The importance of being stylish

Aug 18 2009 by Max McKeown Print This Article

It was Oscar Wilde who noted that "in all important matters style, not sincerity is the essential". For Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK's Equality & Human Rights Commission, style is a problem. It may be that sincerity is also a problem, but it is the style of his leadership that has been criticised and that has led to the curtailing of his role.

So far, so easy, so clear. But it's much more difficult to find out exactly what it is about his leadership style that is causing the problems. According to the BBC he is responsible for "years of problematic leadership" - but saying that his leadership style is problematic does not make it clear what is wrong with his directorial aesthetic.

A little more detail emerges from one ex-subordinate who described the chairman's leadership style as "divisive" as a result of which the commission was "not a happy place". The same subordinate wrote a "strongly worded letter" to his boss's boss, Harriett "I'm no shrinking violet" Harman, complaining about "corporate governance" and the "conduct" of Phillips who was neither a "natural leader" nor a "natural chairman" who "did not know how to build a team" and wasted their potential because he couldn't "get the best out of them".

Another ex-subjugate claimed the chairman's "leadership style led to a breakdown in trust" because it was a style "more suited to a political organization [...] than a human rights one".

There were claims reported in that deficiencies in "old fashioned management" were to blame for his unpopularity, while insiders describes him as "egocentric" and a "one man show" who "made controversial announcements without telling or consulting anyone."

Yet all of this criticism about style with no mention of substance surely raises concerns about the substance of the criticism itself. After all, style over substance is a well known logical fallacy designed to emphasis supposed weaknesses in style while marginalising (or ignoring) the substance in the argument, or thing, or even leader, in an ad hominem attack.

As more details emerge, it looks suspiciously like a chain of such 'style over substance' claims, as in:

Chairman: The country is sleep walking into segregation.

Commissioners: How dare you say that without asking our permission first?!

Chairman: I'm under huge media pressure because I'm a black man in a position of power.

Commissioners: We're don't want to reapply for our jobs! And you are a divisive, autocratic, incompetent manager who makes us all sad. And we're going to tell Harriet (and all the newspapers) because she's someone who doesn't trust men in power either. Because that's the way to get the team working together again.

His critics also argued that the loss of five of his sixteen commissioners was further proof of his carelessness (to lose one commissioner…. and all that). But it has to be said that there were no resignations, not a single one. When the commission was set up, by bringing together a several different government organizations, all of the existing sixteen commissioners were told that the number of commissioners in the new organization would be reduced and that they would have to reapply for the new positions.

Thus the five didn't resign, they chose not to reapply and to be critical of Phillips when letting the commission know of their decision.

So there were no departures until the need to reapply had arisen (and Phillips had been reappointed), suggesting that either the job (or money) still seemed worthwhile until the demeaning prospect of begging for another job - from a man who already treated you like a peon, a pawn, a less than equal paper pushing gasbag with a less than appreciative, reductive view of your life's work defending the rights of one group or another while seeking more rights for those same groups – seemed one forelock tugging step too far.

There's complexity here, in getting to the substance of the style problem. His supporters outside of the commission speak of his great ability, courage and initiative. They mention his cleverness, thoughtfulness, and rationality. They say he's good with people. That in previous jobs he was liked and popular. Even his critics inside the commission don't question his commitment.

But there is still a problem. And it is one of the substance of style, and the style of substance. The two are unavoidably interlinked. They live together. Substance may be more worthy but it is style that allows substantive action, or change, or progress to be made palatable or possible.

Mr Phillips did not appear to anticipate the problems that his underlings could cause him. He assumed perhaps that it was enough to be popular with the powers above him, rather than recognising that power is everywhere we go, something that includes the people beside him. And power is something of which, as a leader, he should be able to sing "I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes, well power's all around me, and so the feeling grows... "

Worse. He did not seem to know that he was bad at engaging the power of those immediately around him and so did not reach out to people who could help before the damage was done.

The downfall of Margaret Thatcher (who once told a colleague his spine didn't reach his brain) owed much to her autocratic treatment of ministers. More recently, Gordon Brown has only kept the support of his cabinet by offering a more collegiate style.

Other world leaders keep their power by remembering where it comes from – and choose different approaches to suit different situations. So there's a reason for Bush Juniors cowboy boots, Reagan's homely anecdotes, Clinton's perma-grin, and Putin's threats to lock up Russia's new billionaires.

Style is substantive in engaging power. We care about the way something is done. In fact the way something is done changes the nature of what is done. It's entirely possible to be blatantly dismissive while mouthing the words of collaborative concern. Or to send out symbols of macho (or hierarchical) dominance that let others know how much less important (or valuable, or intelligent) they are in your eyes.

Equally, it is possible to become trapped by a sense of what you feel the style of a powerful leader should be. This is particularly damaging if you are not an actual Stalinesque tyrant (supported by reign of terror) or if you (or someone else in power) cares about the substance of your organizations work.

The traditional model of superior-to-subordinate communication is one-way because it assumes that there is little point finding out what the subordinate thinks since their thoughts are inferior and their loyalty is assumed. Leaders may enjoy such a situation because they will not be asked difficult questions and may continue to simply send messages to a passive audience. But they may fear a two-way system that allows employees to speak back and requires the leader to debate and discuss the message, because it will take longer and let employees criticise and challenge.

Professor Harold Leavitt, the management communication expert from Stanford University, demonstrated the relative benefits of one-way and two-way communication by assigning a group the task of re-creating on paper a set of rectangular figures.

In the one-way test, the leader turns away from the group who are not allowed to ask or answer questions or even show emotions. In the two-way test, the leader faces the group, and may interact with them, asking and answering questions, and feeling the emotional response to the task

He concludes that "if speed is necessary, if a business-like appearance is important, if a manager does not want his (or her) mistakes to be recognized, and if he (or she) wants to protect his power, then one way communication seems preferable".

But "if the manager wants to get his message across, or is concerned about the receivers perceptions or feelings, or wants their contribution, then the two-way system is better."

And that is just one more reason why style is such an important part of the substance of leadership. And why style remains a problem for Trevor Phillips.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Isn't there a style/substance trap though? That when managers are doing the right thing but not saying it in the right way that they get into trouble? Or is style part of the doing the right thing?

I mean, if I'm Obama and I want to get free health care (let's say that's the right thing) because I want to help people out (let's also assume that's the right thing) should I say so (and be called a socialist, communist, un-American etc) or should I say that I want to increase efficiency in health care costs to help the country to be more self-reliant and business to be more successful (both also true)?

When are you just blunt and when do you say what needs to be said?!? Aarrrgghhh!! (Like the two-way one-way stuff!)

Howard Canada