Don’t fall for the hardcore CEO fashion

Tufan Erginbilgic has only been working for two months. But already the chief executive of Rolls-Royce’s aviation group sounds like the epitome of a style of no-nonsense, emotionless leadership that the combination of purpose and the pandemic seemed to have sent to scrap.

Anonymous comments from former colleagues suggest the former BP executive “hates waking up” and “is not a social person” (Financial Times). Erginbilgic is “not very likeable” and “a really tough manager”, but “if you’re a red meat eater who loves to drive performance, you’ll think he’s great” (Sunday Times).

In January, he resorted to the dangerous metaphor of a “burning rig” to describe the Rolls-Royce’s predicament to staff and inject urgency (another common word in profiles) into the faltering blue chip.

Some managers, having exhausted their (sometimes shallow) layers of empathy during the Covid-19 lockdown, are likely eager to receive such signals that they can return to a taste of firm discipline. Across the Atlantic, Elon Musk’s hardcore Twitter leadership heralded a broader trend of massive job losses, cost cuts and a loosening of remote working as leaders prepared for tougher economic times. “No More Mr Nice Boss,” quoting the headline of a Time magazine article that hailed flexible employers as “a flash of a pandemic.”

However, it is a mistake to assume that companies always go for a CEO with a style appropriate to the weather, discarding him like last year’s fashion when the wind changes. At least among listed companies, most CEOs most of the time prefer to stick to what they know how many organizations have done when the pandemic hit. Whoever is the CEO should be able to adapt his approach to the prevailing conditions.

By the way, comparing flexible work with “nice” leadership is strange. Choosing where to put your staff balances efficiency, productivity, common sense, cost control, competition, employee retention and attraction, and yes, empathy. But this is just one decision among thousands made by leaders.

What about the leadership itself? When I paired up-and-coming leaders with current CEOs in a podcast series in 2018, a younger group chose adaptability, resilience, diversity, and teamwork as the areas future leaders expected to develop. “Nobody wants to be managed. . . we all want to be inspired,” said Namita Narkar, now a senior manager at an Indian healthcare company. She told me via email that working with a variety of leadership styles since 2018 suggested that “the approach to improving bottom line largely remains the same – increasing sales and reducing costs – but how it is implemented makes a difference.”

Hermann Arnold told me in 2018 that he hoped leaders would evolve at all levels of the organization, creating a bottom-up strategy. Since then, he has been a co-founder of 42hacks, which creates ad hoc teams to develop answers to the challenges of climate change. He quotes Heike Bruch of St Gallen University, who wrote about the double requirement for leaders to inspire colleagues on the mission to “capture the princess” and make them aware of the dangers, urging them to “kill the dragon.” Arnold says, “If you want to be a great world-class leader, you have to master both.”

This assessment is supported by the Oxford Character Project, which explores the essence of “good leadership”. Edward Brooks, the project’s executive director, says that “character, in the classical sense, is about integrating the virtues in the whole person, not about vacillating between the two.”

In a study that has yet to be published, the project asked employees in the financial sector to list, above all, the qualities of a good leader. Participants preferred traits such as listening, empathy, and approachability. However, when asked to focus on qualities that were “critical” to good leadership, they chose “harder” qualities such as risk awareness, competence, and common sense. One interpretation is that the first list reflects the respondents’ leadership aspirations and the second the characteristics required to deal with the day-to-day reality of running an organization.

In practice, both are necessary. So I expect Erginbilgic’s hardcore image to soften a bit as it goes from inspiring a Rolls-Royce to slay a dragon (or put out a burning rig) to encouraging them to get a princess. Former colleagues at BP say he was not only a tough, results-oriented leader, but also an excellent team builder. Leaders who can’t bend styles won’t last long in unstable times. As one of the respondents to the Oxford survey put it, referring to the sports metaphor, “you need to be fit and strong, AND touch and skill.

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