Leaders We Deserve

December 21, 2006

Three Leadership Domains

This Blog examines news stories in business, politics, and sport. It extends and updates ideas published recently (2005) in the book Dilemmas of Leadership. It seeks to test contemporary principles of leadership through a community of learners.

The Leaders we Deserve

The first principle to be explored is that we get the leaders we deserve. Since setting up the site I have been making progress exploring the provenance of the term. In a recent website article, Marie Wennberg quotes Alexis de Tocqueville “In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve.”

Executive theorist and guru Alistair Mant grabbed the term for a leadership book in the 1980s.

Shakespeare consistently reminds us that tyrants have to rely on the continued support of those whom they seek to dominate. You could take that to imply that we even get the tyrants we deserve!

The same principle holds for business leadership. From my base at a Business School, I have had the opportunity to spend a great time with many leaders and MBAs (‘wannabe leaders’). I have also discussed leadership with executives recruiting for their companies. One of our most experienced administrators now knows in advance which students will be hired for which major company. ‘They always go for the same kind of person’ she told me. In other words, the selection process results in each company getting a corporate match. In this sense, companies are getting the leaders that match their expectations. They are getting the leaders they deserve. Of course, the smart companies are regularly monitoring the consequences of their leadership selection processes, and modifying them as required.

In sports leadership, we read of the tensions and battles between administrators, on-field coaches, and other interested parties concerned that a team gets the leaders it deserves.

Join-up: An invitation

The Blog format is consistent with the principle of developmental learning, and is suitable for exploring such ideas. Through it, I can become part of community of learners, who contribute through sharing experiences and mutually enriching ideas about leadership. I have been collecting and examining leadership stories in a more restricted way with students and colleagues for some years. Now I am particularly excited at the possibility of working within a wider community, and invite comments on the various news stories I come across. The plan is to have three categories at first, of business, political, and sporting leadership stories.

My preference lies in encouraging intelligent questioning in a spirit of critical reflection.

Airbus leadership challenge

December 21, 2006

Airbus delays put company at risk

According to a BBC report, delays to delivery of its new super A380 plane have put Europe’s major international airplane business at risk. Earlier dismissals of project executives suggests that the Board is opting for a leader bringing political rather than engineering skills to the rescue.

Earlier this year, A380 project executives, including Airbus CEO Gustav Humbert, were dismissed. Humbert was blamed for the failure to deal effectively with the project delays, but also was accused of concealing the seriousness of the problems.
In a short space of time, Humbert’s replacement, Christian Streiff resigned, and a third leader, Louis Gallois was brought in. Streiff was believed to have failed to secure backing for a financial package he believed necessary to turn things around with the A380.

Gallois is a much admired leader with a track record of top-level negotiating skills as well as industry experience. According to a recent Louis Gallois bio

‘In some respects, Mr Gallois’ career reads like that of a typical French bureaucrat ..He studied at the Ecole National D’Administration, the country’s elite college for administrators..[and] has since held a series of top jobs including running engine maker Snecma, as well as heading Aerospatiale and SNCF .. However, it has been his ability to combine strong management skills with a popular touch which has made him valued by politicians from both sides of the spectrum’.

The delays are leading to heavy compensation claims and problems for parent company EADS. Customers have contracts that make switching to competitors costly, and Boeing has such a full order book that they could not offer much in the way of short term replacements, however much they would like to do so.

However, the financial losses put Airbus under considerable threat. Job cuts, particularly in the UK seem likely.

Leaders we deserve?

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To lose one leader may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness. If we take a simple view of leadership, the company has acted against mounting evidence of poor delivery record and future problems when they removed Gustav Humbert. The decision was linked to the departing executive’s concealment of the seriousness of the situation. This appears to be a cut-and-dried illustration of Board decisiveness, in face of a disappointing betrayal of faith by Humbert. The company was misled, but successfully gets the (new) leader it deserves – i.e. one who is to be trusted to implement the policy of the company.

But in a short space of time, Christian Streiff, the new would-be rescuer resigns. Why? The alleged explanation is that he could not win Board backing for his plans. At this stage we might be excused for recalling Wilde’s dictum, and wondering whether the Board had been doubly unfortunate, or maybe a little careless.

The company may have been seeking the sort of heroic leader who would implement a strategic goal with inadequate resources. Streiff’s resignation would be consistent with a pragmatic view that the problems require more funding, not heroic leadership.

The General leadership point

A board dismisses senior members of a major project which is failing to meet its targets. A new leader is brought in. The leader outlines a recovery plan. The Board faces a dilemma: Board members do not have faith in the plan. They reject what they see as an infeasible plan financially. The CEO resigns. An experienced ‘safe pair of hands’ is brought in to lead the company. Is the rescue of the company dependent on obtaining the sort of leader the board believes necessary to implement their original project strategy? Or does the situation require a different sort of strategy?

[Marginal stylistic editing of the original Blog, January 24th 2006]