Management Futures: Models for your role

04 March 2014

In a typical interview of a senior executive for a newspaper’s business section, there’s often a question about role models, where the journalist is looking for the early motivations in the hinterland of a high-flyer. Often it’s a parent or one of their first managers, and it’s at the light-hearted end of the article, well after the Big Stuff about merger strategy or an ongoing controversy.

What some research indicates, however, is that the influence of managerial role models can go very deep, and that who a manager views as a role model can be a big clue in helping understand them. Management is unlike technical disciplines in that we engage much of our personal self in our way of working. It involves communication and personal presence, as well as analysis and decision-making. And our ‘way of being’ in the world has many influences. To be sure, parents and line managers early in our career are likely to have been influential, as well as, perhaps, influential thinkers – but there could be others, from the world of sport or literature.

Our assumptions on how to be in a leadership role don’t arise in a vacuum – they are culturally shaped, influenced by unspoken societal norms around how a leaders should act. A fun, interactive online quiz called ‘Hidden Heroes’, recently created by CMI, helps you identify your values and ways of working.

It’s well established, for example, that society still shows instinctive biases towards male figures as leaders, and that women continue to be largely excluded from the top table. It has also been demonstrated that you are more likely to be promoted if you are tall – the height bias being particularly noticeable in sales and management roles, according to one US study. The author of this study, Dr Timothy Judge of the University of Florida, concluded that the explanations are probably atavistic, lying deep in human evolutionary patterns.

Empirical evidence shows, of course, that effective leaders come from any background, and are diverse in appearance and manner. On 6thMarch we’ll be discussing the influence of role models at an event in Canary Wharf, London, where leaders including Sue O’Brien OBE, CEO of Norman Broadbent, and Jenny Willott MP, Minister for Women and Equalities, join a fantastic panel to discuss how to challenge cultural archetypes and create positive role models for girls and women. The latest CMI survey findings will also be presented at the event.

The influential psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who did most to demonstrate the commonest cognitive biases in human behaviour, illustrates how we crave certainty and direction, encouraging over-confidence bias and herd behaviour. These preferences also encourage faith in articulate, self-confident, ambitious, tall men.

Certainty and direction can be valuable qualities, but they shouldn’t trump wisdom and good judgement. Many recent corporate disasters (Royal Bank of Scotland, Lehman Brothers) had self-confident leaders exhibiting certainty and a clear sense of direction. 

One practical model that has helped many managers over the years has been developed by Sandy Cotter at the Praxis Centre, Cranfield University. It draws eclectically from different psychological disciplines to describe how ‘archetypes’ influence us, and how there’s an archetype, or blend of them, in each of us.

For example, warrior types are competitive and rational; super-hero types are charismatic but volatile. There are also thinkers, poets and earth mothers. And the most intriguing thing of all is that Ms Cotter’s workshops are used by busy senior managers, in a highly practical way. They help people understand how they – and even more crucially, others – think and operate.

Another approach to understanding role models discusses fiction. One of the shortlisted books for the CMI Book of the Year Award in 2011, Meet the New Boss by Philip Whiteley, suggests that literature, popular song and even situation comedy may have influenced our sub-conscious attitudes of what ‘the boss’ is. For example, the ‘Fatal Bias’, as described by Jules Goddard in his winning Management Article of the Year, concerns the cultural tendency among managers to prioritise cutting costs ahead of understanding and serving the customer. Meet the New Boss suggests that Ebenezer Scrooge may have helped shape this attitude, describing the scene of old Ebenezer in his counting house as ‘an MBA in microcosm’, oblivious to the risk that Bob Cratchit might go work somewhere else.

It may sound unlikely, but if you enter “Scrooge complaint minimum wage” into a Google search you get around one million hits. Many of the articles and blogs it reveals take for granted that being ‘Scrooge-like’ helps the business: like this article on an unofficial ‘Scrooge award’ which simply assumes that businesses rake in more from low pay. But as this blog has noted before, that’s not necessarily the case. The example of Costco shows that you can outperform your competitors handsomely while paying much higher wages.

It’s more evidence of how enlightened firms can escape the ‘Fatal Bias’ and find success by breaking the assumptions that form much of our business and management cultures.  If we’re going to really going to shake up management culture, maybe it’s time for some new role models?

Submitted by Philip Wood

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