From Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson – Leadership styles and the power of ‘We’

When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on TV that we needed to be prepared to lose loved ones before their time to the Covid-19 virus, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling shocked, even though I knew something like this was coming.

Perhaps not surprising, as this was probably the first time since World War II that a UK prime minister had to tell us we face a situation where a significant portion of the  population risk losing their lives.

After the initial shock wore off, I found something in his address still niggling at me, to the extent that I tracked down the original text to find out what it was.

What was bugging me was that he didn’t say ‘We need to be prepared to lose loved ones before their time’, he said ‘Families need to be prepared to lose loved ones before their time.’

The difference seems trivial, yet for me it highlights an important question of leadership style, one which is as relevant for business leaders as it is for politicians: do I include or exclude myself from the body of people I lead?

Winston Churchill rallied Britain in one of its darkest hours by declaring that we would fight them on the beaches and we would never surrender.

I can’t say whether he actually intended to grab his service revolver and head for Dover if things demanded it, but emotionally that ‘we’ put him squarely with the whole population.

If he had said “The British Army will fight them on the beaches…..the British people will never surrender” I’m not sure it would have had the same resonance.

I’m sure Johnson’s advisers will have carefully thought through the content of his speech and deliberately avoided ‘we’; it just jarred a bit with me in the circumstances.

It got me thinking more broadly about exclusive and inclusive leadership styles, the behaviours involved and how this relates to us as business leaders.

I know I should probably say ‘you as business leaders’, as I am a business leader no longer, but I favour the inclusive style, so please excuse the liberty.

It’s not that an exclusive or inclusive style is categorically right or wrong; we know that effective leaders consciously adapt their style to the needs of the situation.

The current fashion for collaborative, inclusive leadership – referring to staff as ‘colleagues’ and the rest – doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right approach every time.

For example, you can argue that crisis leadership demands a highly disciplined, command and control-based approach. This naturally lends itself to a more directive, exclusive leadership style.

On the flipside, you can say that an inclusive style is generally more effective in bringing people along with you, even in a crisis

If your leadership objective is specifically to make difficult change, for example to outsource or make redundancies, an exclusive style may create the least pain for everyone involved, while an inclusive approach may grate and be seen as false or hypocritical.

And there is tension between our preference for inclusive leadership styles and the demands of the highly competitive and, dare I say, still largely male-centric business environment in which we operate.

As professional leaders I believe we are well used to managing this. As with so many leadership skills, we just need to be aware of the potential effect of the style we adopt and tailor the style to the needs of the situation.

However, I sometimes see exclusive leadership style behaviours and wonder if they have really been tailored to the needs of the situation, or if they owe more than a little to a simple excess of testosterone.

Using the third person rather than ‘we’ is perhaps the clearest example of exclusive leadership behaviour, but there are others.  Adopting adult/child behaviour in a team environment is one.

Asking a question of the whole group in a team forum can be a valuable inclusive leadership technique if you demonstrate it’s a genuine question, that you genuinely don’t know the answer, and that you value any response, even if you may challenge it.

It becomes an exclusive behaviour when you ask a question to which you already know the answer.

If most of the team don’t know the answer, this puts you in adult/child territory; we’re back in high school, and you’re the teacher.

‘Can anyone tell me how many units we sold in Nebraska last month?’ is likely to put your audience on the defensive. Those who don’t know worry a little that they should, and those who do know feel a little embarrassed that they do, just like in the classroom.

If most of the team do know the answer, it takes us back to kindergarten, like getting the whole class to recite the two-times table.

You can get away with it as an inclusive behaviour if it’s pre-agreed and is part of the team dynamic, perhaps as a team mantra, but otherwise it tends to be exclusive.

When Boris Johnson held his first cabinet meeting after his general election victory and got his ministers doing a unison call and response of the party’s main manifesto pledges, it felt like exclusive leadership behaviour, not least because their enthusiasm level suggested this was the first they’d heard it was going to happen.

Another adult/child leadership behaviour in team forums is putting team members or the whole team on the spot.

There may be good reason – they may need, as one of my theatrical colleagues rather crudely puts it, a bit of ginger up their…. – just be aware that doing it in a team forum is an exclusive leadership behaviour.

If you say ‘I welcome this new investment and I look forward to X delivering the benefits by next May’ when X is in the room, hasn’t agreed to be called out, and hasn’t been told their deadline is May, I suggest that’s an exclusive leadership behaviour without an obvious benefit.

That’s just a couple of examples which came to mind around the specific dynamics of team forums.

Clearly that dynamic is very different from, for example, one to one meetings, where you have to be able to set out challenging objectives and ask probing questions. It’s calling these out in front of the rest of the team which marks out the leadership behaviour as exclusive.

In general, I guess the main takeout from this is that exclusive leadership is marked any behaviour which positions you as leader as separate from or superior to the team, business (or country) you’re leading.

If that behaviour helps to achieve a business objective, then that’s the right style to adopt.

If it’s even partly about bolstering your ego, I’d be inclined to think about it carefully before adopting it, and perhaps favour the ‘we’ approach instead.

Whatever your preferred leadership style, or if you don’t consider yourself a leader, may I fervently wish you a healthy and financially secure outcome from our present challenges.


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