QBusiness - How Does a Good Manager Become a Successful Leader?


We know great leadership when we see it. But how does a good manager become a successful leader and can anyone do it? Catherine Fox reports.

When David Morrison entered his third year in the army he was starting to doubt whether he was cut out for life in the defence forces. “I made a mistake and it was to do with my lack of discipline in my approach in a group of leaders,” he recalls. “I was taken into the office of my NCO [non-commissioned officer], who was junior in rank but senior to me in experience. And he said – and I will remember it to the day I die – ‘You are the legacy of everyone who has gone before you and their contribution and you need to ask yourself what your legacy will be.’ ”

That 30-second exchange changed his life. He got up the next day with a completely different outlook and “knew what the army demanded of me required more from me professionally”.

Morrison stayed in the army for 36 years, becoming one of the most successful people in his field and spending four years as Chief of Army before retiring in May. As leader, he faced myriad challenges, most notably sexual abuse within the defence force. In a searing video in 2013 he looked straight down the barrel of the camera and told sexist soldiers and officers to “get out”. “I will be ruthless in ridding the army of people who cannot live up to its values,” he said in the video, which has been viewed on YouTube more than 1.5 million times. “I need every one of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

As we all work harder and face enormous pressure to do more with less in volatile times, great leadership is at a premium. While managing focuses on providing resources and processes for teams to get on with their work, a skilled leader inspires and motivates us, brings meaning to our jobs and can transform an organisation.

None of the world’s biggest problems – from climate change to domestic violence – will be affected by management, says Morrison. Leaders set a vision and decide which path an organisation will travel. And when it comes down to it, most of us want to be perceived as a leader, no matter what our job title.

The best way to understand the difference between leaders and managers is to study leaders in action.

Diane Smith-Gander, chair of Transfield Services and president of the Chief Executive Women network, had the opportunity to spend time with Peter Ritchie, the former chairman of McDonald’s Australia, when she worked for Westpac in the mid 1990s. She watched the way Ritchie behaved in McDonald’s stores. “He would go behind the counter and make something. It made me step back and think, ‘I’m seeing something in action here.’”

So she put it into practice. Although Smith-Gander is terrified of heights, on an outdoor course with her Westpac team she deliberately scaled a tree ladder. Frozen with fear, she was reliant on instructions from her colleagues below. When she finally completed the course, she was confronted by questions from her staff as to why she included such an exercise in the program if she wasn’t comfortable with it. “Then the penny dropped. I showed the team that the leader isn’t going to be the best at everything,” she says. “Sometimes you learn your best leadership lessons from within the team.”

Similarly, when Lance Hockridge, now the CEO of Australia’s largest rail-freight operator Aurizon (formerly QR National), moved from a human resources role to line management with BHP Transport in the 1990s, he learned that he had to leave his ego at the door. “It was self-evidently the case that all of the people who worked for me knew a hell of a lot more about ports than I would ever know,” he says. “You simply have to be comfortable with that and understand that is part of being a leader.”

No-one is perfect and coping with mistakes is core to leading, too, says David Morrison. “And you don’t lead machines, you lead people. Unless you understand human nature, I don’t think you can lead.”

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of the opposite when it comes to business leaders. The well-publicised ousting of Orica CEO Ian Smith in March followed an acknowledgement from him that his aggressive and confrontational management style was a key factor in his departure. 

That episode is a reminder that a job title may confer authority but it doesn’t necessarily deliver a great leader. There are many sources of power or potential to influence, says Melbourne Business School Professor Robert Wood, director of the Centre for Ethical Leadership at Ormond College. All depend on the engagement and responsiveness of employees, who either follow the direction of the leader or not. And leadership isn’t all about personal effort, says Wood. “I would be very sceptical of a leader who did not recognise their responsibility for the design and maintenance of systems and processes that were consistent with their espoused values,” he says.

Are leaders born or made?

The good news about leadership is that there’s now much less appetite for the notion that you either have the leadership gene or you don’t. That said, it’s clear to many organisational leaders that not everyone has the resilience, opportunity or the motivation to move into the role. “I don’t think great leaders are born,” says David Morrison.

Leaders, he adds, are made through the school of hard knocks. He believes there are three core elements needed for the role: to make mistakes safely; develop the practice of leadership; and be empathetic to others.

“We’ve all experienced the circumstance,” says Lance Hockridge, “where someone in a leadership role is smart as all get-out in terms of intelligence but they couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag – no emotional intelligence. Being authentic and able to inspire people, that’s the stuff that has to be learnt.”

But for ambitious executives, a focus on leadership as the Holy Grail shouldn’t ignore the importance of first becoming a great manager. This is a non-negotiable part of the climb for all these leaders. “During my career I’ve alternated between being a leader and a manager,” says Morrison. “And I think good leaders grow out of having a great understanding of how you manage. But a great manager doesn’t necessarily turn into a great leader, who has a quality that’s more about inspiration and aspiration than the focus on the detail to achieve.”

