The Culture Cast

Stefan Stern ‘Finding ‘The Why’ in Leadership’

John Carter
March 11, 2020
Join our CIRCLE Community to discuss this episode

Connect with other ethically driven change makers from all over the world.

Learn more
The Culture Cast
March 11, 2020

Stefan Stern ‘Finding ‘The Why’ in Leadership’

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Pretium est ipsum dictum lectus mauris netus. Diam sed sit quisque facilisi luctus feugiat.

Episode shownotes

Episode Transcript

This transcript was created using the awesome, Descript. It may contain minor errors.
Note: This is an affiliate link, where This is HCD make a small commission if you sign up a Descript account.

Hi, and welcome to episode 4 of the Decoding Culture podcast on This Is HCD. The podcast focuses on the importance that culture plays in all areas of business and society, from how it shapes organizations and teams to how it influences consumer experience design and larger societal trends. My name is John Curran, and I’m your host. I’m a business anthropologist, executive coach and facilitator, and CEO JC & Associates, which is a consultancy that explores how culture shapes organizations and consumer behavior. As a business anthropologist, I often find my eyes are running through the business sections of large bookstores to try and piece together the cultural trends that are shaping business thinking today. Leadership is the clear frontrunner here, but why is this so? To help me navigate this question, I sat down with journalist and author Stefan Stern. Stefan has been writing about management and leadership for over 20 years. He regularly writes in the Financial Times, The Guardian and other business publications. He’s visiting professor in management practice at Cass Business School, and he has also written two business books. The first one is Myths of Management: What People Get Wrong About Being the Boss. He co-authored this with Professor Cary Cooper. And recently his second book has come out, called How to be a Better Leader. In this episode, Stefan and I explore the current trends in thinking around leadership. What makes a good leader? And of course, what are some of the pitfalls of being a leader? We discuss themes such as purpose in leadership, the importance of developing values. Here, Stefan offers a brilliant example of how independent bookstores use values to counter the threat of big companies like Amazon. He also provides an interesting take on placing Winston Churchill as the numero uno figure of what good leadership is. You can also find out where Stefan will be taking his anthropologist’s notebook and why. So enjoy this episode. So Stefan, welcome to the Decoding Culture podcast.

Stefan Stern  02:17

Very nice to be here, John. Thank you.

John  02:18

Fantastic. Well, we’re sitting in my apartment in Crystal Palace, South London. So we feel that we’re grounded here.

Stefan  02:27

Well, I’m South London, born and bred. So I haven’t gone very far from home today.

John  02:31

I know. We know each other’s turfs, as we say. So we’re going to be talking about leadership. And one of the kind of big questions or the opening questions I wanted to ask is: why leadership? Why are you writing about leadership?

Stefan  02:46

Well, I write about leadership and management, and we can discuss later how different those things are or not. I think leadership is a timeless topic. We’re always interested in who’s in charge, what direction are we going in. We always have views about our leaders and some of us actually want to be leaders. Some of us feel we are natural born leaders, or our place is out front or up top. So it’s a timeless, a permanent topic of interest. And leadership undoubtedly matters. Although, of course, what I’m interested in is the extent to which sometimes we maybe overemphasize or exaggerate the importance of leadership, or worship the wrong leaders or see what bad leadership can do to us. So on many levels, it’s a topic that I just find kind of endlessly interesting.

John  03:30

It’s quite interesting though. If you go to big book stores, or you go to the airport bookshop or big train station bookshops, in the business shelves of books, it’s kind of bombarded with leadership stuff, right? And you go into LinkedIn and there’s mindfulness and leadership, there’s leadership and leadership, there’s new this type of leadership. Are we seeing a kind of cultural shift in how leadership is packaged up, how we are made to think about it?

Stefan  03:56

I think it’s perhaps more more cyclical than a linear shift, I think things come and go in and out of fashion because of history, because of politics or the economic cycle, and different types of leadership are fashionable at different moments. You’ve got the whole media. Obviously I’m a journalist, so I’m obsessed with the media impact of the stories that we tell about successes and failures. Myths, often false, almost fairytale versions of what’s really happened, post hoc rationalizations of leadership – which is actually nothing like what was really going on at the time, but we live off the myths and prefer that. So I don’t know if there’s a permanent shift, for example, in one direction, but I think there are cycles and fashions and more of a pendulum swing, maybe, of what comes in and out of fashion.

