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Jerry Lockspeiser: Good leaders needed – everyone can apply

Published:  25 February, 2022

A winemaker once told me that he judged the ability of his peers by the circumstances they worked in. He said it was fairly easy to make good wine when the grapes had ripened well, the picking conditions were ideal, and the cellar was well equipped. But only the best of his craft were able to make good wine when the opposite conditions prevailed. 

This seems a transferable point, applicable to many walks of life. It is always easier to do things competently when the circumstances are propitious, much harder when they are not. We see this perhaps most strikingly in the field of leadership, whether in sport, politics, or business.

According to The Times when reporting on the “Partygate” affair:

“Civil servant Sue Gray said there were “failures of leadership and judgment” in parts of the government in the initial findings of her investigation into gatherings at Downing Street during Covid lockdowns. Significantly, Gray said that some staff had “wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so.”

The UK Prime Minister is not the only one to find himself accused of fostering a negative organisational culture. Brewdog CEO James Watt has had a torrid time recently in this regard. In June 2021, a group of disaffected employees published an open letter under the moniker “Punks with Purpose”, naming Watt as responsible for a toxic working culture characterised by fear. Early in 2022, a BBC documentary piled on the pressure, airing accusations of inappropriate behaviour by Watt made by female staff in the company’s American operation. 

According to INSEAD, considered one of the top business schools in the world:

“The most important qualities of a good leader include integrity, accountability, empathy, humility, resilience, vision, influence, and positivity. “

Assessing Boris Johnson’s record against those eight traits – while suspending moral and political values for the purpose – it is hard to see how he scores anything but failure against the first four, success on the fifth and eighth, failure on the sixth, and with the seventh in almost daily review. 

Watt has repeatedly used Twitter and LinkedIn to reply to his critics, and to open more broadly about his mistakes since creating Brewdog in 2007. He is consistently contrite, apologising profusely if he has unintentionally caused offence, while declaring his intention to become a better leader. He also announced that he was “forced to take legal action against the BBC” to protect his reputation. Only time will tell if those who can judge him best – his team – will decide if he is walking the talk or not. 

On the other hand, Johnson has spent little time publicly commenting on the accusations and even less in bearing his soul or engaging with them profoundly. The last few months have not seen him rise to the challenge of good leadership; if anything, the impression of being unable to deal with a difficult harvest has been accentuated.

Brian Tracy, author of ‘Eat that Frog’ (key point: tackle your most important task first in the day to become more productive and happier), summarises leadership as “the act of guiding a group of people or organisation to a desired goal, result, or higher level.” That requires a clear vision clearly communicated, a focused strategy, and rallying the troops. 

Many leadership styles can tackle the leadership task, from the autocratic to the servant, the charismatic to the transactional; one sports team captain leads silently by example, another shouts encouragement at their teammates throughout the match. The world’s political landscape is 

scattered with diverse styles, from Jacinda Arden to Jair Bolsonaro.

While there are many ways to skin this cat, INSEAD’s eight traits imply an approach – in this case, to business leadership – that embraces a progressive attitude to working with others in pursuit of the common goal. No longer is the goal alone the objective; how it is achieved becomes an objective too. ‘What we do’ merges with the values of ‘how we do it.’ And, as the examples of Johnson and Watt clearly show, those values come from the person or people at the top of the organisation - the leader. 

I have been lucky enough to lead and work in small and medium-sized businesses that aspire to the progressive approach. While the flavour varies enormously between them, they tend to share some key characteristics. There is a feeling of positivity, inclusion, and openness amongst the team; people respect each other and speak up when there is an issue that needs dealing with; they feel clear about the business objectives and their role in achieving them, and many stay for a (very) long time. 

Good leadership can filter down from the top and reach outside the business to others. Open cultures encourage people to take leadership roles in everyday circumstances, from daring to be first to answer a question while everyone else is staring at their shoes, to proposing a solution to a nagging problem. Miguel Torres has led outwards to the whole wine trade, championing awareness and practical action over climate change; Harpers seeks to lead on the same issue through the launch of its Sustainability Charter for the trade. 

The leadership values of those at the top of the tree have greater impact than most others because of their position. But we can all be leaders in our life context, no matter what title or role we may have. We just have to decide to think like one. As INSEAD put it: 

Leadership is a lifelong journey that begins with self-awareness.

Jerry Lockspeiser donates his fee for this column to The Running Charity who work with homeless young people in the UK.