Three Underrated Aspects of Leadership
by Byron Kalies

An aircraft crashes in the jungle. It's filled with staff from their works' outing. The survivors get out of the aeroplane - there are 20 administration staff, 3 managers and a leader. The leader disappears. The managers mutter phrases such as "Typical", " Well what do you expect" and organise the admin staff into teams. They distribute tools (machetes, knives, etc.) which are luckily available and start making their way through the jungle, cutting down trees, bushes creating a way out.

Suddenly they hear a shout ,"Stop"- it's the leader."

The managers look around - there's no sign of her. They continue motivating and encouraging their teams.

Again they hear a shout "Stop".

One of them looks up and sees the leader in the tallest tree. The managers go to the foot of the tree and listen. The leader is pointing in the opposite direction "You're going in totally the opposite direction" she calls down, "Shh" one of the managers answers "They're working really well".

Leaders versus managers - the differences?

There are a number of accepted traits of leaders: charismatic, strategic vision, great motivators, etc.. I feel there are three seriously underrated aspects; myths and stories, genuine empathy and understanding for people, and not making people wrong.

Great leaders have stories, legends, myths about them. These tales may be totally true, based on some truth or may purely be wishful thinking, but in some ways it doesn't really matter. They inspire people. If you're a CEO for a billion dollar company you need to be noticed. You will need to be charismatic (whatever that means) to lead your staff. Your staff will want stories to tell about you. They don't want to be led by faceless accountants (no offence faceless accountants).

There's the example of a British businessman who took charge of a confectionery company. His first act was to cut the tails of the sugar mice. What an incredible symbolic act. With one gesture he's demonstrating the ruthlessness he's going to show to turn the company around.

There's the story of Michael Grade, then controller of BBC One. He was visiting the news department one day where they were short staffed. He acted as a junior researcher to cover a shipwreck story finding a coastguard to interview. People at the BBC still talk about that today.

It's not all such grand gestures. James Dyson, businessman and inventor created a superb environment for his staff - subsidised restaurants. The story that sticks in my mind however is what new staff have to do on day one. Every new member of staff (whatever grade, whatever salary) has to build a new cleaner themselves and can then buy it for 5.

The second aspect is concerned with respect, care and (dare I say) love for their staff. I once worked in a large team for a man we would all do anything for. Why? It was because he always had time for you. He always asked about your family, what was important in your life. We had a number of offices around the country so he often didn't see his staff for weeks on end. However, when he did he spent the first 30 minutes talking to people individually. He was invariably late for his first scheduled meeting of the day with the site Head as he would insist on doing this without fail. As I say we would have died for him.

Compare that with another way of "working the room". A senior manager came along to speak on a training program. Before he was due to speak we chatted;

"Any of my people here?"
"Two I think " I replied"
Oh , who ?"
I told him who they were.
Blank look. He had no idea who they were.
"Where are they sitting?"
I told him.
He walked in - walked straight over to them. "Hi Annie, Hi Rita Great to see you again."
They beamed. They were absolutely thrilled that a senior manager earning ten times as much as them had remembered their names.

Well they were until he left and I explained to them how he had manipulated the situation.

There was a survey carried out a few years back asking staff what quality they admired most in their leaders. The result was surprising, well to me at least it was. The top quality was 'honesty'. Interesting, eh?

The top business leaders I've come across have one surprising quality that I barely noticed at the time but becomes more obvious compared to the more idiotic leaders you work with. This is a quality about treating people (all people) especially their staff (all their staff) with total respect and never making them wrong.

I'll explain. Maybe it's easier to illustrate this with a negative situation. I've seen a very, very senior manager in the Civil Service throw his laptop computer at the head of the multi-million pound Computing section exclaiming "What can I do with this piece of shit. You told me you'd fixed it last week and nothing's changed. Take it away!" (I've removed the expletives).

I understand his frustration. To many in the Office he's a hero - someone who won't take any nonsense from anyone - but I do wonder.

Someone once said "Don't make someone wrong. If you make someone wrong they'll get you back." Humans, unlike other animals, hate being wrong. It's the second most potent drive - so I've been told. This was illustrated to me by an ( allegorical ?) experiment involving rats and humans. This is where you place a rat in a T box at the bottom of the T and put some cheese in the left hand corner of the top of the T (got it?). The rat goes to the cheese and eats it. This experiment is repeated a number of times until the rat gets the idea. Next the cheese is moved to the right hand corner. The rat goes to the left hand corner - sees no cheese then goes to the right hand corner. Sensible. Eminently logical.

Bring in the human. Repeat the experiment until the human gets the idea about where the cheese will be (left hand corner). Then move the cheese to the right hand corner. The human goes to the right hand corner - sees no cheese and sits down. He waits and waits and waits thinking "Someone screwed up - and it's not me." Humans hate being wrong. I'm sure the Head of Computing Section will get him back - sometime, somewhere. Life has a habit of working out like that don't you think?

The best leaders don't do that. They don't make people wrong. They go out of their way to let people 'lose' with dignity. They invent ways out for them - even their opponents. You never know when you might meet them again.

A colleague relates the story of his stressful day going for an interview. He was driving along - quite stressed when someone cut him up. He overtook to see a little old lady - totally oblivious to him. Without swearing - he said nothing to her. Of course you've guessed who was chair of his interview panel.

Byron Kalies is a Liverpool-based writer with 12 years' international experience as a management consultant. Recent publications include Across The Board (U.S.A.), Career Times (Hong Kong), CEO Refresher (Canada) of course, Guardian (U.K.), Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), MIS (U.K.), Management First (U.K.), Lifelong Learning (U.S.A.), Business Day (South Africa), Business Plus (Ireland). Book "25 Management Techniques in 90 Minutes" (Management Books 2000) published April 2005. He can be contacted through his web site at or emailed at .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Byron Kalies. All rights reserved.

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