TIP of the Week – A hard lesson in leadership

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I wrote the following story based loosely on a real life experience. It is about how a leadership style can make or break a business, and its people………. 

As the youngsters stared at the sheer drop of some 20 metres from their balcony to the pavement below they must have wondered why their mother was pushing them so perilously close to the edge. She was clearly intent on sending them hurtling to their doom on the unyielding concrete slabs below. What had they done to deserve such a draconian punishment?

Their little hearts were pumping and pounding like the pistons of a steam train in full flow, their breathing becoming faster and faster as the precipice drew ever nearer and nearer…..

There seemed to be no obvious reason for this physcopathic behaviour on their parents behalf, only moments before their doting mother had made sure their little bellies were full and had, up until this point, vigorously protected them from any harm…..

Graham Johnson was a dark haired, fresh faced young man in his mid twenties. He was resplendent in a respectful navy blue suit and crisp white shirt his mother had carefully ironed that morning. His ensemble was completed by a standard issue red company tie bearing an indecipherable logo and secured with a double Windsor knot his dad had spent hours showing him how to perfect, with limited success. With his shiny black shoes, he was every bit the corporate clone…..

Graham had just left the dark imposing 20 storey office building to grab a quick sandwich between the many and varied demands of his boss. Now he was transfixed as he watched in disbelief at the drama unfolding above. Suddenly he shrieked “Nooooooo!” as the first youngster pitched forward off the balcony. Bystanders, oblivious until this point, turned around sharply in horror and gasped as they heard the horrible ‘thud’ of soft living tissue meeting a rock hard immovable object with deadly force.

As he cradled the bloodstained lifeless young dove in his hands Graham instinctively looked upwards …….only to see the second bird plummeting earthwards, he swiftly leapt forward and positioned himself as if to catch his feathered friend in mid flight.

Graham need not have worried. The second dove, spurred on by the loud incessant chirping of its mother, caused no doubt by a heightened anxiety having seen the first disastrous attempt, unfurled its wings and made the most glorious and graceful bank and turn, worthy of a world war two spitfire. As the little grey mottled bird furiously fluttered its newly discovered aerial appendages it swooped past Graham’s left ear, let out an almost triumphant “cheep, cheep, cheep” and continued to execute a series of acrobatic manoeuvres worthy of a red arrows display!

These events troubled Graham for the rest of that day and all of that evening. He didn’t rest well, sleep did not come easily. The next day was the same, and as he sat at his desk the next morning his mind really wasn’t on the job, still churning these thoughts over and over. He gazed out of the expansive 10th floor windows over the industrious city landscape but he didn’t see the traffic snaking its way slowly along the choked high street, or hear the blaring horns of the impatient taxi drivers. He was oblivious to the ant like industry of the busy pedestrians below, he was completely lost in his own thoughts. Graham was communicating with a little voice in his head. He often had his most intimate and private conversations there, it was his confidante his closest friend and sometimes his worst enemy in times of stress and panic. “Why does mother nature drive a loving parent to endanger the lives of their children like that ?” “Did those little birds feel fear as they stood at the edge?” “What can I learn from this?” 

Unfortunately Graham’s inactivity had been spotted across the sea of people that was the open plan office, dubbed ‘the bear pit’.

Andreas Papadopoulos was of Greek descent, his name meant ‘strong’ in Greek and he adopted the attitude of: ‘take no prisoners’ and ‘no compromise’ because that’s what had been drummed into him. He had inherited his father’s electric blue eyes and Mediterranean dark rugged good looks, although he was visibly greying now.

His father had been a very hard taskmaster, a tough market trader all his life from the tender age of 9. It was he who had catapulted Andreas into the world of commerce. Andreas had no formal management training, just his father’s somewhat dubious advice, but he seemed to get results. Now in his early 50’s the confrontational nature of his management style was taking its toll. A few health issues were becoming evident as his weight climbed together with his blood pressure. Andreas was gifted with a wonderful clarity of thought and a speed of thinking that left most in his wake but at the same time he was cursed with an impatience that reared its ugly head frequently in short sharp outbursts of temper. He didn’t suffer fools gladly or anyone he felt was dragging their heels. He now had Graham firmly in his hawk like sights and was about to play his unique version of performance management called ‘come on down, let’s publicly humiliate the weakling to keep the rest in order’.

“JOHNSON…. GET YOUR SORRY BACKSIDE INTO MY OFFICE PRONTO” Andreas boomed….

A startled Graham jumped to attention, much to the merriment of his colleagues. Mind you, they were very careful not to let Andreas hear or see their hilarity at Graham’s predicament for fear of receiving the same treatment.

Graham knew this tone of voice all too well……..he had been on the receiving end of it on many occasions. He had started to believe there was an office sweepstake about how many times in a week he would get the ‘call’ from Andreas.