John 04:46

Okay, so but in your book that came out less than a year ago, How to be a Better Leader – and I’ll say a little bit more about that later, because we do have a copy for one of our listeners. It’s always bad to quote the first page of a book because it looks like that’s all I’ve read, and I assure you I’ve read the whole thing. However, there is a striking quote of yours in there. And it does say that leadership is in crisis.

Stefan  05:14


John 05:14

Can you tell us why?

Stefan  05:16

Of course, that is partly a dramatic scene setting to try and get people to go beyond the first page. Maybe it worked with you, I don’t know.  I suppose, going back to that literal meaning of crisis, as in a point where you’ve got to make a choice between perhaps one of many different paths. I think it’s also in crisis, though, because of the deep, deep skepticism, not to say cynicism, that so many of us have about leaders. I mean, it’s the flip side, or the double-edged nature, of transparency. We all think in principle that we approve of transparency. That does mean seeing almost everything, seeing a lot more that we perhaps didn’t used to see. And we see leaders up close in real time, and we’re not always convinced that they’re doing a terribly good job. We’ve had, of course, great financial economic crisis in the past decade. The politics also shifting, the rise of populism – and that’s the kind of simple solution leadership that some people are offering. So I would say crisis in the sense of, ‘What’s the right way to go? What is the model? What is the approach that works now?’ And also, there’s another point about leadership: that it does have to adapt to the circumstances that we’re in. But I think part of the crisis that I’m trying to describe is that deep skepticism, not to say cynicism, about people at the top, and do the supposed authority figures actually have much authority left?

John 06:37

But who’s actually questioning that, then? I mean, if we as this kind of collective are looking at leaders and beginning to question them, who are the ‘we’? I mean, who are questioning leaders?

Stefan  06:49

I think it’s ‘we’ in different contexts. It’s we as employees, we as families or community groups, we as voters, we as sports fans, we as cultural critics or consumers of culture. So any leadership job – if it’s the guy running the National Theatre, running art galleries or the BBC – what’s the story again and again? Leadership, you know, and the big tut. ‘What we need around here is leadership,’ people say. And then you ask them, ‘What do you mean?’ And some people mean, ‘I want a very confident, assertive person to tell me what to do.’ A very old fashioned view of leadership, but that’s what some people think they want – until they get told to do something they don’t want to do, and then they have to wrestle with, ‘Well, is that actually the model of leadership that’s really going to work for me?’

John 07:42

Often as an anthropologist, I’m asked the question, ‘Well, what is culture?’ And I go, ‘Ahh.’ So if I said, ‘Well, what actually then is leadership?’ I mean, maybe you do have the definition, but how would you describe it?

Stefan  07:56

Well, I think this is where the adjectives come in, in a way, because there are versions of leadership. So there’s something called, classically, command and control leadership, which is essentially directing and telling people pretty much what you want specifically. And of course, in certain circumstances that might be necessary, and it might be the right way to go. People think that’s somehow military, they feel it’s sort of almost they’re in a uniform, command and control. You go to Sandhurst, where the British Army leaders are trained, and it turns out they don’t really believe in command and control leadership at all, certainly not in a theater, in war. They want everyone to display leadership, they want everyone to be able to step up, in case that the colonel, the boss gets a bullet through their head in the first few moments of conflict. But anyway, that’s one classic version of leadership. But then there are more kind of collaborative versions. There’s distributed leadership, where you actually delegate and you share leadership among several people. There’s so-called servant leadership, where you’re more humble, where you kind of offering to serve. And indeed at Sandhurst, over the gates there it says ‘serve to lead’. So I think the word leadership alone requires unpacking, as you’re asking me to. Sometimes with labels, sometimes with adjectives. Of course, crudely, narrowly, you might say it’s something about setting direction – setting the direction of travel for a group of people, and maybe setting some goals, some targets. And another fashionable word that’s coming through a lot of moment is ‘purpose’. So maybe a leader has something to do with explaining what the point is of what you’re doing, and in that sense, becoming something of a storyteller.

John 09:37

That’s really interesting. I think that storyteller part of leadership comes into this anthropological space as well. But I’ve heard things about ‘a leader should be able to tell stories’ because the facts, the message, sit within stories rather than just bullet points.

