Bonkers, Brave or Bully?
Our MD Mr Hodges sent me this blog article and asked my opinion as to whether it is appropriate content for our blog. I found it a very interesting article, especially as having brought Steve in to run our business I now work for Steve. I know how passionate Steve is about customer service and doing what is right for our customers and that requires every team member being focussed on the common goal. If we fail in this we are not only letting Astro down, we are letting our colleagues and ourselves down too. Over to Steve.
Without wishing to preface this with a “All opinions are that of the author… blah, blah” type caveat, it is probably important to point out that this IS my personal opinion and based on my personal experience and my personal view of the world. That said, I did, before submitting it to Steve for publication, throw it past our accountant who is very much the voice of reason in our trusted partnerships, and one of few people not afraid to put me back in my box when needed. He was wholly supportive of the piece and reckoned that he had seen a few instances of this in his own firm. As a result, a cry of “bully” is now treated with caution and the circumstances are questioned before the ‘bully’ is investigated. He simply described the article as ‘brave’ but neither untrue nor offensive, which I guess is the point. So, here we go.
I was once in a bar with a number of staff from a supplier who were recounting a story about how one of their project managers has just been disciplined for bullying, based on sitting in a meeting and holding people to account for their timely delivery of actions against a project plan for a major infrastructure delivery. At the time, understanding the nature of the organisation, I put this down to the ‘large establishment’ mentality and took pity on the PM but didn’t think much of it. In the last week I was with in a group of people who are far from an ‘established’ organisation, more culturally fast paced and dynamic and was introduced to one of their more successful managers. She was very pleasant and when explaining to a colleague of hers afterwards, how I found her to be an excellent representation of much of what is good about their business, I was stunned to hear that she too has been in trouble for being ‘a bully’.
This more recent encounter sparked off a short period of self-reflection and consideration about the perception of some of my more successful (and less successful) friends and peers. Not being averse to being forthright and direct myself, it is not beyond the realms of consideration that I too could be perceived in this way, but I (naturally) would argue vehemently against this. I thought I would, at the risk of irritating some people, share my very personal views on this.
Demanding effectiveness, driving for results, asking for commitment, high professional standards, positivity and leadership are a minimum requirement of anyone seeking success for their team or their organisation, be that commercial, sporting, political or otherwise. Having low tolerance for laziness, lack of focus, sloppy workmanship, procrastination, or lack of engagement is also not a sin. Admittedly, how you communicate those values and how you deal with your intolerance is the fine line between being a coach and being a bully. But, at the other end of the spectrum, accepting them is clearly the difference between success and failure, between winning and losing and between progression and stagnation.
I am an avid fan of motivational material in many forms but none capture the mood of passion and motivation for me like Al Pacino’s speech in Any Given Sunday, and Alex Baldwin’s 7 minute 20 second tirade in Glengarry Glencross. Both amazingly motivational, but are also good examples of where the balance can be tough to call even if the effectiveness unquestionable. But that is fantasy, for real world action, you can see in the Living with Lions or The British Lions Down Under DVDs, or listen to the Alex Ferguson document by the Harvard Business School to see where examples of coaching could be described as brutal or barbaric. Or maybe, just brave.
In this world of acceptable mediocrity, a cotton wool coated society, and a culture of entitlement; the art of feeling fire in your belly and living passionately is being extinguished by rules and regulations and an education system that drills into kids that “you can’t make me do that” or “you can’t talk to me like that.” Kids, young adults and potential super-stars of commerce, sport, creativity and politics, and leaders from military to medical, are missing out on having their potential realised because the system around them is restrained from pushing, driving and encouraging them in a passionate and persuasive way. It is a travesty.
Now, I understand that the inappropriateness and disproportionate nature of the few, combined with the sensationalist society we live in, magnifying and amplifying these wrong doings, have done their best to ruin it for the rest of us. But, when I look at other cultures like South African or Australian sport or some quarters of American business, it is clear that the need for brave, engaged, and passionate, slightly bonkers leadership and motivation, in the UK, is greater than ever.
