Leaders – born, made and otherwise

I was stuck in Frankfurt Airport with a cup of coffee and a delayed flight to look forward to. I spend a lot of time in airports waiting on delayed flights with the obligatory coffee in hand, but I digress.

It’s at times like these, when the mind has time to wander, that I do some of my best and worst thinking. Thinking back over past assignments it struck me that standard programmes didn’t work, but a standard approach and logical thinking did. Standard programmes are too rigid and never stand the test of the first bullet being fired, but having a standard methodology and logical process was definitely beneficial.

The programmes that took the most management, and provided the most stress and heartache, were the programmes where we had compromised and distilled our offering to suit the client’s perceived need.

This happens more often that you would think.

Clients don’t always like to think that they are handing you the reins to their business and to think that they have failed in some way, even though, in truth, that’s exactly what has happened. So, they try and put their stamp on the offering. They need to feel that their input is an integral part of the solution.

This is tolerable when such an involvement helps sell the change process and allows quicker buy in. It’s good for the troops to see the General fully committed to the fight, and the Managing Director cleaning machines in a 5S campaign.

However, the factors that play against this are often more powerful. Good to see the general engaged in the fight, but not if he’s shooting in the wrong direction. Not so good to see the MD leading a programme of 5S when the business actually needs to reduce its headcount by 15%. 

This brings me nicely to life lesson Granny Thomosn told me when I was a kid:

The fish rots from the head.

Over the years, I have met thousands of business leaders, and even more managers.  They follow a normal distribution: some are excellent, some are dismal and the majority hover around the middle. I’ve never met anyone who comes to work to do a bad job, but sadly this happens more than I would like to see, sometimes not through any fault of their own, but more due to the environment in which they work.

If Big Joe the foreman makes a mistake and it goes unchecked, the business may feel a small ripple as a delivery date is missed, or a staff appraisal forgotten, or a reject component gets despatched. The effects are even less if Billy the forklift driver only moves 200 pallets in a day, and not 250.

But if the leadership make an error, it can sink the boat; taking business at the wrong pricing levels, overstating business cases, incorrect investment decisions – the effects of error are cataclysmic. Now, we can argue that that is why they get paid the big bucks, but this means nothing to someone who has been made redundant as a result.

There have been many attempts to categorise the various styles of leadership; John Adair, Peter Drucker, Meredith Belbin – they all give us the tools to define or influence our styles and to recognise features in others.

But you know me by now – I’m a simple kind of guy. I like to use my own titles for these things, that way I can never be accused of getting Adair’s ideas wrong. I like to use the following categories to help me understand the types of person I’m dealing with and whilst they can roughly apply to all levels in an organisation, I assess the leadership first.

In a ‘normal’ distribution of people, be they leaders or workforce in general, I find that people are in any of the four areas described. There will some Pioneers, there will be Anchor draggers. The majority of people however will be in the middle, but most of them will be Grinders and a few of this middle group will be Groovers.

There are a couple of other types, but these tend to be more style related than actual make-up of the individual. I call these the Schmoozer and Sneaker types.


The words ‘maybe’, ‘try’, and ‘can’t’ are rarely uttered by Pioneers, who replace these with ‘will’, ‘do’ and ‘can’. These guys are not averse to taking risks and bring an entrepreneurial spirit to the organisation. They are keen to test normal conventions and stretch the boundaries of the existing paradigm. They take risks, they make mistakes, they’re fast moving, they frustrate easily, and they don’t suffer fools. They make sure that the organisation has pace and is moving forward.

You need to watch them though, for they may be writing cheques that cannot be cashed.

Moving forward is great, as long as it’s towards some kind of goal or objective. They can quite often be moving so fast that the organisation just cannot keep up. Ever floated a piece of sodium on a vat of water? The sodium ignites and zips around the vat like a firefly; lots of energy, lots of brightness but no direction whatsoever.

Sometimes it’s the same with Pioneers; lots of energy and bright ideas, but no focus. However, if you channel this energy you’re on to a winner.