Stefan  09:54

Yes. And there we’re getting into one of the distinctions between leadership and management. We can talk about this a bit more if you like, but on the whole my bias, if you like, is that we overemphasize the difference between leadership and management, and the fact that they’re blurred and they’re not that different. But one difference you could say is that managers are more in that sort of bullet point, task completion world, whereas leaders are perhaps telling a bigger picture and a bigger story, which is the thing about direction and purpose and why we’re here, which is not a bullet point.

John 10:30

So I’ve got this image, then, of a leader in a nice kind of swivel Eames chair, rocking back–

Stefan  10:38

That’s the dream.

John 10:40

–thinking about purpose and vision. And then they’ve got these managers maybe standing around there with a clipboard ready to go.

Stefan  10:48

That’s right. And that’s fun, that’s nice, and there’s a nice sort of caricature, in a way, but you can immediately see the danger in that – where leaders say grandly, perhaps if they’re sort of rather narcissistic, ‘I’m strictly big picture. Don’t come to me with the little stuff; that’s for you guys. That’s for managers, right? I am a Leader, and I’m on top and I’m out front. And I’ve got big ideas, and you, the little people, have to try and make it work.’ I think that this is a very terrible version of leadership, which is detached. But equally, the manager who just says, ‘Well, I’m heads down. Don’t give me the big picture. Just give me the target for the week, and I’ll hit it, and I’ll get this done by Friday. I just manage, I’m not a leader.’ What I’m building up to saying is that really, ideally – and this is where the word ‘boss’ is quite useful – you need bosses who are able to provide leadership and are able to manage. Would you want to work for a leader who can’t manage? Do you want to work for a manager who can’t lead? The answer is no to both. That’s asking a lot of a human being, to be capable of both these things. But my fear is that, when we overemphasize the distinction between leadership and management, we let people off the hook and we say to them, ‘Okay, well, Dave, you’re a leader. And Shirley, you’re a manager. Stick to what you’re good at, and we won’t ask any more of you.’ And that’s probably not quite good enough.

John 12:11

So then what are some of the consequences, then, of that? If we had Dave as leader and Shirley as manager, and we went back to go and see what the organizational culture was like a year later, what are some of the issues we might be seeing with that type of model?

Stefan  12:26

Well, I think in Shirley’s team – and I’m sorry I picked the gender in that order, but anyway let’s go with it. In Shirley’s team, there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘Why are we doing this? You’ve given us a target, you’ve said four o’clock Thursday, this has got to be done. Why? Why should I be working hard to do that?’ And meanwhile Dave, in his lovely chair in his executive office there, is completely out of touch. He has no idea what’s happening on the shop floor or where the real work is happening. He’s full of his dreams of leadership and this wonderful self-created notion of himself as a playing the role of a leader. Actually, he’s absolutely detached from the reality of the work that has to be done. And in the end, this does all have to come back to – you know, as Peter Drucker said, good ideas have to degenerate into work. And then it’s about task completion. So while I’ve written about leadership, I’ve also written about management in my first book, and I like to write about both because you can’t have one without the other. And when leadership is detached from the real, necessarily messy business of work and task completion, something’s gone wrong.

John 13:37

I want to get back some other stuff, but this leads on to this idea – and you write about this in the book – of what makes a good and what makes a bad leader. It sounds like there’s a fine balance between being a leader but having elements of the management as well. What makes a good leader, then? What are some of the characteristics we should be looking at?

Stefan  14:05

So I’m giving you the answer to that in 2020. Five years from now, the answer might sound slightly different depending on the context. So that’s my first point: a good leader is effective in a given context, in an organization and at a moment in time. Today the answer is good leaders are good listeners. They are sensitive to the world around them and to the organization that they’re leading. But they’re also clear sighted and purposeful, and they do set a direction. They do have confidence, and that can even be arrogance. I’m not saying leaders have to be sheepish, humble. In the Jim Collins Good to Great world, he talks about level five leaders, who are essentially rather low-ego, modest people. I know exactly what he’s getting at. It’s a very good point, that you are there to serve the organization. It’s not about you as the leader. It’s about everybody else, and about also what you leave behind when you’re finished. But I don’t mind well-founded arrogance in a leader who’s really good and is leading an organization that’s thriving. You should feel confident about that. You should feel good about that.

