VIEWPOINT: A leader sometimes has to choose to be a man or a mouse. Occasionally swallowing your pride and being a mouse is the true sign of wise leadership, says Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, in this tenth in his series of articles for IEDP:There is a good friend of mine I see most weeks. He is a pretty big HR honcho (yes HR still does have people like that). In fact he is in a position to make or break careers. As the so-called ‘global head of people development’ if you, as a pushy career-ladder-climber, work at getting this guy on your side, promotions and rewards and responsibilities will surely flow your way. He is, very low-key BUT very influential; been around a while, cultivating his little patch of next generation leaders – the true high potentials. “They’re going places, this is the future of the organization” he tells me. He is building the next generation of leaders like an assembly line… they are clever, keen and ready to lay down their lives for the next step on the rapidly rusting rung of the corporate success ladder. He says it is fun to watch these people develop and he is very into his job. So when I met him recently for our twice monthly drink and a catch-up, quite out of character, he was not the usual positive kind of person I had come to know.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked half-teasing. “Looks like you mislaid your bonus somewhere?”
“It’s worse than that, he responded, “I just got word that I have to cut 4.3 percent of the headcount by year end.” This sounded crazy to me and I told him so. Two weeks earlier he had been upbeat saying how well the business was doing.
“No choice” he added gloomily, “our main rival announced a four point two cut on headcount this morning. If we don’t match it they’ll hit our share price big time…. The CEO knows what our biggest shareholders think about that.”
“But you’ve spent the last few weeks telling me all about the employee as the brand,” I said, “and what about the millions you’ve invested in new people development, what’s going on?”
“Very simple,” he said, sadly, “the boss doesn’t dare rock the boat. He can’t afford to, not now. The markets won’t stand for it, they don’t like uncertainty, they want to see a man with a clear vision and solid leadership credentials.”
“But that’s not leadership, that’s copycat knee-jerk reaction,” I countered, with a strong tone of frustration in my voice. “Where are all the fine words, the pledges to lead from the front. I’ve read the annual report, seems he said all that and more!”
“Simple,” he explained. “The boss wants to look like he’s in total control, that we’re capable of being as lean and mean as our rivals... someone started the musical chairs and we have to play, at least until this self-destruction waltz stops.”
And hereby hangs a tale that any of you would-be leaders need to heed most carefully. No matter how big you are, no matter how well your favourite PR guru has built you up and polished your profile in the best-read business pages, at some point you’ve got to just suck it up. Quite simply, you have a choice as a leader be a man or a mouse. And sadly, ever so often you can’t, realistically, be anything but a mouse. Go with the flow, take it on the chin, swallow your pride, keep the good old share price flying high.
After all, isn’t that the sign of true leadership, making a decision and sticking with it through thick and thin? The truth is, every fibre of your body will say, “we’ll do it my way”. But the facts and history speak for themselves. No matter how great a leader you think you are, you are in a box.... and you will cut, cut, cut - because there is no other action you can take. Your reputation will survive it, the institutional shareholders will praise you and life will go on. In six months’ time as the results come in, no-one will remember that you could have played it very differently. But then, at the end of the day, that is leadership, as we possibly poorly define it - and everybody wants to be a winner and everyone likes one too.
I said as much to my HR pal. He was not talking much. Reflecting, no doubt, on the people he has to move out in the weeks ahead; mentally playing out the “career transition” conversations he was going to be tasked with.
“I saw the CEO in the elevator as I was leaving,” he said, “he didn’t say much. Looked a little shocked, but he’s tough and knows how to deal with this kind of thing.”
I felt I needed to say something; there was a silence that needed to be filled. “He’s done the job he was asked to do, kept the ship upright, navigated the storm safely, that’s what he’s there for. Shame the big plans didn’t quite make it – but, I guess that’s life in the fast lane of leadership. Not too many wounded, a pretty low level body count, could have been worse.”
My HR pal brightened a little at that. “After all he’s still the leader. Could have been worse, he could have tried to beat the trend, then where would we be? We’d have to break in the next CEO, because he wouldn’t have survived if he’d jumped the other way.”
We sat in silence for some minutes, thinking possibly about a scenario of “what might have been.” Then he got to his feet, turned to me. “Got to leave,” he said, “lots to do first thing, we make it official about the cuts first thing tomorrow and I’m sure it’ll keep me busy for weeks.”