Strong, emphatic, egotistical leaders have been a feature of my career. My first job was working for the Conservative Party, when Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister. By that stage she had entirely abandoned the pronoun ‘I’ in favour of ‘we’, and her management style did not, at best, brook anything much in the way of discussion.
Shortly after leaving that job, I found myself working for the Daily Mail. Its editor, Paul Dacre, had if anything an even more confident approach. Untrammelled by Parliamentary arithmetic, European leaders, or the necessity to submit himself to periodic elections, he ruled the Mail unchallenged for a quarter of a century. Both of these leaders were exceptionally successful, while ignoring pretty much every tenet of the modern leadership canon.
There was no conciliation, not much empathy, limited consideration, no team building, no appraisal system and a complete absence of personal development. Instead there was ambition, drive, stress, competition, ruthlessness and a good deal of shouting. In both cases, it worked, for a time at least. The Mail was the most effective work environment I’ve ever been in; an extremely dedicated group of highly professional individuals produced a hugely commercially successful paper. The Conservative Party, which in the intervening years has come to appear almost eccentrically dysfunctional, when I arrived in 1990, enjoyed one of the most productive decades in its history. The recent BBC documentary on Thatcher was a reminder that love or loathe the Iron Lady, she and her government were an extraordinary phenomenon that transformed Britain.
Modern leadership experts would probably explain this by arguing that the world has changed, that millennials have different motivations and cannot be led in the same way. Perhaps this is true. It is certainly the case that they are less ambitious in a linear way, more inclined to take time out to travel or look after children, less easily bullied and more comfortable with simply walking away.
When we are considering how to lead, we should not be blind to the harder motivations as well as the softer ones.
But then if we look at the political and business leaders who are emerging around the globe, they seem cast more in the Dacre/Thatcher mould. Boris Johnson, who wanted to be ‘world king’ as a child and began his Premiership by sacking more than half of the Cabinet, Donald Trump whose Art of the Deal describes a world in which winner (by any means and at any cost) takes all. Nor is this confined to our increasingly populist politics; Steve Jobs, Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos, even Bill Gates in his day were all ruthlessly driven egotistical individuals who imagined a different world and had the will and the drive to bring it into being. In each case their obsessive and dictatorial nature not only drove their success, but doesn’t seem to have prevented them from attracting and retaining incredibly impressive teams around them.
So when we are considering how to lead, we should not be blind to the harder motivations as well as the softer ones. Fear, for example, can work. During my schooldays I spent five years at a boarding school, in a house organised by a man I loathed.
Looking back, I believe he used his unpleasant personality as a tool to bind us together and create cohesion. It wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but it worked. When I worked at the Mail, fear was also a factor; people were afraid of the editor, and driven to work harder because of that, but a significant part of that fear was driven by their admiration for him. They didn’t want to fall short of his standards. Everyone went the extra mile, and the product was better as a result.
Competition also works, frighteningly well. Human beings are competitive animals, we want to win, at sport, at work, at life. I’ve worked for a number of individuals who encouraged those under them to compete for a place in the sun; this naturally creates stress and tension as well as winners and losers. It also drives people to produce their best work, to make leaps of the imagination and effort that would not otherwise be possible. It also means clearly taking responsibility for failure as well as success. I was very struck some years ago by the elevation of Niall Fitzgerald to run Unilever, shortly after he had presided over a reformulation of their Persil brand that led to its dissolving the clothes that it was washing. Clearly at Unilever the buck for failure didn’t stop with the man in charge of the division; perhaps that was a good thing but it appeared to me to go against a necessary commercial Darwinism.
As it happens, I do not practice what I am preaching here. Management, which has only become part of my life relatively late in my career, I approach like a jigsaw puzzle, finding the right individuals for the right job and then giving them the space to succeed is the recipe that for me most often leads to success. I abhor shouting and dislike bullying, I find leaders who deliberately encourage dissension in their subordinates intensely frustrating. In part this is because it seems to encourage an enormous waste of effort. But I am not Paul Dacre or Margaret Thatcher or even Boris Johnson, they are, or were, both more successful and more exposed than me. Perhaps being collegiate and understanding is a luxury that they could not afford, and I can.
There is of course one other risk involved in dictatorial leadership, and that is
moral failure. If questions are not encouraged or permitted, then really significant ethical mistakes are possible. Some people would claim that Margaret Thatcher fell into this category; perhaps unsurprisingly given that I worked for her, in a small way, I’m not one of them. But I might be more inclined to believe that a Donald Trump, brooking no discussion, could be led astray. Similarly, in business, powerful individuals at the helm of businesses can suppress healthy ethical discussions.
The collapsed US energy business, Enron, had a banner in its lobby proclaiming ‘THE WORLD’S LEADING COMPANY’, and a management team that discouraged questions or scrutiny. But setting aside this moral hazard, we shouldn’t discount the effective dictator, and remember Machiavelli, ‘He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command’.
Ed Amory is a Managing Partner of freuds