says. “But in an organisation like World Vision, there are large numbers of people whose vision is more heartfelt than articulated. Also, people with English as second language.”
In one meeting, Clarke gave people Lego blocks with the instruction, “Create for us what you think the future of this organisation should be.”
“A young Pacific woman, who normally is very quiet, built model of children’s playground,” he reports. “She said she saw us as creating world fit for children to play in. That would never have come out in discussion.”
It’s very lovely and touchy-feely… but does leading beautifully produce tangible value?
Clarke says the “intangibles” show up tangibly in staff turnover (or lack thereof) and in the calibre of people applying to work in the organisation. How stakeholders and competitors talk about the company is another useful measure.
“It’s not an either/or. The soft stuff is not at the expense of the [hard stuff] – we take the stuff that’s soft and give it man

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