The differences between a manager and a leader are sometimes artificially inflated, according to Robert Wood. The thinking about this topic since the 1970s has led to the idea of leadership as something inspirational, interpersonal and about change. The popularity of this definition was probably because it came at a time when management was seeking to escape the label of bureaucracy.

That process, however, left us with an incomplete view of what leaders do. And along the way, says Wood, it downplays the important role of systems and processes – the stuff managers are supposed to look after. “Many of the ethical and commercial failures of CEOs are due to poor systems and processes,” he explains. “And many of those leaders were transformational, charismatic types.”

His view is that leaders are those who engage and influence people and they  do it through four mechanisms: what they do (role modelling); what they say (communications and narratives); systems and processes (compensation, employee selection and budgeting systems); and the resulting culture. “Most leadership focuses on the first two mechanisms, which are personal. But most stuff-ups are due to failures in the latter two, which are more impersonal and only partially a result of a leader’s personal efforts.”

Several decades ago the great management thinker Peter Drucker said: “The only purpose of business is to create a customer.” That’s why, says Wood, companies exist and why leaders have their jobs.

The traps

Popularity doesn’t equal leadership. Former Chief of Army David Morrison tells aspiring leaders to remember the Fs: fair, firm and friendly.
Don’t be afraid to hammer home your message. So many leaders under-communicate, says Intuit Australia managing director Nicolette Maury.
Don’t postpone. You have to get off “someday island”, says Rachelle Towart, Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre CEO. Difficult decisions only get worse with time, adds Maury. “If what you are doing is for the good of the company and the stakeholders then it’s the right thing.”
There is nothing beneficial in hubris. Believing your own PR is a recipe for complacency.

The likeability trade-off when moving to leadership

Moving from managing to leading a few years ago made Rachelle Towart, the CEO of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC), think about her own reactions to “the boss”. “When you walk into a room, people shut up when you say you are a CEO. There are so many stereotypes with the position. When I worked in the office of Ros Kelly [former minister in the Keating Government] I got so nervous when the Prime Minister rang up, I cut him off accidentally. Twice.”

Eventually Paul Keating came around to see her and explained he was a person, not just a title. These days Towart is at pains to ensure her staff understands she is approachable but may not have all the answers. She’s also had to adjust her need to have her staff like her – a trap that many leaders fall into.

She became acutely aware of this after a major revamp of the AILC a couple of years ago, which involved job losses and brought some very tough decisions. Realising she couldn’t be everything to everybody, Towart understood that people simply don’t love you during a tough restructuring process and you can’t take it personally. “It’s one of the most difficult things I had to do and I went home and said, ‘This is not about me.’ It took me a good 12 months to recover from that.”

Having once worked with an excellent leader who was not a particularly likeable person helped Diane Smith-Gander understand that being nice isn’t a necessary trait for the role. “Generally great leaders are reasonably personable but it’s not quite charisma – more about being approachable.”
You may not be liked by all but leaders have to be the peacemakers, says Towart – something that not a lot of people acknowledge. Emotional intelligence is an essential ingredient for adjudicating during disagreements or discussions, she says, along with listening skills “and respect for the views of those around you”.

The future of leadership

Will leadership look different in 2020? The savvy leader will certainly need to be nimbler and more adaptable, particularly when managing virtual teams from across the globe or beyond their own organisation, says Nicolette Maury, managing director of accountancy software firm Intuit Australia. 

“In five years we’ll see more examples of leaders at all levels being able to make a difference [but] organisations need to spend more time listening to people on the front-line.”

The best leadership group of the future should look more diverse than today, adds Diane Smith-Gander. “Until we build a critical mass of women at the top in Australia I don’t think we can say we have great leadership. When you look at leadership in corporations or government or sport, it’s the preserve of a particular sort of man.” As evidence mounts about the better decision making and ideas that come from diverse groups, business is missing out if our leadership ranks don’t reflect the breadth of talent in our society, she says.

The generation moving into leadership at Aurizon makes Lance Hockridge very optimistic; he points to a group adept at soft and hard skills who know what they need to do. “We’re all judged by our ability to deliver,” he says. “A good leader has to be able to have a track record. In a global, competitive and tough world, the elements that really drive sustainability of earnings are best going to be achieved by all of these things.”
What leaders say will become much more critical in the future, says Robert Wood, and will require an identity on social media. “What you do will be less about role modelling, in the sense of people observing what you do, and more a result of how people report what they believe they saw you do.”

David Morrison believes communicating effectively is a no-brainer for leaders now and into the future. When he reflects on his viral video, he’s cautious about the hype but clear on the importance of finding the language to deliver a message that hits the target.

“Very few of us can do that in writing – we rely on the spoken word and the way we convey those feelings. I study speech a lot. The best are people who have found language that’s readily in tune with their audience.” If you can’t put it into words what people should do, then they won’t do it, he says. “That speech was a leader telling his workforce that treating people with respect was a prerequisite of their employment. You can give that speech in any field of endeavour and that’s why I think finding the language is so important. I think modern Australia is very receptive to straightforward ethical messages that clearly demonstrate commitment.”

And the person who can successfully deliver that message is, quite simply, a leader. 

Photography by Andrew Meares

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