Chapter 10 Leaders—A Higher Lifeform? – No Cape Required


Leaders—A Higher Lifeform?

I’m a leader not a follower. Unless it’s a dark place, then you’re going first.


Many years ago, I walked in to a splendid building in London, near to the Houses of Parliament. It was the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Treasury, the financial hub of the UK government, and it was my first day in my first job that I thought was the start of a proper career. I had the grand job title of Executive Officer, and it was explained to me that I would be working to a Higher Executive Officer who, in turn, would be working to a Senior Executive Officer. There were several grades above that but given that progress from one grade to the next would take 4 or 5 years, I didn’t see the point of remembering the detail.

There was great excitement that day in the office not, sadly, because I had joined, but because one of my new colleagues was due to retire. People clustered around her desk where she proudly displayed her medal, recently received from the Queen. She had worked in this government department all her life and had worked her way up several grades and was duly rewarded. It seemed that this was to be my destiny; if I wore a suit, turned up between nine and five, and did a good job, I too could aspire to a grander job title and a “gong.”

I do not wish to denigrate the achievements of this person for the route that she took; at that time, it was commonplace to move up the hierarchy, to be paid more as she went up, and, by taking on leadership positions, to be rewarded in a way appropriate to the organization. I didn’t have the right mindset to stick it out and lasted 6 months.

Outdated Paradigms

Those days of finding a job in a large paternal organization and staying there for life are long gone, but some of the attitudes that accompanied those paradigms have remained. The idea that we should start in a technical or professional role, increase our skills, and get paid a bit more for that until finally we are deemed so good at our job that the most sensible thing to do is to promote us into a management role, still prevails. That the only way to get more money and status is to move into management and then aspire to an even higher life form: The Leader.

When you look into the roots of the word manager you see it is derived from a 16th-century word maneggiare, which means “to control and train, especially horses.”1 It’s no wonder that the people want to move out of management into leadership. In reality this procession through to nirvana is nonsense.

It’s entirely reasonable that some people should want to move into management; it’s a worthwhile and valuable discipline, in itself. It’s also understandable that if you give people greater responsibility and they deliver against that, then they should be duly rewarded.

However, there are challenges with the “traditional” paradigm that I’ve outlined here. First, the distinction between managers and leaders is a false one that does not serve us in today’s world of work. We’ve outlined in the previous chapter the leadership evolution that has happened, which means the traditional roles of manager and leader are blurred. We need people with both management skills and leadership skills, at many points in the organization. It’s just the mix and the ratio of those two skills that will vary from role to role. In today’s world, what we also need are people who are properly prepared, and empowered, to take ownership and take responsibility. The people who do that are leaders.

The problem, however, is we see leaders and managers as typically being roles that “other people report into.” And so the only time that we give leadership training to people is once they’ve progressed some distance up that long ladder.

Leadership Essentials: Start Young

We need to start thinking about training people in leadership skills right from the very start of their professional careers. This is the argument supported by the UK Chartered Management Institute (CMI), who undertook a survey2 with managers, management, and business students and 13 universities. Asked to assess the skills and behaviors of business school graduates, managers say the top strengths they see are:

  • Managing innovation and digital technologies (83 percent somewhat or very strong)
  • Curiosity and willingness to learn (79 percent)
  • Inclusive and ability to work with different cultures (78 percent)
  • Honest and ethical (78 percent)
  • Financial skills (72 percent)

The weakest scoring areas are seen as being managing people, having difficult conversations, and taking responsibility … areas much in demand among employers for new managers.

The transition from the professional or technical skill into the manager or leader role is typically handled very poorly and often is driven by the wrong motive.

There are several outdated myths:

  • That the only way to progress is through the management route;
  • That leaders and managers are intrinsically worth more and contribute more than professional or technical experts.

A corollary of this is that people who want to earn more money have to step into management. We’ve all seen the problems that this can cause; classically you take the best salesperson and put him or her into a sales manager role. By doing so, not only have you just lost your best salesperson, but you may have put the worst possible person in charge of managing the people who now report to them.

There’s an assumption that, despite having invested both money and time into creating good professionals, they can then step into management with hardly any training at all. The CMI call these people “accidental managers” because, although they have sterling qualities, they’re allowed to fall into the role of manager/leader without preparation. Often, the most that they get is training by osmosis as it filters down from above them—some mentoring, perhaps, or being sent on a “presentation skills” course, as if that will sort it all out.

Leadership Essentials: Distinguish between People Leaders and Thought Leaders

We need to see management and leadership as highly regarded professions in their own right, at the same time acknowledging the value of those who remain in the professional or technical disciplines in which they excel. It just doesn’t make sense to promote and reward those people who thrive in technical areas by turning them into people leaders. Some organizations recognize this and, rather than forcing them into the management of others career route, simply reward them for their thought leadership. And for those who thrive in the people leadership arena, perhaps it’s time to recognize that it’s a worthy profession in itself.

In the United Kingdom, only about 3 percent of people in management positions have got any formal qualification in the field; yet we allow these people to run our banks, hospitals, and airports. In contrast, CMI estimates that chartered managers,3 CMI’s gold standard accreditation, add more than £390,000 in value to their organization, and so the investment costs pale beside the payback. So, where we still have a need for managers and leaders, then the least we can do is invest properly in their development, ideally before we put them into a significant role.

We can also look at how we organize the tasks that the team have to do to make best use of all the skills of all the team. If we look at any role, then it really is just a collection of tasks that we have conveniently bundled into a single place and usually a single person. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can break down the tasks that make up the role of manager and distribute them among the team. The concept of self-managed teams has been around for a while, and these work at their best when this approach of reallocating the managerial tasks is handled properly. These teams do, however, need a clear sense of purpose and direction; they need to understand what is required of them and where they fit into the organization. They need to deliver against targets.