John 15:13

Okay, well-founded arrogance. There is one image of that, which might be, ‘I’m going to listen to you and I’ll always listen to you, but then you will agree that I’m right,’ which is the Brian Clough, the Football Manager approach. But arrogance being able to shout, being able to say, ‘This is how it’s going to happen tough’?

Stefan  15:35

I’m slightly exaggerating to make the point, but no, I’m just saying that confidence and even slight overconfidence is not a bad thing because optimism and what is sometimes called ‘can do’ is variable. We don’t want to work for pessimists. And you can tip into that a little bit if you overemphasize the modesty, humility, low-ego stuff. Suddenly there’s no presence. Again, you don’t have to be charismatic. It probably helps a bit. It’s not the main game in town of leadership, is charisma. I wouldn’t agonize about it, but it can help, and confidence encourages people. That’s another thing I think a leader has to do: you have to encourage people.

John 16:20

This idea of charisma you picked up on. Charisma, from anthropological theory. You know, Papa New Guinea and the famous economic anthropologist Marshall Sahlins talks about ‘big man theory’. It’s all about getting a following, getting people admiring you and then rewarding them back with financial goods and lavish parties. But there’s always the potential that there’s a younger big man ready to topple you. But how far do we take charisma? Does charisma lean into narcissism? Everything feels like a balancing act.

Stefan  16:59

Yes, trade-offs – absolutely right. I mean, it is a trade-off. Journalistically, we might be tempted to say that something is either correct or wrong, and that there’s a right way and a wrong way, when actually there’s more of a spectrum and a balancing act. So I don’t totally belittle charisma, but, again, I don’t over-egg it. Jim Collins said to me when I interviewed him that charisma isn’t data and it’s not results. It’s not really a substantial thing. He said charisma is irrelevant. I might not quite go that far myself. I think it can help. But the thing about charisma is, when a leader leaves the room, do you remember? Does their personality actually resonate? Do you remember what they said or do you just say, ‘What was all that noise about?’ And so there’s a risk with charisma that it is just noise that makes you feel quite good at the time but doesn’t do anything that lasts and doesn’t resonate after you’ve left the room. That’s what you want to guard against.

John 18:00

There’s something else. I think what’s also really interesting – what I’ve certainly noticed with my own work, but also just the general cultural landscape – is there’s different types. There’s leaders of corporations, there’s leaders of government or charity bodies, and then what we see a lot of, especially in the literature and books, is the startup leader. And it seems to all merge into one. Work I do with some organizations, there’s the leader being the founder – and with a growing company, that can cause some interesting challenges. It’s an interesting thing about leader-as-founder and how would a founder-leader be helped to develop?

Stefan  18:46

Well, this is the context point, because there’s a certain type of leadership that might really be absolutely necessary in that startup phase, which is about total commitment and the long hours culture and being quite hard on yourself – but also, of course, resilience as things go wrong again and again, and you maybe run out of money or very nearly do and so on. But clearly, that feels almost like crisis management. That’s clearly not what you want, once a business has been through one or two cycles, it’s been funded, is established. You can’t run in permanent crisis. Adaptation, yes, but not crisis. And so that founder-leader has got to decide – and needs good advisors, really good friends to tell him or her – you finished your job here. Go and start something else, because you are a founder and you’re an entrepreneur, but you are not the sort of steady state, incremental growth leader. That’s a different sort of person. It’s very difficult for someone to be all these different things, and have that adaptability and versatility to behave in very different ways at different times in the lifecycle of a business. I’m sure some can do it. But not many of us can.

John 20:00

That’s a massive thing, isn’t it, for someone to be able to say to you, ‘Maybe it’s time you move on?’ Yeah, you’ve done great, you’re not going to be a pauper. But the emotional attachment that’s played out. That becomes, if anything, the toxic–

Stefan  20:14

If your name is on the door, if it’s your baby, that’s hard. But it could be that your work is done and the true legacy is other people picking up what you’ve built and doing more with it because that’s the appropriate leadership for that for that moment. Task completion is a good thing. Good consultants do some work with a client and then can move on. Knowledge is transferred, skills and capabilities are transferred and the client can move on. They’re not addicted to the consultant. It’s the same with leaders. We can’t be addicted to a leader, because what happens when the leader goes? Like a family, where the pater familias dies and things crumble. The legacy has not been prepared for properly. So leaders should always be thinking about what happens to this place when I’m dead or when I’ve gone.

