There Is No One Way to Lead

Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash

Marcus Rashford would have made an unlikely case study the last time I ran the Civil Service College’s Executive Presence training course. However, his campaign to persuade England to maintain free school meal vouchers over the summer period was definitely worth discussing. How did this young, quietly spoken footballer manage to rally so many people to his cause?

There were three key elements to his success —

  1. there was one clearly articulated goal — maintain the vouchers;
  2. he adopted a studiously reasonable tone — it was never framed as a partisan attack on the government;
  3. he used his own personal story of hardship in an open and honest way that hammered home both his message, and his authenticity.

Certainly the exisiting social following Rashford enjoyed helped the campaign fly from the off, but without the story, the message and getting the right tone it could have dropped quickly down the agenda, or even badly backfired.

Such was the success of the Premiership star’s campaign, that none of the course delegates so much as blinked when he followed onto the screen after Angela Merkel (the explainer), Jacinda Ardern (the empathiser) and Barack Obama (the comforter in chief). Now add Marcus Rashford (the storyteller).

And that is the point I try to reinforce during this course — there is no one way to lead. No one way to be effective. You have to find a strategy that works for you and builds on the strengths you already have. The course is aimed at people who want to take the next step up the ladder. Often people who are experts in their field — used to having all the answers to all the questions in their world. When given broader responsibilities and even having to admit… “I don’t know” for the first time in their working lives. To go back to football (can you tell I’ve missed it?) this difficult shift from being brilliant at one thing, to then being good at lots of things, explains why so many of the best players fail, or don’t even try, as managers. Broadening your view across a whole organisation is tough, and it requires building new skills. But, it doesn’t mean you need to surrender who you are, or where you come from.

Given the events of recent weeks, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve never been more aware that the notion of executive presence, loosely defined, can be misused and abused in the corporate world, and in public service alike. Take this example from a recent Economist study into business and race in America:

…white managers are often hesitant to give black employees candid and frequent feedback. This backfires when the workers who think they are doing well suddenly get sacked. Challenged about this, the managers typically use euphemisms like “she just wasn’t exuding enough executive presence.”

If we too closely define leadership styles, and Executive Presence, with what the world already looks like, we’re heading for trouble. This simply allows organisations not to face down existing bias in terms of race or gender — and it also deprives those same organisations of badly need plurality in leadership teams.

Far from asking people to surrender to traditional leadership norms, the course I run works with people to develop their confidence in what they bring to the table. As for Marcus Rashford, that’s going to account for over 1 million free meals for deprived children this summer. Nice work.

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Matt Greenough

Matt Greenough

Former Chief Special Adviser and Speechwriter to the First Minister of Wales. Now run Words Matter, a communications consultancy - https://WordsMatter.uk