But somehow today was different.

The evening before Graham had dutifully buried the young dove in the back garden, said a few well chosen words, in truth slightly teary eyed. Something had touched him deep down, but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. He spent hours on the internet that night scouring it for knowledge about fledgling birds and he happened on a poem that was about to change his life forever.

It’s called ‘Come to the Edge’ by Christopher Logue, and goes like this:

Come to the edge…….We might fall.

Come to the edge……..It’s too high!

Come to the edge……..And they came and he pushed

And they flew.

You see, Graham lacked confidence in most situations. He had learnt to cope with it though; after all he had enough practice. In fact the bawling out Andreas gave him was nothing compared to the one his father had given him on countless occasions including only last week when in exasperation he called Graham “useless” at his son’s inability to tie a simple Windsor knot at 25 years old!

But somehow today was different.

For the first time he understood the events of the past 24 hours and he felt a surge, an uplift in his spirit that pervaded his whole being. He felt liberated and the dialogue in his head became much more purposeful. He knew exactly what he had to do……

Instead of his usual rather apologetic stance with head bowed and body slightly bent forward in a subservient way, Graham drew himself up to his full 6 feet 3 inches. His eye contact locked onto Andreas like a laser guided missile, and he heard his internal voice come to life for the first time in a clear, strong tone:

Have you quite finished?” He repeated it: “ANDREAS, have you quite finished?

Andreas, unaccustomed to this response spluttered, nearly choking on his coffee. He sat bolt upright, a stunned look replaced the scowl and his jaw dropped slightly open. The bear pit also fell silent, their usual entertainment didn’t normally go like this! They sensed the game had changed and strained to listen to the inevitable verbal explosion from Andreas……….but it didn’t come.

Graham continued “Right Andreas you have one of two choices to make

One – You start treating people around here with the dignity and respect they deserve and treat them as human beings. If not I am quite prepared to take my fully documented grievance to HR

“Or, two – You accept my resignation, which I have already written out.” Graham felt deep into the inside pocket of his corporate blue suit jacket and thrust a white envelope into Andreas’s face as closely as he dared.

Graham continued: “You see Andreas I actually don’t care which decision you make, but I will tell you I am no longer prepared to have my wings continually clipped by your self-centred, arrogant, bullying attitude. I have my own life to lead and I am taking this chance to gain my freedom and be the person I want to become. I don’t know if I will soar or crash and burn, I just know I need to unfurl my wings and see where it takes me……I refuse to look back on my life not knowing what I was capable of achieving”.

Like all bullies Andreas couldn’t cope with this assertive approach, all of his own demons flooded back to haunt him. He visibly crumpled and softened in front of Graham’s eyes.

Andreas mumbled “sorry I didn’t realise, I don’t want to lose you……

Graham responded: “What did you say?”

“Please sit” beckoned Andreas, but Graham remained standing to reinforce the point that Andreas was no longer in control of this moment.

There was the merest hint of moisture round the rims of Andreas’s now slightly reddened eyes.

Look Graham, I can’t do this for much longer. The only way I have ever known is to drive people hard, it’s the way I learned and it worked for my father and it’s worked for me. I need to find a successor, someone with that inner strength to drive this business forward……..and I think I may have just found him……

But Andreas, people don’t respond to being pushed, told and coerced for long. Everyone out there hates you

Graham turned and pointed towards the bear pit. Heads ducked down as if he had just trained a machine gun on them, the fear was palpable.

Graham continued: “You can only be a leader if you have followers, they are not followers they are frightened puppets whose strings you have to constantly pull to get anything done. They need to be liberated, involved and empowered to give their full contribution. You need their hearts as well as their heads and hands or you will ultimately fail…..

5 years on and Graham is now Managing Director running the company.

Andreas had fast tracked him through the business. Truth was after that fateful day, Graham’s colleagues had gained a new respect for him and Andreas’s power had waned very quickly and he eventually he took early retirement on the grounds of ill health. Few people mourned his leaving in fact there was a collective sigh of relief.

Graham quickly gained a reputation for getting things done but it was through an inclusive style of leadership involving people instead of telling them. Graham knew that sometimes you have to trust people and let them go and explore for themselves and that would release the potential within each one. He coached and advised he never shouted, sometimes he was firm but always fair. They never let him down, it was risky at times, but such was his relationship with his people, when things did go wrong there were never recriminations only a collective will and effort to succeed.

The company enjoyed record results in this time. Profits were up, absenteeism went down dramatically and recruitment focussed on growing the business rather than a constant battle to find replacements for leavers.

As he glanced out of his 20th floor tinted office window Graham spotted a dove returning to a nest high in the building opposite. It had a twig in its beak, the symbol of eternal hope for the next generation, and he smiled to himself

Graham had come to the edge…….and he was flying

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julian@tipsfgm.co.uk