John 21:05

It’s almost like the psychoanalyst Bowlby talking about attachment theory – good attachment, but also good detachment about the child leaving the house. This idea of legacy, you brought it up, that’s really interesting. I think sometimes people get confused. Legacy isn’t about how many trophies are there in the cabinet. It’s about what’s going to happen when I’ve gone. Is that something that leaders should be coached in: what is the legacy you would like to have? And that’s what you would need to be – that would serve both the company and also the individual.

Stefan  21:38

Absolutely. Some people will tell you that it’s almost a day one thought, a day one task. We know in public companies, quoted companies, a leader may only get three or four years. It’s really not very long in the history of a company or organization that you hope is going to be around for decades to come. So clearly you need to be – well, Stephen Covey, of course said one of the seven habits of highly effective people is start with the end in mind. Or as the Romans used to say, respice finem. You’ve got to think about the ending, your departure, and what you’re really trying to achieve, because we are only here for a limited amount of time – whether it’s three or four years as CEO or in a human life expectancy. And that’s where purpose helps, because it’s the answer to the purpose question in a way as well. When I’m finished here, what will it look like and how will they be set up for the future?

John 22:33

How does that work, though? You mentioned the term earlier. I saw it on the BBC a couple of nights ago with the Labour Party in the leadership debate. One of the candidates, Keir Starmer, talked about collaborative leadership. And I was thinking, ‘Well, does that mean lots of post-it notes? Does that mean Sharpie pens?’ We’ve got a big design audience who listen to this, and the word ‘collaboration’ sounds really sexy and egalitarian. But how do I think about my legacy and me as a leader if we’re talking about collaboration in that way? Is there a tension?

Stefan  23:09

I think that’s another trade-off because, as I say, you’ve got to be confident. There’s a degree of vanity or arrogance. You know, narcissism is helpful in leaders. Michael McCabe has written about constructive narcissists, and he doesn’t regard a narcissist as a wholly pejorative term. You’ve got to have some idea about yourself and you’ve got to think that you’ve got something to contribute. It takes a degree of that arrogance, if you like, to put yourself forward as a leader. But yes, equally, the collaboration point is ‘I don’t know everything’. One of the myths we tell about leaders is that they are these heroic, lonely figures. We say it’s lonely at the top, but it shouldn’t be completely lonely at the top, because you should always be listening to people and you should always have some trusted advisors. I know there’s business confidentiality and so on and you can’t necessarily be completely candid about everything. A friend of mine from Cass Business School, Laura Empson, whose specialism is professional service firms always says, ‘If you’re lonely at the top, you’re doing it wrong, because you should be talking to people and listening to people.’ But the collaboration is drawing on the gifts, the talents, the ideas of other people. Not being so arrogant that you think that you know everything.

John 24:25

That’s really important. You write about this as well in the book. The learning culture model, which Microsoft have done so well, started with the leader as a focus, as a purpose. But actually, it’s resonated throughout the whole company as this importance to be able to learn, listen, all these types of things. You talk about purpose. You also talk about values.

Stefan  24:46


John 24:47

Now, my gripe with values is that, when I go into organizations and I start doing what I call a cultural audit, I see values as things that exist on walls as statements and in nice pamphlets and marketing communication. And they’re kind of ideological; they sound nice but they haven’t got much oomph behind them.

Stefan  25:06

Is there also a problem that it’s not clear from the list of values what the business actually does? This is a problem with mission statement and values that are sort of almost generic or non-specific. I think – well, you tell me – but I think if a culture is vibrant and vital, and if values are being lived in that sense, then they should strike people who are there as meaningful and relevant to the experience of their day-to-day working life. A value that’s imposed from outside because a CEO or his or her advisor say, ‘We’ve got to say something about integrity’ – and meanwhile, in the business, it’s a pretty cutthroat, rough business where corners are being cut and difficult ethical trade-offs are being made – to talk to everyone about integrity, it’s just gonna sound completely false.

John 25:57

I think that’s a great point. Often I think where you see values work is when it actually goes into the nitty gritty, the DNA of the everyday culture. How do we run our meetings? What do our KPIs look like? The hard everyday stuff, not just the once a year reviewing our values.

Stefan  26:16

And you would probably talk about the artifacts of the workplace, right? The parking spaces, how clean are the toilets. You can’t talk about ‘our people our biggest asset, but don’t go to the loo because you’ll be sick’. These contrasts aren’t sustainable.

