The Art of Leadership

Atten-shun! Listen up. General Sir Mike Jackson is about to brief us on change and leadership.

The themes of change and leadership are closely intertwined, Sir Mike told advisers at Russell Investments’ Sphere Adviser event. “It is difficult to achieve change without leadership,” he said.


The General noted that change is a curious concept. To illustrate the point, he quoted former US Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki, who said: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

The clear message is that if change is required and you don’t effect change, your career or business (read advisory firm) is on a downward slope.

Sir Mike went on to quote Gaius Petronius Arbiter, a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. Arbiter is reputed to have mused: “Reorganising is a wonderful method for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”

Putting these two quotes together implies that leaders should implement change when it is necessary, but change for its own sake can be harmful.

“Judgment is required to make that call, and impetus is then required to make change happen,” Sir Mike said. “That’s where leadership comes in.”

The leadership process, he said, boils down to: ends, ways and means. That is, know your objective, decide how to go about it, and make sure you have the means (resources, time, money) to tackle it.

“Ways are the key,” said Sir Mike. “The ways in which means are applied is where art of leadership lies.”

Assessing the ways to do something entails an assessment of risk. But trying to reduce risk to zero, or close to zero, is not desirable, he said. Sometimes, taking more risk gives you a greater chance of success. He cited the immediate aftermath of the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina in 1982.

“Whitehall’s view was there was nothing we can do, we’ve been caught with our trousers down,” Sir Mike said. John Nott, the defence secretary at the time, agreed with the civil servants. It wasn’t until the head of the Navy, Henry Leach, marched into Margaret Thatcher’s office on a Friday night and told her a fleet could set sail by Monday morning, that the decision was made to defend the Falklands.

The clinching argument? Leach told Mrs Thatcher: “If we don’t do it, or do it half-heartedly and are not completely successful, we should be living in a different country, which counts for very much less.

In short, know when to act, and take the right amount of risk for the situation.

How leaders implement their decisions is where they really earn their pay. A plan only really comes together when it is effectively communicated to team members. “Enthuse them. Tell them it’s the right plan, that it’s in their interests and it’s in the wider interest too,” said Sir Mike.

Leaders then need to measure the progress of their plan. This is fraught with difficulty. The best placed people to report back are those at the coalface. But it is human nature, said Sir Mike, for underlings to curry favour with their superiors and provide a picture which portrays them in a good light. For honesty to prevail and for coalface reporting to add value, the team leader should adopt the mantra: don’t shoot the messenger.

Finally, like all good soldiers, Sir Mike advises concocting contingency plans. “You can do all your analysis and choose a great plan, but it can get messed up.” So as not to get pushed onto the back foot, leaders need a Plan B, and a Plan C too. “If you have Plans B and C from the start, you are not scared to go to them when they are needed, and you will never be on the back foot,” Sir Mike added.

And there the briefing ended. At ease! Fall out!


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