Thursday, 12 January 2017

Leading from behind

There’s a guy I know really well. He’s hugely successful at one thing – leading from behind. Once you know him, you’ll all too quickly realise that there’s just no question that you’ll ever find his bloody and battered, all too finely tailored tweed suit, torn and stained after the battle is over and the ink jets have sputtered their last dribbles of magenta ink, he’s too smart for that. Those amongst you who like historical novels will no doubt have read about the ‘Forlorn Hope’ that misguided band of soldierly derring-doers who in less civilized times, in the vague hope of getting a quick promotion hurled themselves bodily into the gaping jaws of death (read missed budget sales targets) dying messily under a hail of bullets shrapnel and associated grapeshot in the final battle for global product domination.

Yet, stride over the ruins days later as senior corporate honchos hold lengthy meetings called post mortems and you’ll never see Jean-Claude anywhere near. No whiff of that expensive after-shave will even be able to eradicate that acrid taste of decaying market share.
For Jean-Claude has learned the secret. He’s bullet proof, he’s smart – and he ALWAYS leads from behind: you’ll never see his grass stained knees as evidence of brawling over a tense turf war.
Let me tell you -  as you are obviously a seeker of ever higher office in the corporate hierarchy of things – how it works.
First, meeting Jean-Claude for the first time, he’s everyone’s ideal recruitment poster squeezed into one bright package. Fast thinking, sociable (oh that warm smile and ‘can-do’ nod of the head!) He’s open, makes good unblinking eye contact and wins your confidence 30 seconds after you’ve met him.
Second, he is a serial volunteer. Never passes up a chance to offer to do the impossible (looking back it always is just that - IMPOSSIBLE).
Third, due to his ‘can-do’ determination, he’s usually chosen to be the team, task force or project leader. And he always pretends it’s a surprise, but he always says “yes.” The others are also happy too, they are caught up in the aura of Jean-Claude’s world – a place where good things SHOULD happen. They believe in him (because we’ve been told just how good he is), a bit like they used to believe in the Easter Bunny. Nice to look at- dangerous to live with.
I saw him just the other day, fresh from dodging his way out of the equivalent of yet another corporate car crash. Bouncing along the moving pavement at Frankfurt Airport (FACT! Eventually, everyone earning some sort of executive-level salary HAS to pass through Frankfurt Airport at least once every five years. Don’t even argue about it, it’s the third law of Executive Coincidence, (the same one that specifies that mega-rich hedge fund managers live until they are 95 and never have trouble sleeping at night).
As I passed by, there were news feeds on monitors in the Executive lounge with earnest-faced anchor-men gleefully listing the meltdown of Big Bucks Business XYZ, while Jean-Claude, oblivious to his latest self-induced disaster movie playing out in front of him, waded thigh high in his old so well polished, boots through yesterday’s doom and gloom headlines. Markets might be tumbling. Masters of the Universe may be biting their finger nails but Jean-Claude was doing just fine.
Why? Well, you see, they’d paid him off again. Jean-Claude’s ace-in-the-hole his secret talent is a work of genius. Albeit a work in constant progress. When Jean-Claude volunteers to lead the faithful to the next Holy Grail, they lap it up. Every last ambition-clouded corporate soldier will follow to the ends of the earth. Only when they get there, he’s gone. You see they never catch Jean-Claude holding the wrong end of anything, he’s too smart for that. And the levels and multi-layers of embarrassment make it easier to pay him off (a couple of millions plus in this case). It’s a small price to pay as one of his victim’s recently said, “for looking really silly.”
I can see you shaking your head. Thinking I’m making this up. I’m not. There’s a lot of money to be made for not looking stupid. It’s the corporate equivalent of pass the parcel. When the music stops, the last man holding the box is subject to a lifetime of public ridicule (still, don’t believe me try going to a soccer match and hear the comments aimed at the jowly men in blazers - they’re the ones still drinking the good Bordeaux). Jean-Claude succeeded because he led from behind, letting all the other eager beavers out front get mown down by opposition machine gunners. And it was so embarrassing. We started the war and we had to pay a high price to cover our retreat and save our reputation – again!
He’s on the loose again now. Confounding all those sensible chaps tasked with corporate oversight. He’s leading a charge from behind backed by the finest PR machinery yet devised. There should be a UN resolution to ban corporate stupidity. Sadly, leading from BEHIND is perfectly legal, but boy isn’t it embarrassing? They used to say money talks. The fact is it keeps quiet, very quiet, which is why it will keep on happening and Jean-Claude will keep right on smiling as he leads from behind!

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage directly with Rudi Plettinx here.


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