If you’re a Pioneer… recognise the trait, you need someone who can get behind you and give you impetus. You need someone that will translate your creativity into workable processes. Beware! You run the risk of burning out and getting frustrated if the organisation isn’t keeping up. Don’t try to row the boat faster by swinging the rudder – let the Grinders push your ideas to completion.

If you manage PioneersGive them all the love and attention you can manage – you owe it to them and your organisation. Too often we neglect this group and focus our management attention on the anchor draggers. This will accelerate the rate to which the Pioneers will frustrate – or leave.

Listen to them, give them clear goals and targets, involve them in that process and frequently review their activities. Recognition is often more important than reward for this group, so communicate successes.

Anchor Draggers

In any process of improvement, you can bet that this group weren’t the ones that had the ‘we need to change’ moment. A small but influential group, anchor draggers usually come from two distinct camps; those who actively resist, disagree, or comment, and those who passively resist.

Active anchor draggers have no hesitation in telling you that you are wrong. They don’t get hung up in pointing out the risks and, on occasion, they can get threatening and aggressive.

They are passionate and in-your-face with their criticisms or ‘negative’ comments.

However, these guys are great. You don’t need to look for them or weed them out; they come to you. They’re passionate – that’s good! They often have some good things to say, but because the organisation is moving in a way which is, to them, out of step, they tend to express these concerns and ideas as negatives. With these guys, always remember that perhaps the organisation made them that way and give them a fair hearing.

The majority of them just need a chance in the right environment and if they can be converted, they can often move from the pole of being an anchor dragger to the pole of being a Pioneer, or at least a Grinder – no one preaches louder than the converted.

However, if they are in the minority group of people who just like to cause trouble (Red Robbo of ‘70s union fame in the UK), then a different course of action is required.

Passive anchor draggers are far more damaging to the business and can take ages to find. These guys nod sagely at all comments and suggestions at the meeting, then promptly forget what’s been agreed and go and do their own thing at worst, or nothing at best.

The phrase ‘not invented here’ could have been written especially for this group. They don’t want to get involved in the change process, they don’t offer anything to the business in the way of energy or intellect, and they are effectively leaching off the organisation like remora on a shark.

There is a key difference between active and passive anchor draggers. Active guys can be changed.

Passive, in my experience, can’t.

Normally, I don’t waste time trying to manage anchor draggers and encourage business leaders to take the same approach. But this second type, this passive resistance element, has always been of great interest to me. Not because of any deep-seated psycho-analytical interest in why they resist, but more the types of arguments offered for not making the changes, which, in turn makes me look at what they actually think is happening in their businesses.

Because I find that these guys usually give me the quotes like these:

·      ‘Doh! We already have production meetings’

·      ‘We already do start of shift meetings’

·      ‘We already measure performance’

·      ‘That process is in place’

Their vocabulary is as predictable as it is vague, using phrases like:

·      ‘Yes, but…’

·      ‘We’ll try….’

·      ‘How will this help us….’

and many others.

You could easily be beguiled by them into thinking that ‘everything is ok – you can move on to someone else’. I can see why it’s easy for people not to accept change when they are labouring under the illusion that they are already doing something. I mean, why would you listen to someone who is telling you that you need to have regular production meetings when you can demonstrate that they are in place?

In many ways, it is easier when a business has nothing in the way of processes or standards. At least then there is no hiding place for the anchor draggers, and, in these cases, they tend to be more of the ‘in your face’ brigade.

In conclusion, don’t spend excessive time managing your Anchor draggers. These people fail to grasp the notion that existing systems, standards, processes, and styles are delivering the existing performance level. And, if this performance was that rosy, they wouldn’t have to be talking to people like me.


These guys have been in the business for ever.

Stuck in the groove, they can harbour great positivity and latent talent, or can be passively resistant, just by their inaction. They’re passengers in the boat, dragging their hands in the water while everyone else paddles like hell. Not out of malice or evil intent, sadly, they are usually just numbed.