John 26:35

There’s a great example I want to explore a bit. Firstly, you mentioned ethnography in the book, which is superb. Professor Ryan Raffaelli from Harvard Business School did a big study on independent bookshops and where values came into their narrative and how they worked as a means of almost a counter to Amazon. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Stefan  26:59

He talks about this building of community and curating and convening – he’s three Cs. And we could add a fourth C, care, which I think is kind of implicit in all that. It’s kind of your sweet spot in a way because it’s where culture and business models collide, but to productive effect, because he’s saying that we are only going to survive here if we are different. We can’t be this mass, mass thing. We’ve got to reinstate the human factor and let people know that we are real people. This is a community, that it’s worth sticking with us. Then we’re going to convene it, as he says, and curate it – but we actually care. I think that’s a very interesting word – ‘care’ as a noun and a verb. And it’s something that leaders need to transmit. They need to show that they genuinely – the genuinely is silent – genuinely care. It’s a much abused word. If you look at the state of social care, for example, something that we call ‘care’ is actually minimal and not human. I think what he spotted with these bookshops is that they care. It’s a business, but they genuinely care

John 28:11

They care about the community. Am I right in thinking they become also then part of the fabric of community?

Stefan  28:20


John 28:20

Embedded, so it becomes reciprocal – the relationship between customer and–

Stefan  28:25

Yes. And people touch on this when they talk about customer experience, but meaningful customer experience is more like what you’re describing – where you go there to shop, you might not buy anything on that occasion, but you go there because it’s a place that you recognize, that means something to you, that has embedded within it values that you share, that you feel part of. As you know, some people talk about participatory consumerism, where you’re not just passively accepting something or buying something in a thoughtless way but actually there is an experience. If the High Street is going to survive, retail is gonna survive, there’s got to be more than just the Amazon minimal experience – which is, you know, ultra efficient and price competitive. The physical shop has got to give us something more than that.

John 29:18

I’m hoping – and that’s why I wanted to focus on that – to be doing a pod issue with an independent bookstore around how he goes around the Amazon challenge locally here in Crystal Palace. So this is going to be be fantastic. With my kind of cultural analysis hat on, reading a lot of stuff around leadership in books, but also on LinkedIn and TED Talks, I find this cultural trend where often the focus is on leaders of companies and business but, as an example, it seems to kind of flip into this idea of we’ve got to use politicians as an example or famous sports coaches or managers like Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United as a leader. Why do we see that? Why do we see that need to look at politicians or look at sports coaches?,

Stefan  30:13

I suppose it’s partly an availability bias, I think you would call it. They’re there and we see them all the time. I’m very struck by – I’m sorry to talk about football, because it’s bit sort of gender stereotyping maybe going on here. But in the TV coverage of football, as you know – soccer to our American friends – the camera shows the manager at the side of the pitch a hell of a lot. The reaction shots, the emotions, the gestures and all that all that visual vocabulary of how the coach, how the manager is. But actually, in the football match – there’s two halves of 45 minutes each – what’s the manager doing? The manager isn’t on the pitch. This is my point about work, the task completion. In terms of work, the work is on the pitch. And it’s the staff, the people, the players who are doing it. The manager’s reaction is theater. Of course he – if it is a male boss – is trying to convey something across the white line of the pitch to the team. But that sums up, in a way, for me the way that we sometimes overexaggerate the leader at the expense of the team and the work that’s being done. But yes, we love sports coaches, we love politicians. It seems to me there’s something interesting and actually pretty dangerous going on at the moment as far as political leaders are concerned and this rise of populism. There’s absolute divergence between what a lot of us have been saying and thinking about leadership and management for 30 years now – about collaboration, about facilitation, listening, and moving away from command and control in the workplace, broadly – and meanwhile in politics we see highly authoritarian, even dictatorial, populist leaders laying down the law, breaking norms of behavior in terms of truth telling, morality, social conduct and so on. Those are the leaders who are having a big impact on our lives. And of course, as you say, those the leaders we focus on an enormous amount. So as someone who’s interested in leadership and has written about it, I am troubled, to say the least, by this phenomenon of the really rather demagogic or populist leaders in the realm of politics. It’s a direct challenge to almost everything I’ve written about for almost three decades.

