Is the age of the hero CEO coming to an end?

Employment & Skills | Reports

How is leadership changing?

Is anything more important in business than leadership? You could easily make an argument that there isn’t, but how is leadership changing and what are the common traits that successful leaders possess?

In a wide-ranging interview with Business Leader in late 2018 Veronica Hope-Hailey – Dean of the University of Bath’s School of Management and author of a major piece of research that looked at trust in leadership post-global financial crisis – spoke frankly about how leadership is changing and how the time of the hero CEO is very nearly up.

Veronica said: “From a personal perspective, the leaders at the top of the successful organisations all had some common traits.

“Firstly, they saw themselves as creating a legacy for the next generation and they managed to successfully show that you may need to take tough decisions in the short-term to benefit long-term sustainability for everybody.

“Secondly, they saw themselves as serving their workforce and community. They had a different mindset to the more aggressive form of superman leadership that had come before.

“Thirdly, the successful leaders had a sense of history and that they were here for the long-term. They also tended to spend a lot of time out of their office – engaging with staff and customers. They were all highly relational people.”

She went on: “Interestingly – highly trusted organisations also put less emphasis on spin and much more emphasis on honest communication. Even if they were telling staff unwelcome news, they were showing integrity.

“Do you want uncomfortable truths or comfortable lies? – is a good way of summarising how they view information.

“Wherever possible they shared information too, whether that was with staff, trade unions or partnership organisations. They gave commercial data that justified why they were making the decisions they were.”

Honest, open and trustworthy

Phil Barton, who is CEO of Jelf (Phil Barton is no longer CEO of Jelf and all quotes were taken when he was in the post) – a £250m business with over 2900 staff – agrees that leadership is changing – away from a previously macho and ‘I can do everything’ approach.

He comments: “I’ve never been a big fan of the hero CEO who comes in to execute a plan and then leaves after three years whether they’ve seen success or not.

A good CEO needs to see a plan through and must have connectivity with the business and the people and clients it serves. There is an issue with short-termism in the leadership space and it isn’t healthy. I respect CEOs who stay the distance. They have a vision and they deliver it.

“You need to have a strong understanding of the marketplace your business is in. Humility is important too, as is an ability to engage and motivate your people.

“Other attributes that make a great leader are a clear vision, being a good listener and somebody the team and customer can trust.”

Phil also says that ruling by control and fear is also outdated: “I think it’s become increasingly less relevant. Certainly, in business where there is such a war for talent, it is important to engage meaningfully with your team.

“A fear-based leadership style doesn’t resonate with people. Business is a team effort, so a more collaborative approach is needed.”


Knowing more about what good leadership looks like brings about the question – what will be the consequences for leaders who don’t adapt their style?

Nick Jankel is the founder and CEO of Switch On, a sought-after speaker on leadership and a futurist.

He comments: “The need for radical adaptation to the external environment means that every business leader must be able to lead and land constant transformation inside their organisation.

“For decades, leaders could be technical managers, tasked with maintaining the existing business models and slowly growing productivity and profit by driving efficiencies and delivering incremental change.

“But the huge and rapid transformation in the external reality means that 20th Century management is no longer enough. Those at the top need to step up to the evolutionary imperative of “adapt or die” on an unprecedented scale or risk a slow fade into obsolescence or a spectacular plunge into failure. They need to become 21st Century transformational leaders.”

The triple threat that’s changing leadership

Nick continues: “There are three enormous external drivers of change that are pressuring every business to adapt. I call them the “triple threat”: exponential digital technologies like AI and blockchain that allow new innovations from competitors to scale far faster than most organizations can grow; disrupted societal values that make legacy products and services irrelevant to new generations of customers and employees alike; and global existential risks that are challenging the very existence of our species like climate change, pollution and pollinator collapse.

“The triple threat means that only “transformational leadership” can ensure organisations survive the coming decade and have a chance to thrive in it. A transformational leader sees exponential technologies, existential risks and changing societies – the digital, disrupted, and damaged world – as opportunities for digital transformation, business model innovation, and purposeful and sustainable re-invention.

“The transformational leader is a master at taking charge of change: metabolising constant shifts in the external reality into concrete value within the business to drive exponential results.”

Are great leaders born or made?

The threat to not adapting is clear and successful leaders are constantly evolving their approach. But is a great leader born or made?

Sukhendu Pal is the Chairman and Founder of Sirius and Company. His view is this: “The great leaders I came across in my life led without job titles, without social media, turned their back on the crowd, just like the conductor of an orchestra.

“Let me make it clear: great leaders are neither publicity seeking social media addicts tweeting their way to the top nor come from family dynasties. I was born in Calcutta where Mother Theresa lived and worked and I saw first-hand how an ordinary person developed into an icon.

“She was an immigrant and wasn’t born in a dynasty. However, she developed herself to lead a movement she conceived. Great leadership isn’t about gender either, it is about experience, passion, and a laser-like vision.

“The business world is no different. Great leaders come from nowhere and they champion purposes which change the world, shape our thinking, and impact the way we live and do things.”

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