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Propelled by an obsession with secret of good leadership

Submitted by on Thursday, 7 October 2010No Comment

BEFORE Steven Langton became a partner in international leadership consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, he was an executive headhunter, and before that a captain and helicopter pilot in the British army. I ask him if he has ever had a proper job.

“No, I haven’t,” he laughs, “the military was a fantastic career because it only really focused on one thing – and that was leadership – everything else was subordinated to that.

“After the army I went to university to do an MBA” – How do you know someone has an MBA? They tell you – “to study leadership in organisations and was extremely disappointed that I couldn’t find anything that was useful or that wasn’t just anecdotal and part of the mythologies generated by the Bill Gateses and Jack Welches of the world.”

After completing his degree, to indulge his obsession with leadership, Langton went into consulting.

“I became pathologically drawn to the holy grail of what comprised leadership. I mean billions of dollars kept and keep getting lost due to leaders’ decisions, and I wondered why we weren’t arresting that situation.”

An affable Australian who sounds like an Englishman (he lives in London) but does a lot of work in America, Langton has also led projects in China, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Despite his international credentials, I wonder what makes him feel he is qualified to come to SA with its unique leadership problems and tell local CEOs and boards how they should be operating.

“I’ve got L plates all over my back learning about SA. I am enjoying the history and reading about your country and I always find it fascinating coming here. I think my licence to operate here is that I do not understand the issues of SA and I am therefore kind of agnostic to local leadership issues. But I am seeing the needs of leadership in our clients in Beijing as being the same as our clients in Baltimore, so can only assume they are similar here. But if they are not – then there is something very different in SA and I want to know what it is.”

During his impressively professional presentation to about 50 businessmen over breakfast, Langton raised a number of issues, which he said were vital for CEOs to grasp.

The first was clarity. “CEOs must be very clear on what they are trying to achieve and they have to stop doing other people’s work for them. Not only that, they must consider their legacy. We ask them what they are going to leave behind.”

(Later, after the presentation, I ask Langton if CEOs actually listen to the advice. I tell him I have difficulty imagining someone such as Brian Gilbertson, former CEO of BHP Billiton , saying, “Oh, so that’s how it’s done?” Langton laughs and says enigmatically that most of them did.)

He also stressed that CEOs must have courage. “Courage is not about being the most fearless, nor is it about being the toughest. It is about acting despite fear. It is moral courage; not the courage that hides behind aggression, authority and title.”

He said employees and their managers need calm, focus, clarity and real leadership.

Langton also spoke about what he called three storms currently assailing the world of business. Mobilisation – according to Langton, 200- million people today live in countries they did not grow up in; and in the next eight years the United Nations forecasts that 2,2-million people a year will migrate from the developing world to the developed world.

He then talked about population growth. According to him, the population of the world has tripled in the past century alone, but the populations of the western world are getting smaller and older in proportion. In his next point, Langton covered the aspect of age, which he called multi-generation.

“By 2013″, he said, “we will see five generations in the workforce. What people of diverse beliefs, cultures, skills and generations will need is to be provided with the conditions in which they can choose to succeed.”

Afterwards, I suggest that none of these “storms” is new. There has always been, mobilisation, as he called it; labour has always followed work and gone where the money is; the population has always been growing and been perceived as eventually becoming a problem; and lastly, the fact that people now live longer and therefore need to support themselves for longer is not a new issue.

“You’re right,” he responds, “but for the first time these issues are now beginning to affect us directly. Nations have to make unprecedented immigration and migration legislation and the increase in population is starting to impact on governments all over the world. So, no it’s not new, but it all has to now be dealt with.”

In a Heidrick & Struggles information pack provided to everyone attending Langton’s presentation, a paper written by him says, as part of his answer on how to deal with the three storms: “Employee branding and employee equity is at its peak when feeling well led. Word of mouth spreads and well-led organisations attract talent and keep it loyally through this.”

When I put it to him that employee branding, employee equity and feeling well led would be irrelevant concepts to the majority in the ranks of our unemployed, as no doubt their biggest concern would be about just having a job and earning some money so they can feed their families, Langton replies: “Let me challenge that from what we are learning about people. Human beings fundamentally want to belong to something. People at every level want to have a purpose; it’s fundamental to their self-esteem. They also would rather have a job than be on the dole.

“So there is an argument to providing, obviously if possible, more than just a job. Throwing money at employment isn’t always the solution.”

I ask Langton if it is possible to teach leadership.

“When I started studies in this,” he says, “I always thought it was binary – the nature/nurture argument – are leaders trained or are they born? There are loads of people who want to lead; they just have no idea what they are doing. The instinct to lead is in some people. I mean if a bomb went off in here, a waiter might suddenly take over and say, ‘Everyone follow me!’ But no, you can’t teach someone to lead if they don’t have the motivation to lead.”

He refers back to his pilot career to give me an example. “Take a fast jet pilot. It takes X amount of hours in a simulator to learn how to logically eject from the plane – but when he does it for real, it takes 8/10ths of a second. Now does that mean it is simply gut feel, or is it something that was informed or educated and trained?

“So when we started looking at how CEOs were pushed into such frequent gut-feel, intuitive decisions, because there wasn’t the time to react appropriately – was that down to chance or was that much more informed? Understanding that is a big evolution in executive decision making that is coming from this, because much more scrutiny comes into explaining their decisions.”

I fear at that point he lost me. I must confess to a personal aversion to what I call “MBA speak”, and I find his explanation a classic example of my pet hate.

“However, I have no doubt it was more my inability to get what he was saying, than it was his inability to explain it.

Our discussion touches on his helicopter career.

“The thing about flying a helicopter, which is fantastic training, is that you constantly have to fly the machine. Unlike a fixed-wing aircraft, you can’t put it on cruise control or auto-pilot; you have to fly it every second you are in the air. You are completely hands-on, all the time.”

In closing, given his international roaming, I ask Langton what nationality he considers himself to be.

“Australian – even though I was in her majesty’s forces for about 10 years, and I live in England, I carry an Australian passport and I still support Australia at Twickenham.

“In fact my two daughters are at the International School in London where there are 37 different languages spoken and they are the Aussie girls,” he says smiling proudly.

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