They are generally followers who work to get through each day.  At best, they can offer some wisdom to the change process, at worst they are just working their ticket until retirement.

It can be hard to convince these types. They’re warm and cosy, comfortable even. Like the stylus on an old LP, they know where they’re headed; it’s a journey that was mapped out years ago and will end when the groove ends, and the music stops.

Unfortunately, life tends to scratch records and this group have real difficulty getting around this. At the time of writing, we are in an economic crisis, brought about by a worldwide pandemic. This is a deep scratch across the groove and a lot of leaders are struggling to overcome the fact that their stylus is jumping. Things are no longer predictable and therefore their decisions will lack foresight and long-term thought.

You need to keep an eye on these guys. It doesn’t take much to shift them from the middle grouping into the anchor dragger camp.


Grinders are the bed rock of the business. They get things done. Perhaps not always by the most efficient method, with long hours required to complete the task, but they get it done. They are dependable, stoic, and good to have on the team. They are in the middle ground, the 60% that lends power, energy and pace and stability to the process.

If it’s the Pioneers who identify the opportunity and direction, it’s the Grinders who power the organisation towards the goal.

80% of all improvement ideas are going to come from this group, so it’s important that you have the relevant capture mechanisms in place for this creativity.


In the middle group of Groovers and Grinders, there can often be a subset that I call the Schmoozer element. Every business needs its schmoozers, and it would be great if all leaders had this capability, particularly in the Pioneer camp.

They are the oil on the water, the soothers in times of turmoil and adversity. They can be found in almost every function of an organisation and when they are found they are real gems. They have a natural talent to bring out the best in people and make people feel involved, important even.  They have usually been with the business for some time, so they understand the internal systems, wranglings, politics, back channels and informal networks that get things done with the minimum of fuss.

Just don’t expect them to put all of this in writing – they’re usually useless at administration. They are often stuck on ‘TRANSMIT’ mode and can make poor listeners; they hear but might not be listening. They can’t quantify their talent or train others to be like this.

It’s a blend of experience and nature that some individuals successfully bring together.

And in action, they are a pleasure to watch.


Thankfully, these seem to be a dying breed. A good sneaker can be shaking hands with you and smiling in your face whilst simultaneously stabbing you in the back. I was first introduced to the type when I worked for BAe and still have the crushed hand and stab wound scars to prove it.

Many factors can create a Sneaker type: chasing promotion, peer politics, mischief making, performance management – I have seen them all.

It would be nice to say that these guys do it in a rush to get to the top, but intriguingly some just like being back stabbers. If they exist in your organisation and report to you, treat them as anchor draggers and manage their exit.

As you can see, it’s possible to have a foot in a couple of camps. People do tend to change camp as their career changes or progress is made. Sometimes this change of camps is down to the style of management they receive; it’s very easy for a grinder to become an anchor dragger and a lot harder for a grinder to become a pioneer.

Although I use this labelling across the whole business, my start point is usually the business leadership; the board, the senior management team, the owners – who ever holds the rudder on this ship of business discovery. As a leader, you need to work really hard just to maintain stability and equilibrium, never mind a shift to the right, from grinders to pioneers. Left to its own devices, the organisation will move to the left; people need stimulation and challenges and if that is removed, they wither.

This focusing of your attention is just one of a series of leadership fundamentals that need to be in place before sustainable change can be made. It is so important to get the focus on the right area of the distribution curve, otherwise your management leverage will be squandered on the wrong group.

No matter what your personal leadership style is, if your leadership role is misplaced then that too can cause organisational difficulties.

I find that business leaders take on various roles; some ideally suited to their style, some not. These roles are as follows:

1.     Business Starters

Business starters are exactly that; people who can start businesses. They have high energy and can put in the long hours required of starting a new business. They are creative and can work with external bodies (architects, designers, PR consultants, investors, PE firms) etc to shape the look of the new business. They are well connected and have a network of contacts both in governmental departments for funding, advice etc and in the relevant industrial sector to support in HR, recruitment and supply chain set up.

