The science of leadership

Professor Kamal Bechkoum, Head of the School of Business and Technology at University of Gloucestershire reflects on how science influences his approach to leadership.

I have had the privilege of working with some great leaders who I will be indebted to forever and they will recognise themselves in this contribution. I have also worked with some not-so-great leaders, but I thank them also for teaching me how not to be.

Leadership is a science, but not an exact science. Using computing terminology, I think of leadership as being like a software package - 20% is algorithmic and procedural; 80% is knowledge-based. There is no graduation ceremony. Good leaders are humble students who continue to learn from everyone, day-in, day-out.

It’s all about vision

It is widely recognised that a key prerequisite of leadership is vision. This must be realistic, but doesn’t always have to appear so. It’s OK if people around you think your aspirations are slightly crazy and will never see the light of day. George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man adapts the world to himself. Therefore progress only happens because of the unreasonable man.” It is your vision, you can see it, feel it and understand the realities around it. It doesn’t have to sound reasonable to those around you.

Leadership matters

The characteristics of a successful leader include integrity, fairness, inspiration, communication, courage, empathy, transparency, respect, charisma, passion and trust. Personally, I would always recommend doing your very best to be a good human that people are happy to work with. Aim to be someone who understands people as they want to be understood, who can read complex situations and identify and attend to priorities. Also - relax. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. It’s not about you, it’s about the team. They provide the energy and intellectual capital that will get them to the common goal. Your role is about harnessing energies and unleashing potential.

Permission to fail

The team are the engine of success. A good leader invests their intellectual and human capital to drive that energy towards the common goal. In doing so, leaders need to listen to, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of, team members and channel them accordingly. This translates into support both on and off the pitch. Support sometimes means finding the best time and most suitable approach to redirect them toward the common goal, perhaps by providing an environment where team members are given permission to fail. Remove fear and anxiety - creativity only emerges in relaxed and enthused environments.

Protecting team members who fail in a task and discussing mistakes constructively is an integral part of the journey. If it comes to it, be the one who shoulders the blame if things go wrong. Let individuals know that they are valued and show them how their endeavour is improving the overall health of the team. Every person is important and no one should feel that their contribution is of a lesser significance. Avoid putting on your best suit to stand in front of the camera and claim credit for others’ success. Remember, it’s not about you! Show respect to every team member and help them understand how they make a difference.

It’s OK to disagree

The team don’t always have to agree with your decision, but they do need to understand the rationale behind it. Have the courage to say “you’re right, I got it wrong.” Communicate, communicate, communicate. One of my favourite leaders once told me: “Communication is not paracetamol.” He was right. Communication is a continuous process, not a one-off event. Seek feedback from team members about how well you are doing. A good question that works for me every time is “what would you like me to do differently?” I was asked by a CEO I worked for: “How did you achieve such a high impact in such a short period?” Without hesitation I replied: “I don’t know, the team did it because they are the ones who know how to. I was simply there for them, watching them doing it.” This was not false modesty but my genuine analysis. The team are the jewel of the crown.

Enjoy the journey

“Begin with the end in mind” as American educator, author and businessman, Stephen Covey would say. From the word go, clarity of vision and direction of travel will help create and maintain momentum. On the way there, the road can be a rocky one and it is crucial to identify the roadblocks early and deal with them. Morale can be down, a team member may be distracted or distracting, resources can be scarce and conflicts may arise. This is where the character, rather than the technique, of a leader can play a major role in keeping the engine running and the direction right.