Leadership: how to surmount a blur of challenges like a hero

It has, by any standards, been a bad month for Sir Philip Green. In a withering report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, published on 25 July, the retail king was scorned as a boss who had found himself at the mercy of fast-moving events, with thousands of staff at the BHS chain that he owned until March last year ultimately paying the price. Green’s impulsive decision to sell the loss-making business back then for the princely sum of £1 raised eyebrows at the time. But following the chain’s implosion this year, the Committee did some forensic digging, and came to some grim conclusions.

“Sir Philip’s rush to drive through the sale of BHS – a chain that had become a financial millstone and threatened his reputation – was the culmination of a sorry litany of failures of corporate governance,” the MPs announced. The deal to offload the chain to Retail Acquisitions Ltd – a firm led by former racing driver Dominic Chappell, who ironically had zero retail experience and a clutch of business failures to his name – proceeded “with great haste”. Prior to the sale, Chappell “had failed to honour his pledges” to establish himself as a credible buyer, but regardless, “Sir Philip personally drove the sale through to agreement”.

The result of this rush to a goal that had clearly become the object of some obsession was that BHS went from a loss-making firm to one that was very deeply debt-ridden indeed – its staff pension pot, which had been in surplus prior to the sale, rapidly depleted by what the Committee judged to be a distasteful pattern of personal enrichment on the part of its new owners. In the absence of a responsible steward who could have taken charge of the fast-moving events that led up to the sale, BHS’ swift and thrifty change of hands has had a saddening impact upon employees’ livelihoods.

Shock and awe
It is not the first time we have witnessed events like these. Who could forget News International’s speedy decision in 2011 to close down News of the World, following days of damning coverage across the media of phone-hacking allegations against the paper? A BBC News story from 7 July that year – the day when the title’s fate was sealed – said that NOTW staff were left “shocked and bewildered” by the sudden closure, and “had no idea what was coming – they were told the previous day that the paper would be rebuilding its reputation”.

And a year ago, the high-profile social enterprise Kids Company was informed by the government that it would no longer receive £5 million of annual state funding, following a pile-up of allegations that it had consistently mismanaged its finances and logistics. In the wake of that decision, the charity quickly succumbed to the undertow of fast-moving events, and the following month was forced to go into administration.

From the viewpoints of management and personal development, fast-moving events are likely to weigh heavily upon two, contrasting types of people:

  1. those who are prone to what we here at Inemmo call ‘overextended’ behaviour – in other words, intense goal fixation, where the urge is to push through those events as quickly as possible to reach some fresh sense of equilibrium; and
  2. more passive individuals who are not goal fixated, or even particularly comfortable with the multitasking required to battle through fast-moving events, but may be able to make level-headed and unbiased assessments of the scenarios erupting around them.

Mould to fit
In the realm of Lumina – the personal-development coaching tool that we use at Inemmo – that translates as potential friction between those who have a preference for working in an outcome focused way (see the red area at the bottom-right of the Lumina personality wheel, or ‘mandala’, below), and those who have a preference for working in a more people focused way (see the green area at the top-left).

Lumina mandala

As Lumina points out, each of those areas has two sides – one that is useful, and one that’s, how shall we put it… not so much. So, in practical terms, an outcome-focused individual who is operating effectively is logical, competitive and tough, but in an overextended state is argumentative, with a win-at-all-costs mentality and a tendency to seek conflict:

Lumina mandala outcome focused

Meanwhile, a people-focused individual firing on all cylinders is accommodating, collaborative and empathetic, but slips into behaviour that is acquiescing, consensus obsessed and emotionally stretched in an overextended state:

Lumina mandala people focused

It’s not hard to see how those two personalities could end up butting heads, instead of working together to contain the impact of one event after another after another. BUT, it’s crucial to bear in mind that Lumina encourages people to move into different personality zones… so perhaps the answer lies at the top of the mandala: the home of adaptable and flexible qualities – plus, the spontaneity that could come in handy amid fast-moving events:

Lumina mandala adaptable

The most important thing to remember is that, more than any other types of experiences in the workplace, fast-moving events require individuals to pull together and unite in a fully constructive way – so meeting on the neutral territory of adaptability and flexibility can allow staff to mould themselves not just to the demands of whatever hits them next in a quick burst of challenges, but to each other, too.

For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend one of my favourite books: Dr Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? The whole thing is an imaginative allegory about how four individuals, split into two teams of two, react to a shifting scenario around them on the basis of their needs and personality types. It yields some fascinating insights on instinct vs evidence in problem solving, and about how doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result, is the path to a permanent dead end.

It only takes about an hour to read – but in case you’re pushed for time, scroll down for a wonderful, 16-minute animated adaptation that gets the points across superbly…

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