Financially astute, they are well versed in start-up business planning and sources of investment and are capable team developers.

However, they tend to get bored once their baby is up and running and can often ‘unpick’ all their good work if they are left too long in the post. These guys need to be stimulated and let loose for the duration of the start-up phase and once the post start-up phase clicks in, they need to be found another project.

Or job.

I’ve watched it happen. One of my old bosses was well known as Mr ‘Greenfield’; an expert schmoozer who knew all the right people and he succeeded in leading one of the fastest business start-ups I have witnessed.

However, it didn’t take long for him to run out of challenges. At least, challenges related to business start-ups. Ok, getting the second phase recruitment was still challenging, as was setting up local sources of supply. But these were operational challenges and weren’t sexy enough for him. He didn’t really understand them and so he dabbled.

Thankfully, he moved on to a different start-up before the dabbling became too deep.

2.     Business Maintainers

Maintainers are the people who get the job done day to day, week to week. They are stimulated by the challenges they face at the operational level. Sometimes firefighting, sometimes more long term, these challenges are their bread and butter. They are a safe pair of hands at the rudder and generally do a good job.

Don’t ask them to take the business to a new level though and don’t ask them to start one up. Their skills are in ‘keeping the flies off the troops’ and letting the teams get on with their tasks. They have good relationships with the people and often you see Schmoozer types taking up this role.

However, these guys are normally Grinders and apply the same old formulae to get results.

Sadly though, business isn’t always about staying still or making marginal gains. In times like these you either need to set more aspiring goals and give the Maintainer the chance to clear the bar, or if timescales forbid this, recruit a specialist for the role.

You need a business improver or change agent.

3.     Business Improvers

Improvers are normally of the Pioneer spirit. They can take a business from its current position or platform of stability and take the necessary decisions and actions to improve its performance. There is a key premise to this.


Usually, the performance indicators need to be in the green, or at the very least stable, for the Improver to maximise his impact. Improvers are good with people, they have drive and energy and they get fuelled by the success of the team(s). They are excellent marketeers and are growth and sales orientated. Their creative style craves opportunities to explore and exploit.

The Improver is very like the Starter, insofar as they like challenges that move towards an improved, positive outcome. Once this stimulus is diminished, they tend to dabble in the processes they have improved, often undoing their good work. It is also important for them to have a stable platform from which to work. This point separates them from a type discussed later, that specialises in taking hard decisions that are not always people friendly.

If all these efforts and activities start to peak and plateau out, it is important to consider a Maintainer role to consolidate the gains and to once again, stabilise the business.

Improvers react less well if a business is in trouble and their skills are being used to instigate a turnaround. They often struggle with the hard edge required in this environment.

So, if the business is struggling and indicators move into the amber or red, you need a Recoverer.

4.     Business Recoverers

Recoverers are very like their cousins, the Improvers. However, where Improvers enjoy a stable performance platform to ply their wares, the Recoverer is more at home when things are turning to dust and the indicators are veering towards the red danger zone.

That’s not to say that they actually relish or crave this type of task, more that they are comfortable with it and maintain the level headedness required to make quick and clear short-term decisions that can turn a business around.

They are financially astute and, like the Starters, can often be well connected. Recovery can often mean financial restructuring and their networks and relationships with creditors and investors are used to best effect in this arena.

They are adept at understanding the right levers to pull and the sequence in which to pull them, in order to affect a speedy containment of the issues facing the business. They can take the hard decisions, but perhaps not the brutal ones.

The Recoverers get their kicks from getting the company back into the green, not always from taking it further than that. This is the role of the Improver, who can build on the short-termism of the recovery plan, smooth feathers (and boost often bruised egos) and start to build the basis and strategy for the future.

There are times however, when the recovery action is either too little, too late (or both!) or there is external pressure brought to bear to close a business. This could be the result of a takeover, a merger, or irrecoverable financial issues.

Sadly, this situation is becoming more and more common nowadays as global uncertainty, market pressure and financial constraints take hold. In times like these, another type of leader comes to the fore.

