As a financial journalist who has profiled numerous business leaders, it should have come as no surprise that patterns would start to emerge as I skim-read another glowing CV. What first got me thinking about leadership types was how often Procter & Gamble and Unilever cropped up in the early working lives of the CEOs I was preparing to interview.
These ‘Sellers’, as I christened them, closely understand their product, its position in the market and how to get into the mind of their customer. They became the first of my nine types of leader. Including Gavin Patterson at Salesforce and Stefan Bomhard at Imperial Brands, sellers are in demand wherever competition is rife and good communication is called for.
What other patterns could I spot? The leaders I corralled together were either products of their training, circumstance or, in one instance, birth. All have their strengths and their weaknesses.
There are ‘Fixers’, those fearless menders of ailing companies. Think of Dame Moya Greene at the Royal Mail, a company that was desperately in need of fast work to preserve cash and neutralise toxic relationships when she arrived in the UK from Canada Post in 2010.
‘Diplomats’ are less confrontational, picking their way through noise to manage complex stakeholder interests, often at partnership organisations like PwC and Arup. They are adept at finding consensus, but sometimes risk being overly cautious.
‘Lovers’ have a desire for the task at hand that is undeniable. They stand out from a corporate crowd that craves authenticity but doesn’t always achieve it. The self-confessed bookworm James Daunt engineered a successful turnaround at Waterstones that he is aiming to repeat at Barnes & Noble. Beccy Speight at the RSPB is among many great charity leaders powered by their passion.
Several of my types are more familiar. ‘Founders’ are the lifeblood of successful economies, feted by governments and investors as creators of jobs and growth. They have brought their ideas to life during years of hard work disrupting the established order. Set against their heady mix of confidence, creativity and risk-taking, most leaders pale by comparison.
But founders can have their limitations too. They are emotional beings who think they are always right but often must learn to transition from swashbuckling entrepreneurship to composed corporate life – or else pick the right moment to hand over the reins.
‘Scions’ also plan for the long term. Leaders such as Ana Botín at Santander and Francois-Henri Pinault at luxury goods group Kering grew up knowing that one day they would inherit all they survey. They must be doing something right because so many corporate dynasties live on in this era where meritocracy is meant to be a watchword. Success comes to these leaders if they can carry forward their legacy without being weighed down by it.
What about ‘Alphas’, a pejorative term these days in leadership circles? It is true that few would admit to emulating these tough, all powerful, big personalities that call to mind the UK retailer Sir Philip Green or Jeff Immelt from General Electric.
Yet alphas have been rebooted in Silicon Valley where the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk exert incredible control over their empires and investors besotted with growth don’t seem to mind. Their brand of relentless drive does not easily translate to caring capitalism but big characters can still act as a reassuring figurehead in tough times.
Early readers of my book aspire to two types above all others: ‘Campaigners’ and ‘Humans’. Unilever’s Paul Polman is perhaps the most famous campaigner, having put the mantra of “profit with purpose” firmly into practice, aligning corporate activities with a greater environmental good. His successor Alan Jope carries the flame at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream producer – as do many other leaders who recognise that Covid-19 has reinforced the social contract between business and society. Other notables include Rose Marcario, until not so long ago CEO at outdoor clothing brand Patagonia.
And finally, the humans, who listen carefully, admit mistakes, communicate authentically and take seriously their duty of care to colleagues and stakeholders. Compared to the superhuman alphas, they are also very self-aware: what should the office of CEO really contribute?
Of course, not every leader is a clear-cut case; not every bloodline is pure. The leaders I have observed continue learning and adapting all through their careers but typically hold on to one or two characteristics that identify them. If they have learnt anything in this last year, it must be to be more human.
To find out more about different styles of leadership, check out our resource on management styles here. CMI members can also log into ManagementDirect and search for ‘management styles’ to find videos, think pieces, and books that explore the topics.
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