There are obvious ‘No, Nos’. There is no form of motivational speech or encouraging conversation that benefits from focussing on an individual’s colour, size, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical appearance. But some people in life are just nasty and weak. And there is very little benefit to criticising or chastising a person’s personality directly. Once the “You are…” type feedback becomes beliefs or values in peoples brains you have lost the battle anyway. But, directly and assertively focussing on a behaviour – “By not doing that, you have…”, “Doing that, achieves…”, “What were you hoping the outcome of that would be?” – in a consistent, relentless and impassioned way, can very often be the difference between someone ‘getting it’ and someone just hearing “blah blah blah”. Especially when this is matched with support, encouragement and confidence, and a mentality that says it is OK to make mistakes so long as you are trying to progress, and it is not due to thoughtlessness or laziness.
My final view on the difference between brave leadership and bullying would be the commitment – wherever possible – to not ask someone else to do something you would not be prepared to do yourself. Naturally we can’t always undertake the tasks that other people are in situ to do. However, leading the way, wearing the shirt, making the same effort and challenging yourself as much as you stretch those around you, are all indications that you are striving for the same outcomes, have shared goals, and are in it together. Therefore, unless you are just being nasty, you cannot possibly be bullying everyone including yourselves.
I have a modest upbringing and I have had mediocre success in the grand scheme of life, but in the things I have chosen to do I have always, always, taken it to the nth degree and encouraged those around me to do the same – in sport and in work, friends, family, teammates and colleagues alike. It doesn’t always make you popular and it doesn’t always win you friends. But, when I look around at the concentric circles of influence, and see how people who have had to suffer the indignity of being in my peer group or under my leadership and the achievements we have made, I would say that ‘brave’ – even slightly ‘bonkers’ – leadership or behaviour has played a part. When I take a look at those friends I regard a highly successful: James Hotston, Jonathan Mealy, David Buttress, Mark Chambers, or the successful sports leaders of our time like Martin Johnson or Alex Ferguson, they are the ones prepared to shout in your face; they are the ones prepared to grab you by the shirt on the rugby field and make you go that extra yard; they are the one prepared to sit in a meeting room with you and get passionate about succeeding; and they are the ones prepared to wear their heart on their sleeve and drive determination and will into you through playing on a fear of failure, dragging out the desire for success and creating the feeling of being in it together.
Strangely, in my experience, it is only those who have failed; have claimed to want to be on the journey but when it came to it were pretending to themselves – and those around them; and those who think they are entitled to success and not prepared to make the hard yards – physically and metaphorically – that may have ever considered my relentless, impassioned encouragement and direction as bullying!
Thank you, Steve, that is a very thought provoking article. It certainly made me reflect on a number of things. In particular: I could be accused of bullying my daughter Karen into going to her therapies and hospital appointments when she says she wants to give up. I do it because Karen doesn’t always understand the consequences of some of her actions or decisions and I believe this is often true of people in a business. When you lead from the front you are always the first to absorb the incoming fire and you know more than anyone what will happen if the people supporting you do not do their job effectively. In sport, it means a loss of games, tournaments, revenue and for some their place in the team. It is much the same in business, as the people we are trying to keep employed may lose their jobs and their livelihoods – potentially huge implications to their lifestyle and their families. The major difference in business is that the people failing in their jobs are not necessarily the people to lose their jobs.
Before I close I just want to go back to the questions posed in the title in relation to our Mr Hodges… ‘Bonkers, Brave or Bully’? You just need to look at photos in this blog and the evidence is clear. No one forces any of our team to take part in charity events such as Row Hard, sailing weekends, climbing mountains, trips to Dublin, awards dinners, barbecues, and more. Oh, and by the way, that is my daughter Sarah (Astro Service Delivery Manager) at the helm of the sailing boat (no apology for a ‘proud Dad moment’). They are there because they want to be there. They choose to spend their work time and their leisure time with the Astro team. So, to answer the questions… Bonkers? Yes, slightly. Brave? Yes, very. Bully? No. Definitely, not.