5.     Business Closers

Hard faced and apparently without feelings, these are the guys you keep in a glass case for times of strife. They are not afraid of taking the brutal decisions and don’t allow people issues to cloud their judgement. They are experts in severance deals, asset sell off and legislation relating to closing and winding down operations.

There is no real upside to their operation; they are there to close the business with the minimum of impact, (financial or environmental) at the least possible cost, in the shortest timescale.

I truly hope you never have to meet them. Or become one. When you think ‘Business Closer’, think ‘Administrator, with all vestiges of humanity beaten out of them’.

These are loose headings that I use when looking at business leadership. Are they a grinder? What are they doing in a start-up situation? Can this guy really recover the business?

As you can see, most leaders can move between two or three of these roles and often have to do so in the life of a business. Rarely can you afford the recruitment costs to employ the right guy to deliver each role and neither have you the time to take these recruitment decisions.

Here’s a strange point though. Have a look at those roles again. How many of them have you seen consultants getting involved in?

Starters? Yes! There are opportunities there to negotiate a fees/equity deal and once they sniff that blood in the water, the consulting firms will be right there to help you out.

Improvers? Yes! There are loads of consulting firms eager to sell you lean and six-sigma and all sorts of silver bullets in the improver stages.

Recovery? Yes! All of the top 5 consulting companies are up to their eyeballs in recovery, mainly because their auditing teams have tipped them the wink and the shareholders demand an independent presence. I’ve seen this a few times and, as well as giving me a cold feeling on my neck, this closed shop approach makes me quite nauseous.

The phrases ‘over a barrel’ and ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ spring to mind.

Closures? Yes! Well sometimes. Often, they get involved at the request of the board to support a Merger or Acquisition transaction, or to act as receivers if financial difficulties have forced the business to close.

Notice what they don’t get involved in?

Maintaining the business.

No glory, no perceived requirement, no change. It’s hard to justify fees if no change is being made. Sure, there will be ongoing HR legislation consultancy required, some ongoing process consultancy, but nothing to the level the other roles seem to attract. If there is no market for the old snake oil, they don’t pursue it.

These are the waters where the consultants swim and sometimes I struggle with the concept of what could be construed as ‘doing managers jobs for them’.  This is where the old jokes come from ‘steal your watch and tell you the time’ etc.

However, there are many areas where external support is required, usually in order to preserve an independent and neutral viewpoint. This is easier for me to swallow and I do dictate a certain amount of autonomy if I’m being asked to help.

And here’s another consideration:  I’d much rather have a dozen people at the lower strata of the organisation structure resisting and being anchor draggers, than one senior manager or board member. An anchor dragged by a member of the lower echelons doesn’t have the same leverage as one which is dragged by a ‘business leader’.

When I start working with a client, I immediately do an ‘on the ground’ assessment of the people I’m going to be interfacing with at the senior levels. This is a really important step in any change programme whether of the business improvement or recovery. I draw my conclusions then make sure that I manage their expectations very carefully during the next initial steps. I try, as far as is possible, to head off their initial ‘this is what I think we should do’ statements and get on with making a diagnosis independently.

Consider the logic. I’m asked to help get the business back in shape, or to take it to the next level. The person who has asked me to help (or who has been told to accept my help) is probably the architect, inadvertently, of the current position or at the very least been involved indirectly. The same individual(s) want to put their input into our recovery or improvement plan. Improvement programmes are less risky than recovery programmes. Improvement programmes are generally less urgent and more positive in their outlook, so leadership involvement is usually beneficial. However, when I turn up to a business recovery, I’m afraid I suspect everyone as being culpable, unless they are new to the business.

Now I hope you see my problem; having been asked to the scene of a car crash, why would I want to put the driver back behind the wheel? When lost, these guys probably argue against their SatNav systems.

But as mentioned earlier, sometimes you have to be sensitive to the leadership’s need to be involved. Seeing involvement from the top does make it easier when trying to get involvement at the other levels, but leaders have to be managed.

