Said Business School, University of Oxford

Insights from the Said Business School, University of Oxford

World Kindness Day might be thought an odd occasion on which to focus on leadership, particularly if your image of leadership is influenced by the ruthless, competitive former heroes of the business media. But in recent years, a different sort of conversation has started to take place in business schools and in organisations, suggesting that our collective ideas about the types of leaders we want, and want to be, are changing.

Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director Emeritus of McKinsey and Company, recently visited Said Business School to talk to MBA students and discuss some of the leadership lessons he had distilled from hundreds of conversations with CEOs. Along with a range of insights about investing in people and moving between the short- and long-term view, he offered some personal advice based on his own career.

He described his younger self as a ‘box ticker’: ‘I would ask, “What do I need to do to get an A?” and then do precisely that. I continued in the same way at McKinsey, asking “What do I need to do to become a project manager?” and then “What does it take to become a senior project manager?” and so on’.

This approach obviously worked – right up to the point when he was expecting to be elected partner, and he wasn’t. He described to this young audience the ‘shock’ and ‘hurt’ he felt when he was not elected, and how it made him lose his self-confidence. But, he said, ‘ultimately it made me question what I wanted to do in the world. Did I want to change the world and make a difference – or did I want to meet other people’s checklists?’

The answer was that he had ambitious ideas and that he wanted to follow them, and ‘if McKinsey was the vehicle for achieving it, that was great – but if not, I was going to look somewhere else. I had to set my own standard as opposed to following other people’s expectations.’

Of course, McKinsey did turn out to be the vehicle for achieving his ambitions, but I think this story has a lot to tell us about being a leader in any organisation, and about how we develop leaders.

Much conventional leadership development is based on a type of box-ticking. A focus on trait-based models of leadership has yielded a set of characteristics that many people believe are essential to becoming a leader – being decisive, for example, or inspirational, assertive, energetic, even aggressive. A more sophisticated discussion often focuses on different leadership styles – do you meet the criteria for transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, bureaucratic leadership, transactional leadership, or servant leadership?

There are two main problems with this approach: we might not be getting the right leaders, and we might not be getting the right kind of leadership.

An ambitious person who is told that a leader has certain characteristics will make sure that they are able to demonstrate those characteristics – whether they can do so authentically or not. And trying to squeeze yourself into a mould can be a tricky business. Positive-sounding traits such as strength and decisiveness can so easily turn into arrogance and intransigence. Meanwhile, other people may simply not recognise traditional leadership characteristics in themselves and assume that, therefore, they are not leadership material. In addition, traditional leadership traits and styles often miss out certain characteristics altogether, such as humility and kindness.

Thankfully there is a growing realisation in all areas of activity that these old models of leadership are not necessarily fit for today’s world. But how do you break the mould? Simply creating a new checklist of characteristics such as empathy and trustworthiness is not going to work. Research by Dr Lalit Johri, Senior Fellow and Director of the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme, suggests that humanity in leadership could be defined as advancing from a successful leader (who obtains personal and organisational results) to a leader of significance, a leader who recognises making a positive and critical difference in the evolution of individuals, institutions and society to be a critical part of their role. To respond to today’s challenges – of rising inequality, of reviving nationalistic and divisive instincts, of the threats of climate change – we need leaders with imagination, empathy, and a deep sense of humanity. We don’t need people who have just worked out how to conform to someone else’s checklist.

From the very earliest times, mankind has used art, music, religion, philosophy, history, and literature to explore and understand our world and what it is to be human. These subjects help us see things through the eyes of others, to grapple safely with life and death questions, to embrace complex ideas and to be comfortable with – and indeed revel in – ambiguity and imperfection.

At Oxford Said we believe it is important to bring them into our study of business too. From MBA students who take the popular Leadership: Perspectives from the Humanities elective to senior and experienced leaders on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme, people have come to Oxford and found space, ideas and perspectives in the humanities that help them reflect on and develop their own approaches to leadership: whether it’s noticing how Shakespeare’s Henry V reassures and binds his team together before the battle of Agincourt or realizing how the pitfalls of both heroism and democracy come to light in Coriolanus.

An approach like this can create a different kind of leader from the checklist-formed and often abrasive heroic leaders we have been encouraged to admire in the past: one who is authentic and confident, who can recognise and respond to the human feelings of others with understanding and kindness. Leaders like this, exemplified by all the people featured on this list of Leading Lights, will be the new heroes.

Caroline Williams
Director, Open Programmes, Said Business School, University of Oxford