Monday, December 9, 2019
Leadership is best measured in times of adversity, says Steve Hutin, the managing director of Rope and Sling Specialists Ltd.
I was talking to an Arsenal supporter last week, following their 2-1 reverse at the hands of Brighton. It’s an unfathomable result based on the teams’ respective centres of gravity but, such has been the Gunners’ fall from grace in recent years, it couldn’t have come as much of a shock.
What our conversation focussed on in particular was a moment towards the end of the first half when Arsenal’s young midfield prospect Joe Willock misplaced a pass to newly appointed captain, striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The pair got their wires crossed and the attack came to nothing. No big deal—that’s how most of their offensive endeavours have ended recently. But Aubameyang saw it differently; he launched a stinging verbal attack on the player many years his junior.
To rub salt into embarrassed Willock’s wounds, interim manager Fredrik Ljungberg hauled him off at half-term and replaced the youngster with big money but out of form summer signing Nicolas Pépé. Added to the fact that Willock had also missed a header from close range, it was a half—and a match—to forget.
However, the bigger story is that Aubameyang and Ljungberg’s combined action stunk of poor leadership, which has been Arsenal’s problem for years. And my chat with this disgruntled Gooner reminded me of the importance of leaders to any team, club or operation.
Fair weather leaders
Like all successful businesses, our pathway hasn’t been a straight upward curve from day one to present. There have been bumps in the road and challenges that we’ve had to overcome. Every time the going gets tough, the strength of our leaders is tested. On occasions, the root cause of a difficult scenario has been a lack of leadership when we needed it most. Arsenal were on top for a brief 20-minute spell against Brighton and at that moment a lack of authoritative figures didn’t matter, but it was short-lived and when the visitors regathered themselves the cracks appeared again. And that’s a sign of a poorly led outfit, in any walk of life.
What Aubameyang should’ve done is applauded his teammate’s efforts and said, “Keep trying it—next time we’ll get it right. Maybe I didn’t make my intentions clear enough.” Mistakes are normal (I make them every day) but what’s important is that they’re learnt from. Coaching and tuition often stem from an error or a shortcoming so they’re a key component of progression. Will screaming at Willock really make him better? No.
Sailing a boat in calm waters is easy but as the winds pick up and the waves start lapping over the sides, that’s when it becomes a test of seamanship and captaincy. It’s the same in business. Good teams, even with bad leadership, are likely to be successful in flat seas, but during a storm, they have nowhere to look for inspiration. Of course, good leaders don’t always avoid a turn for the worse—like the weather, clouds will inevitably gather at some stage—but they know what to do when the pressure is on.
It’s true that even a weak or inexperienced team can be successful under the right leadership. Supervision is a key and hugely underrated component of success. Flaws in a team can be varied and include too much expertise weighted in one area, a lack of loyalty, laziness and a negative attitude. Even when such problems are present, a good leader will find a way to turn things around. A lot of the time, it’s about discovering a way to motivate each individual. We all like a good team-talk but being able to tailor an approach to each person is what separates good leaders from bad. Did it really work when your school teacher shouted at the whole class collectively?
There are certain things I look for in prospective and flourishing leaders. Firstly, they must have a willingness to coach and teach their team. It can be a painstaking process to educate someone but the best managers I’ve known have always devoted time to improving their staff. Secondly, no good leader I’ve ever met hasn’t set a great example for others to follow. Behaving and working in a professional manner is incredibly infectious.
It’s also important to set people challenges, which usually goes hand in glove with delegation of responsibility. Folks have to learn to have control over situations. Nobody can do it all by themselves and the best leaders don’t try to. They drag people with them. The ability to place the right people in the right role is crucial too. It takes a keen eye to spot where someone’s talents reside; shoehorning a person into a position that doesn’t suit their skills is unlikely to result in long-term success for either party.
I don’t want to get sidetracked by the nature versus nurture debate and, truth is, people can be born with good leadership skills and they can acquire them over time. There are certainly some people who are naturally gifted with management skills but others who, themselves, have been well led and inspired by an earlier generation of leaders. Managers must frequently take a step back to monitor the evolution of a team so they can spot the future game-changers—the ones that will inspire others, react positively in times of crisis, and motivate their teammates.
Ever the optimist
Confidence and belief are massive. You can bet your bottom dollar that Willock’s pass to Aubameyang would have been measured to perfection if the team was on a winning run and they were 3-0 up at the time. Winning is a habit. Look at Liverpool and Leicester City, for example. Leaders in business can’t afford to be off form for long periods so they’ve got to find ways to maintain optimism even when others can only see the downside of a situation. This is the art of leadership and the reason why the best player, or salesperson, doesn’t always make the most inspiring captain or manager. You could argue that Aubameyang only wears the armband because he is the team’s star man, which is a mistake.
The best leaders keep learning. Anyone new to a senior position should think of himself or herself at the bottom of a new curve, not at the top of one. I’d be wary of a leader who feels that the best thing about being in charge is that they no longer have to listen to anyone else. That’s often when they start to believe their own hype and can begin acting in a way that alienates the team. Once a leader misleads, it’s very difficult for them to regain respect. I have a trusted network of people who keep me on course and other business owners should do the same. It’s not about double-checking every decision but being entirely autonomous is dangerous.
It’s election week here in the UK and hopefully 2020 proves to be the year where we regain some stability. Brexit has bamboozled us all for too long and credit is due to all the business leaders who’ve navigated a way forward in such a climate.
Sadly, it’s the first New Year we’ll enter without Tim Panter, who passed away in May. He was based at our Aylesford facility. Tim was a superb leader and a close mentor to me over 25 years in this industry. Tim served the business as a regional manager for the southern area but, much more importantly and memorably, he was a fantastic person who I considered a personal friend. As many readers were lucky enough to experience, Tim was full of humour and great company—in and out of the workplace.
More leaders should be like Tim.
Rope and Sling Specialists Ltd