The problem with good leadership

Posted on 15 Jul 2018

By Chris Borthwick, Thinker-in-Residence, Our Community

Alexander conquered the known world in his twenties. Caesar conquered Gaul. Frederick the Great won the Seven Years War. That’s leadership!

Good leadership requires a good culture. Caesar's approach worked for a while, but of course, then came the betrayal ...

Well, it’d better not be, because most of those examples were hereditary monarchs and all had armies, advantages that aren’t available to the run-of-the-mill not-for-profit director. We have to assemble our followers the hard way. And let’s face it, followers are the difficult bit.

There’s a Brecht poem that goes roughly like this:

The young Alexander conquered India.All alone?Caesar defeated the Gauls.What, he didn’t even have a cook with him?Frederick the 2nd won the Seven Years War.Him and which army?

Leaders have to have followers. And once you’ve got them, the problem is getting them to do what you want. Running a not-for-profit can be just about as difficult a job as conquering the world, but you’ve got to do it without conscription, sergeant-majors, or courts-martial. You have to persuade people.

As people are infinitely variable, it’s hard to lay down hard and fast rules on how you do this. The trouble with good leadership, in fact, is that the easiest way to define it is by looking at total stuff-ups and saying “Don’t do that”.

In Queensland, for example, a large and leading NFP has just gone down in flames, harming many people and scattering recriminations far and wide. Community support charity FSG Australia, with nearly a thousand employees and a turnover of more than $70 million, has just gone into voluntary liquidation after running multi-million-dollar losses for several years. The CEO Vicki Batten – who was obviously under a lot of stress – blamed toxic employees, and employees and ex-employees went online to complain about poor management. Both are probably at least partly right, but that’s not the point.

If you have a thousand employees, they can’t all be Nelson Mandela. Your management is supposed to be able to deal with a certain level of toxicity and still carry the mission on; and your management is supposed to be kept up to its game on this by the board. If the culture is one of fear and bullying, the board’s at fault. If the financial projections don’t work out, it was the directors who approved the budget.

If an organisation fails to clean house after being laid into by the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, then it’s going to be shunned by funders, and the Commission’s comment on FSG’s management was:

We find that [the CEO’s] belief that no-one at FSG would harm a child is of concern given that FSG cares for vulnerable children. Agencies responsible for overseeing FSG are encouraged to consider [the CEO’s] evidence before the Royal Commission.

The Commission couldn’t have made its views on top management, and its views on what the consequences should be, any clearer. Nonetheless, the CEO stayed on.

Hiring the CEO, monitoring the CEO, and, if necessary, parting with the CEO, are the heart of any board’s work, and they are just about the only tasks that can’t be delegated. If the workers are unruly and unsatisfied, the CEO is at fault. If the CEO is at fault, the board is at fault, and it should be prepared to admit it. The FSG board has as yet made no comment on the collapse.

Before the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower, the Allied commander, wrote a note to be brought out only if the whole enterprise failed horribly. It ended: “The troops did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” That, if anything, is what leadership means. The buck stops with the board.

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