As the deadline for this article loomed, I attended the launch seminar of Useful and Kind Unlimited. It is the thought-provoking brainchild of Duncan Fraser with whom I have worked at the Mindful Leadership Foundation.
As a group of leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds and organisations, it seemed that none of us quite knew what we might do together at the meeting or beyond it. However, we clearly shared an interest in the concept of “prosocial” leadership as individuals who strive to lead, live and act for the welfare of others and the world. The mood of the gathering suggested that to be prosocial is easy to say, easy to sign up to, but hard to do.
This brought to mind the subject of leadership style which increasingly fascinates me. This interest was heightened during my time at the BBC as the organisation wrestled with the challenge of how to provide leadership training and seemingly lurched from one type of leadership to another. The styles of John Birt, Greg Dyke and Mark Thompson certainly offered a very wide spectrum of models to follow. Each in their own way had something positive to offer and each was true to themselves.
One question remains constant and certainly presents me with an ongoing leadership challenge: “Is it possible to have the rigorous forward looking strategic approach of a John Birt with the “be happy” approach of a Greg Dyke?” Of course, that is a hugely simplified description of their working methods - but the question still stands.
The thinking behind Useful and Kind, appears on the surface more attuned to the soft happiness model with its focus on empathy and compassion, but there has to be clarity and purpose too. As leaders, we are called to lead which means making difficult choices and being clear about strategic direction.
My conviction is that “questioning” leadership is a good model for our age – when dogma and “unquestioning” seem to offer such closed and insensitive positions - and yet, even beyond political worlds, not admitting doubt seems to be a prevailing management style. I feel entirely comfortable with the concept of leading by not leading and showing weakness as one important facet of leadership. It is however difficult to hold to when the model of strong leadership for some is the overt show of power and shouting the loudest, not hearing or accepting contrary views or opinions. When the colleagues for whom you are responsible expect a strong steer, it can be painful (and usually slower) to suggest working through issues together rather than delivering instant solutions.
Within Snape Maltings, our newly unified site and organisation, I am working with colleagues on various ways of devolving leadership and they all require the basic principles of respect and trust. Without these core values, no-one can truly take on responsibility and blossom.
Letting go can feel uncomfortable because it involves ceding power and authority but is a huge release (and relief) when it works and offers deep joy in seeing colleagues fly and develop new skills. However, there are times when I like the idea of devolved leadership more than I do the reality. Impatience can kick in, as can the desire to move to controlling when the easy route is to say “just do it this way”.
In Enneagram terms, my boss personality type meets the giver/carer and wrestles with the desire for control and the potentially competing desire to be liked and give that control to others. I do however remember how inspired I am by those powerful role models who have led by owning up to their lack of answers (an admission of frailty) and admitting that they find certain issues very challenging.
Sadly, it is not the spirit of our time to show weakness. Our world is now simply too black and white to allow such subtlety – the sound bite does not usually work when it is overly nuanced and suggesting of other points of view. Sometimes it is simply that we are the victims of too little time. How often do we hear that the “thinking time” has gone - managed out of our staff scheduling rotas because its productivity cannot be demonstrated. When Helen Boaden, until recently Director of BBC Radio, made a plea for what she called “slow news” it struck a chord with me. We need time for context, time for nuance and time for experts. There is a busy-ness to our lives now and an awful availability which, if we don’t take control of it, will wreck true and timely consideration of our decision making and our thought processes. Otherwise, we will simply be faced with more and more communication and less and less to communicate.
I am not making a plea for lack of thought or for fuzzy decision making – nor am I suggesting that leadership can be parcelled out without careful planning. After all, strategy without action is as futile as action without strategy.
I do however reflect that there exists a parallel with my spiritual life. I think that the strength of my faith is that it seems to hover on the borders between doubt and belief. It is that questioning search that reaps such incredible rewards - a questioning style of leadership can do that too, as can the simple act of trying to be useful and kind.
Roger Wright CBE has been Chief Executive of Snape Maltings (formerly Aldeburgh Music) since 2014. Prior to this he was Controller of BBC Radio 3 and Director of BBC Proms for 17 and 7 years respectively. Roger is recognised as one of the UK’s most experienced cultural leaders both nationally and internationally.
Educated at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, and then at Royal Holloway College, Roger began his professional life in 1978 at the British Music Information Centre (BMIC), and also working as a freelance writer and broadcaster. He was appointed Senior Producer at the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1986 before he became Artistic Administrator of The Cleveland Orchestra in 1989. Three years later, Roger moved to Hamburg to take the post of Vice President, Artists and Repertoire, at Deutsche Grammophon.
Under Roger’s leadership as Controller of Radio 3 and Director of BBC Proms, the corporation became the largest commissioner of new music in the UK, bringing more opportunities for live music, young artists and digital projects than ever before. As Director of the BBC Proms, the world’s largest music festival, he helped deliver record audiences.
He has been given honorary degrees by Royal Holloway, the University of East Anglia, the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Northern College of Music and is a Fellow of the Radio Academy.