Interestingly, if you ask teams to set their own objectives and targets, then typically two things happen. First, they tend to set more ambitious targets than you might and, second, they tend to overachieve against those targets. This is because people have a sense of ownership, responsibility, and commitment to the target, something that is lacking when the targets are externally set. There are other ways of structuring organizations that breakaway from the hierarchical model: networked organizations may be more appropriate and more flexible in today’s world.

Leadership Essentials: Understand Motivation

Connected to this topic is the challenge to traditional ways of rewarding. Performance-related pay at an individual level is widespread. Yet there is a huge body of evidence that says that this is a very inefficient way of rewarding people and is unlikely to lead to the outcomes or behaviors that the organization intends. It can also have a negative impact: creating a climate of distrust and unhealthy competition. It leads organizations to create crazy rules and forbid people from talking to each other about their pay and reward packages.4

In a world where success is measured by creativity rather than the number of widgets produced, it’s hard to objectively tribute success to different individuals in a fair way. Yet in most organizations, progress and success come as a result of great teams delivering, even though that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody’s contribution is equal.

I once did an experiment with a team of five people when I called them into my office individually and said, “If I were to give you a sum of money to distribute as a bonus among yourselves how would you choose to spread that money around?” Four of them said that I should split equally among all of the team, but that Simon should get more as they all felt he was the best. Simon suggested a five-way equal split of the money.

People on the ground often have a better sense of where the value is being created, and we should learn to trust them more. We also need to address this notion that the only way to earn more is to move out of the job you do really well into a new job of management that we’ve never trained you for and for which you may be entirely unsuited.

We need to value the technical and professional contributions people make. This might mean paying your best technical people more than some of your managers. And that’s hard to do if you still maintain a single hierarchy. In one organization I used to work in, to be promoted into a particular level of management, you were expected to manage people. In our small part of the organization, we changed this to promote technical people into that role and pay them more without giving them people to manage. It gave us flexibility and worked really well. A project manager who was looking for the best technical expert to work on the project might end up managing someone in his or her team who was being paid more than he or she was. But frankly, so what? The problem came a year or two later when a new departmental head challenged me as to why some people at that level were not managing staff; they reorganized and gave those people teams to manage. I jokingly suggested that they would do less damage to the organization if they lined the people up along wall and shot them, but my sarcasm fell on deaf ears. Our performance dropped, and we lost some great people.

Another danger with traditional, hierarchical thinking is the belief that the further up the organization you are, the more value you deliver, the better your decision making. You must be a higher life form.

Leadership Essentials: Nurture Creativity and Innovation

This takes us back to the risk of ego, particularly how often you will miss the great, value-adding ideas from people around you.

We are fortunate to live in a lovely village in the heart of England, close to the center of the UK motor industry. There are not so many mass manufacturing businesses these days; instead, there are specialist “advanced engineering” firms. They support projects like the Formula 1 teams in nearby Silverstone. Our neighbors in the village include several engineers, some of whom are retired. There’s an admirable perfectionism about these people, though it makes for a very competitive environment sometimes. They also demonstrate the notion and value of transferable skills.

The annual produce exhibition allows those who have taken up gardening to show how meticulous preparation pays off. The scarecrow day, where villagers compete to create the most original scarecrow, taps into their imagination and innovation with some awesome constructions. I was chatting to one of our neighbors as he was bent over the bonnet of a sad-looking TR4. This was a sports car made by the Standard Triumph motor company in the early 1960s. It sold well in the United States and featured in the TV series My Favourite Martian. The appearance was great and contained many innovations, but the construction left something to be desired. The British car industry had started to lose its reputation for reliability. In conversation with Frank, I began to realize some of the reasons for it. It won’t surprise you to know that poor leadership was one cause. I asked Frank what he planned to do to overcome the known design faults. He’d already found a better engine than the original; the footwell was a notorious rust spot, and he’d got around this by drilling some holes. But the most interesting part was when Frank started to talk about the chassis. He had been an apprentice engineer working on this very model when he started out on his career. He’d been asked to look at the design of the chassis and realized that it had an inbuilt flaw. It could easily buckle if the car had a relatively minor collision in just the wrong place. Frank went over his figures a few times and came up with a modification. Pleased with his work, he went to his supervisor, who immediately dismissed his ideas. His boss had been there a long time and thought he knew everything. He wasn’t prepared to listen to this young apprentice.

The flawed design was similar to the modern method now used as a safety device for protecting pedestrians; so it was a good design in the right setting. The flawed chassis design was used until the company folded.

Worksheet: Stimulus Questions

In this chapter, we address the traditional assumptions about careers, and how organizations might need to change their approach to fit with VUCA World. We support the view that the leadership skillset needs to be introduced and developed in people as early in their career as possible. We explore the notion of leaders as “better than,” in some indefinable way, managers or team members, when what we need in today’s world of work are resourceful enablers who motivate and inspire each other, and, working together, get the job done.

Here’s some questions you might want to ask yourself as you reflect on this chapter.

  • What changes do you need to make in your mindset to get the best from all your people?
  • What changes do you need to make in your organizational structure to get the best from all your people?
  • Choosing a pilot role (or roles), if you broke it down to task level, how would you rebuild that role differently to be more effective?
  • What impact might this have on where you invest in training and development?
  • How might you restructure your reward systems to improve the outcomes you are looking for?


1.See, for example,, (accessed May 15, 2018).

2.Chartered Management Institute. February 2018. 21st Century Leaders: Building Employability through Higher Education (Report) (London, UK: CMI), op.cit.

3.Chartered Management Institute. 2015. Mapping Management Excellence: Evaluating the impact of Chartered Manager (London, UK: CMI).

4.See, for example, D. Burkus. 2016. Under New Management (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin).