November 30, 2009

Following The Leader

Sometimes, I think the importance of great leadership is overstated.

Don't get me wrong. We do need great leaders but maybe we need great followers even more.

Over the years, I've taken up leadership roles in a number of groups; often as a result of simply standing out like a sore thumb when others took a step back or being next in line when the baton was passed.

But I must admit, I enjoy playing the part of leader. In recent months, this has seen me taking centre stage more and more as I develop my speaking career and there's certainly a great buzz in leading the conversation in this way.

But I was struck at a recent showcase event, when I lined up with five of my fellow speakers to strut our stuff, at how important it is to have a great audience too, people who are prepared to follow your lead and make the experience an even more powerful one for us all.

I'm a member of a number of network groups too where it's hugely important for those on the back-benches to support those leading the group in simple, often overlooked ways, rather than vying to be the centre of attention.

So what happens when we fail as followers?

When I look at those who would lead our country, in particular those flailing about at the heads of our political parties, it seems to me that they couldn't be where they are and how they are without being egged on by a motley collection of spineless lackeys and cronies. A poverty of vision, ambition and integrity amongst those followers seems to lead to poor leadership: the bland leading the bland.

I've often used the example of geese in flight when taking or handing over charge of a group. You know the one: how geese in formation take turns to spearhead their unerring progress through the air to nesting or feeding grounds. And how they take turns too to be good followers. For if an individual goose breaks ranks without strong cause, then all is lost and they fall into disarray.

In my own business, I rely greatly on good customers, those who are willing to take my lead and head off into the unknown in search of a strong brand position. Without their active and critical support, I'd be powerless to lead them anywhere. They demand the best of me and the quality of their followership is vital to the success of our enterprise.

The more I think about it, wherever I look, it seems to me that our successes are down to inspired leaders and followers working in tandem. Equally, a crisis of leadership or followership leads to failure.

As followers, we need to both demand more of our leaders and demand more of ourselves. Sometimes even with the same breath, we need to be more critical and more supportive. Our society and our economy requires better backbenchers, voters and customers; ones who will demand only the best for us all.

There's no dodging this one: whether you're playing the role of leader or follower, you can't afford to settle for second-best.

Over To You: Where do you see examples of great leaders and followers setting the standards and demanding the best from one another?

November 22, 2009

Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Sinner or sinned against. Which would you prefer?

I watched the furore around 'l'affaire Henry' from the vantage-point of our Franco-Irish household (where my French wife Christine and au pair Marie were vigorously flying the other tricolour in the lead-up to the game) with a certain bemusement.

Christine summed it up best in the immediate aftershock of the match,"What a terrible way to lose. But what an even more terrible way to win."

When I was growing up, news of a teenage death on our roads would immediately prompt my own mother to commiserate with that other mother who had received the dreaded knock on the door that same morning. Then she would say, "I know this sounds awful, but I'd much prefer to be the mother of the victim rather than the mother of the drunk-driver at the wheel."

Thanks, mother, I think. But even from an early age, I knew what she meant, and I heard the same regret from Christine, Marie and the countless others who sent their expressions of shame and embarrassment to notice-boards and chat-forums in the days after the match.

It may be only a game but now, thanks to a simple sleight-of-hand that took scarcely a split-second, it stands for so much more in the popular imagination. It invites us to ask what it means to play fair, to take advantage, to stand up for what's right and, of course, what it means to be Irish and to be French.

But as an Irish football fan, I prefer to view Henry's as the fickle hand of fate (in other circumstances, it might well have been an Irish hand), and look instead to what the Irish team stood for on Wednesday night. Remember, that in the days before the game, this team had been pilloried as largely talentless donkeys, destined to play also-rans to the footballing thoroughbreds of France. Even those who didn't use such dismissive language damned the boys in green with faint praise and held out little hope of an upset.

Instead, the Irish players put on a courageous and frequently skilful display that lacked only a killer touch in front of goal. Robbie Keane's strike may have stunned the French team but for the remainder of the game a succession of squeamish Irish players failed to apply the coup de grace. Their failure to finish off the game offered a hostage to fortune and, as is her inclination, she took it.

In the aftermath of the match, I struggled to rouse myself to righteous anger or even indignation. Like my mother, it seems I'm hard-wired to prefer honourable defeat to shameful victory.

From the reactions of my countrymen, it appears that they too prefer to be on the side of the sinned against rather than the sinner. But there's a danger that we use our sense of being wronged (and how we love to store up those wrongs) as an excuse not to hold our own hands up to our failure to put the game beyond the French team when we had the opportunity.

For if fortune is to favour the brave, she at least expects her champion to have the good sense to seal the deal when given the chance.

Our players may have given it everything on Wednesday. But they might have given even more. And denied Henry the chance to play the villain's role.

If I regret anything, it's that in the aftermath of the game, I saw little evidence of any steely intent from our players to make sure that we never offer such hostages to fortune again.

Over To You: Which do you prefer: Sinned against or sinner?

November 14, 2009

Style Over Substance: The Fate Of The Giant Panda

"Like its piebald image as featured in countless brand logos, the Giant Panda has itself become a franchise."
John Keay, China, Basic Books

Something about that last line, from a longer excerpt on the debunking of myths about China, struck me as rather sad.

Earlier in the piece, the writer describes how "in the 1960's and '70s, the nearly extinct creature, together with some acrobatic ping-pong players, emerged as a notable asset in the diplomatic arsenal of the beleaguered People's Republic. Much sought after by zoos worldwide, the pandas, especially females, were freely bestowed on deserving heads of state."

Now, those Giant Pandas or Daxiongmao (Great Bear-Cats), are only available on a ten-year lease with "any cubs born during the rental being deemed to inherit the nationality of their mother - and the same terms of contract."

Whilst I guess life on loan in a zoo is a lot easier for the Giant Panda than a hunted existence in the wild, it seems to me somehow pitiful that this magnificent creature has become a franchise.

I know that, for many of us in business, the building of a successful franchise is a holy grail of sorts. And I know too that I am quick to remind business-owners of the importance of the commercial transaction that must underpin their activities if they are to count themselves a success.

But I must confess that sometimes I find market values just a little depressing. And the picture of the Giant Panda on a production line has really struck a chord.

Perhaps it's because we're in the midst of a media frenzy around the antics of Jedward on Britain's X Factor? Or that in watching the local version of The Apprentice earlier in the week, I was appalled how each of the contestants made all of the right noises around responsibility and accountability ("That was my decision" and "I made that call, Bill") yet wriggled off the hook with their next breath and laid blame at the door of a colleague?

So what's that got to do with Giant Pandas, you might ask?

Sometimes, it seems to me that we've grown too obsessed with symbols, particularly the symbols of success. It's not enough that we simply do our job, we must always turn it into a performance and look for plaudits. Much of the time, it becomes only about the applause whilst pretending to be about something much more substantial.

Isn't it enough that we simply do what must be done, without always playing to the gallery?

I think of my own parents, and the countless like them, content to work quietly away, raising their families and doing what's right, and largely indifferent to the approval of the judges or the fickle applause of an audience.

The Giant Panda was once held out as the ultimate symbol of an endangered species. In our media-obsessed culture, where few of us seem happy to simply do our best without looking for an audience and an approvals-rating, the great bear-cat is not alone. Now, this natural introvert, who by all accounts would much rather be left to its own devices, has become a status-symbol, a lucrative franchise.

And somehow, that strikes me as both pitiful and sad.

Over To You: Do you think we're too inclined to applaud the triumph of style over substance?

November 08, 2009

Primary Colours Fading Fast

What's the opposite of the halo effect?

It seems America's primary political brands have grown horns and a forked tail if the recent actions of some candidates are anything to go by. In its Branding The '09 Political Races article, Fast Company reports that politicians on both sides of the divide are keeping their party colours well hidden and flying the generic patriotic flag instead.

Brand commentators talk of the halo effect when brands bask in the virtuous glow of another brand's deeds but it appears that both Democratic and Republican candidates in State elections in the US believe that their primary colours have lost their lustre.

Are we now seeing the horned effect?

A visit to the websites of candidates for Governor in a number of states reveals lots of stars and stripes and whole fields of blue, red and white rosettes, but very little indication of where the candidate stands in terms of party loyalty.

It's almost impossible to imagine a politician in this part of the world washing party colours out of the election mix in this way. And it's extraordinary to see two of the world's most recognisable political brands diluted or damaged to such an extent that local tribal leaders prefer to daub on more universal colours before going on the war-path.

(It's also a measure, of course, of just how powerful the patriotic ideal remains in that part of the world when politicians fall over themselves to appear more American than their rivals).

If political leaders don't invest in their own brands, then how do they expect voters to either believe in those same brands or know what they stand for? Are political party brands just flags of convenience, to be lowered or discarded when they no longer fit?

Or is it possible that in this more transparent society we will see elections fought on the question of character and personal integrity rather than along party lines?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Even if we are seeing a return to more broadly patriotic values, there is something dispiriting about this desertion from the political camp. When politicians merely wrap the old flag around them in the hope of attracting voters, there's a real danger that they do so in order to disguise either their naked ambition or a poverty of ideas.

Over To You: Do you think it's a good idea when politicians deny party affiliations or does it show a refreshing sense of independence?