So, based on the previous life lesson from Granny Thomson, our next lesson is as sacrosanct as I can make it in our organisation:

1.     Never offer a silver bullet, but never compromise on a known formula for success

As I have said, the programmes that caused the most pain have been the ones where we allowed ourselves to be bullied into changing our approach or the timescales involved. This can happen for various reasons: a strong character as MD, uncertainty on our behalf as to the root causes of the problem, language barriers on overseas assignments. But if I’m honest, the main reason is a weakening of our negotiation stance in order to get going – the old belief that time is money and better to get going and tweak the programme later, than delay starting in order to get the perfect solution.

I’m glad to say that adherence to this life rule has made life a lot easier over the last few years. Particularly in recovery programmes where we make sure that we fully understand the problems before offering a solution. We no longer solicit input from the board alone and we endeavour to be more prescriptive in the recovery plan.

However, there is a fine line between ‘silver bullet’ and ‘tested method’. Leaders of failing businesses are desperate for a lifeline, a salvation, or an easy answer. They want to know that things are going to be ok. I find that once you present the plan for recovery there is usually an ‘oh yes! of course!’ moment, in which the leader sees the opportunity to grasp the initiative and save face.

This is the moment where the last life rule clicks in for me.

Compromise, on a plan that you know will get the results, includes letting the leader steal the initiative and control from the consultant. Once this happens, the sequence of events, the resources required, the pace of input and the governance process all become bolt on activity to the day-to-day job. It’s important to retain control and manage your plan, including the leadership involvement.

There have been a few occasions where this enthusiastic attempt to wrest control from me has led me to say my goodbyes. I can’t help people who can’t take the medicine and I come back to the thought that ‘hey! If you actually did know better, then why do you need to recover?’

As I said – no compromise.

But at the same time, there is no silver bullet. Silver bullets are curious things because normally they only exist in the eye of the recipient, not the shooter. If you do ever come across a shooter who purports to have a silver bullet, walk away, and keep your money.

Better still, exchange their silver one for a lead one of your own and do it first. He or she is a liar preying on your need.

Clients will often expect a silver bullet solution. They labour under the illusion that just because a consultant charges for his advice, he must have a veritable arsenal of ready-made answers to every conceivable business issue; labour disputes, outsourcing, downsizing etc. Statistically speaking, some of the larger consulting firms probably do have all the answers; if you have 4000 consultants working for you, someone must have the answer.

The trouble is finding the one who has it.

I believe that it is this expectation for the ‘complete solution’ that created and perpetuated the myth of the silver bullet in the first place.

I don’t know of any consultant or manager that I have ever met who is willing to say that a solution is so absolutely guaranteed that it is indeed worthy of silver bullet status. I know they’re out there somewhere though and are probably telling the world at large that they have a six-sigma programme that will save your business and a Lean Production system that will transform your operations in six months.

I spend a lot of time managing this expectation in order that our known or tried formula is preserved and not compromised and work hard to downplay the requirement for it to be made of silver.

Good leaders will appreciate this honesty. Plans need to be realistic, they need to be sensitive, and they need to be resourced. If I sense that any of these points are getting less than 100% support, I take action. It’s like the spokes of a wheel; any weak spokes in the plan and the whole wheel will come off. The action we take usually involves a tiered progression from friendly arm round the shoulders of the MD, to a poke in the eye for the MD, to a final ‘well thanks for having us and goodbye’ discussion as I make to the car.

And now, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, let me point out that silver bullets are the very least of your worries. There are far worse things to come and they’re out there right now. We see them every day, we work alongside them every day and I fear they may be here to stay – at least for the short term.

Never mind dressing it up as something else – I’m talking about the growth industry of Fads.

But that’s another post…

As always, thanks for reading. All thoughts, opinions and experiences, mistakes and general wrongness are entirely mine and no offence is meant or inferred.

Comments and corrections welcomed.

But No Bullshido.

We don’t do that.

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