Leadership Is Best Demonstrated In Times Of Crisis – Discuss

What makes a good, even a great leader? I know, I know, you’ve seen thousands of articles about this topic and most of them were as forgettable as that lunchtime cheese sandwich you had last week when you were rushing between meetings.

But leadership has come up a couple of times recently in the context of significant events. We had the “leadership team” of the Australian cricket team deciding to cheat – not in the heat of the battle, but in a planned, considered manner.

Then we had the failure of leadership in the Manchester Fire Service highlighted by the Kerslake Report last week. After the Manchester Arena bombing last year, the Service “followed procedures” which meant fire crews did nothing for two hours while paramedics, police and others did what they could for the injured victims. (You can read more from us about the Kerslake Report here on Public Spend Forum too).

We have some sympathy in the second case; you could also imagine a situation where leaders might be castigated for NOT following procedures. But it does highlight one truth about leadership. And it is important, because there aren’t many indisputable truths in terms of that subject, as leadership comes in so many different shapes and sizes and there are few absolute rules around the topic.

So, I’ve heard it argued that the best leaders are those who “walk the walk” – the procurement directors who understand every detail of what their team does, can negotiate better than anyone, and probably worked their way up from assistant buyer. But then we’ve seen excellent CPOs, real leaders, who successfully parachuted into the function without understanding much of the detail at all. Some leaders are loud and charismatic, others are quiet and introverted. Both styles can be effective; just as poor leaders come with different personalities and operating styles.

But the indisputable point is that leadership is only really tested in difficult times, in crisis, and when life isn’t easy. When your business or organisation is succeeding, and everything is going well, it is easy to look like a successful leader. But when a bomb goes off, when your cricket team is losing in a hostile environment, when sales are down, or your stakeholders rebel because they hate working with your procurement team, that’s when leadership is really tested.

It has been amusing over the years to see various procurement and supply chain functions winning awards and being held up as exemplars - only for embarrassment when for instance Tesco (“best retail supply chain”) or RBS (“best procurement in financial services” supposedly) hit big corporate problems.  But does P&G win awards for supply chain because it really is a strength; or does the giant firm’s portfolio of brands make it hard for it to do anything but look good?  In Gartner's Supply Chain "top 25" list for instance, it is always the giants who dominate.

We’d argue similarly that it is actually quite difficult to know if Apple’s current leadership (generally and in supply chain ) is really good – because they have not been really tested for some years. And Facebook’s leadership is hitting its first real test now.

So when we look at how we rate procurement people, functions and organisations, it might be good to look at how they have behaved in difficult times, not just when life is good. It would also be great if somehow the smaller, unsung heroes (corporate and individual) of procurement and supply chain management got more of a look-in. Developing an innovative, efficient, effective supply chain and procurement operation is a lot harder when no-one on the supply side has even heard of your firm!

Wonderful company though Mars Confectionery was (and is), I learnt more in some ways about real supply chain issues after I left and joined a smaller, much more precarious food company. I make no claims to great leadership skills, but my test came in the weeks after the British Pepper and Spice factory burnt to the ground one night (I was the fairly new acting COO).  Frankly, the work we did there to save the business, in conditions of real crisis, was more challenging than anything I did at Mars, but I don’t suppose Gartner has even heard of the firm.

"The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire", as they say.

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Voices (2)

  1. bitter and twisted:

    There are no great leaders, just lucky ones.

  2. Mr Grumpy:

    Very thought provoking piece.

    For me, there are 2 things a great leader has:

    Credibility – In my experience, great leaders don’t just have the practical experience and qualifications, but they have the skills that can’t be taught: humility, empathy, charisma. It helps them have that universal appeal across the organisation at all levels and with external parties too. It’s almost natural to them and they know how to handle any array of situations that occur. I can literally count on one hand the amount of leaders in my career that have demonstrated all of those skills. Sadly many I have worked under lack a majority of the above and eventually go from position of leader to that of a follower.

    Visibility – For me as equally as important as creditability because great leaders are visible to the organisation. They don’t shy away from the spotlight, in good or bad times. They front up and confront any situation. They are synonymous with the function and the organisation. I have lost count of the amount of times the poorer leaders I’ve been under have run for the hills in times of difficulty in a bid to salvage their own reputation in the fear of association with a failure or impending one. The best leaders I’ve worked for stand up and be counted with their team and look to overcome such difficult times.

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