John 32:42

But if I was to kick back on that, surely if that was in business, we’d be talking about the innovative leader and breaking convention and the kind of the charismatic leader Max Weber talked about – not going with tradition, not going with rationality. Let’s throw the rulebook out.

Stefan  33:00

Yes, well, there’s a bit of that. And that is creative in business. Predictably, I’ve got to mention someone like Steve Jobs. He looked different, he behaved differently, he created a mystique and an aura. He was a brilliant marketer, apart from anything else, about these shiny products that everybody wanted to have. But it is done for a creative purpose in business. What we don’t really seem to want anymore in business –  not really – are true dictators: forceful, even aggressive command-and-control people. Corporate governance reform all around the world over these past two or three decades has been all about trying to rein in excessively dominant chief executives because we worry about what happens to those businesses – particularly in the financial sector, of course, but also elsewhere if there is this sort of lone figure calling all the shots. So in business, by and large, we’ve been moving away from that. And meanwhile, on the political stage, people acting very, very crudely, directly. Of course, and here’s the challenging bit for me, some voters apparently are liking it. As I said right at the beginning, to some people leadership means a very assertive, foghorned voice person standing on a table or something telling you what to do

John 34:24

In the book you do mention Winston Churchill. It’s very interesting because I think in the White House in Washington, Obama removed the head of Winston Churchill and President Trump brought it back in. And he’s rolled out as the leader of leaders, right? But you question that in the book.

Stefan  34:41

Yes, because you’ll know from the many biographies, including more recent ones, that Churchill had a long and fascinating, extraordinary life. And between 1940 and 1945, he was the right person at the right time. The leadership he provided between 1940 and 1945 for that period was extraordinary and vital to our freedoms that we can sit here today in London and speak freely. I do not belittle that one iota. But the way he acted and behaved between 1940 to 1945 is not necessarily – and almost certainly not – the way to behave as a leader at all other times. He had been considered a failure. He’d had lots of disasters in his early political career, lots of misjudgments. And after 1945, it’s still quite hard for non-Brits to grasp that in the general election only a few weeks after both VE Day in May and the final end of the war, Churchill was booted out. The Conservative Party was ejected forcefully with a massive landslide victory for modest Mr Attlee and the Labour Party that was proposing something quite different. In a way, if there was any wisdom in the crowd at that point, the voters were saying, ‘Thank you very much, Mr Churchill. The war is over. We’re now in a totally different phase of this country’s history. We’re about rebuilding. And also, by the way, trying to avoid some of the mistakes that maybe led us to the brink of war in the past.’ His leadership was no longer required. There’s film of Churchill being heckled in Walthamstow, in North London, at a greyhound track as he’s campaigning in the election in 1945. Being heckled just a few weeks after there were crowds everywhere cheering him for being the savior of the nation. So in a way, the public arguably made a very sensible choice and distinction between leadership of one period in our history and the leadership that would be needed in another moment – just as I was saying the startup founder-leader may be ideal for a certain time and then no longer what’s really wanted.

John 36:52

I’m going to ask you about advice. Imagine if you had to give one bit of advice to a smart person who’s entering into this world of leadership. What would this one bit of advice be?

Stefan  37:04

Well, if I cheat and take two, I suppose it’s listen and learn, or observe and learn. I think you’re right. We’ve been discussing earlier this business of adapting and changing your repertoire of behavior. I would recommend Herminia Ibarra’s work. She’s now at London Business School. Her latest book was Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. And I think she makes this point that you’re going to have to adapt if you’re stepping up to a leadership role or want to. What got you to a certain position might not work in a more challenging and exposed position. Interestingly, she talks about this question of authenticity – that you will have to adapt, change the way you do things, maybe in a way that isn’t natural to you immediately, that maybe feels slightly inauthentic. There’s a slightly crude notion of authenticity which says ‘just be yourself’. But that’s not quite enough. And as Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones say in their book Why Would Anyone Be Led By You, you have to be yourself but more i.e. draw on the good bits. And then ‘but with skill’ – so judge the moment, judge the situation, and learn and observe and listen from what happens, because it’s not a finishing line. It’s an ongoing task of becoming a better leader. But everyone can do that. Everyone can adapt, and everyone can learn and get better at it. It might be daunting, but these things are doable.

John 38:40

That’s great. So my final wrap up question – I ask this to all my guests: I’m going to give you the anthropologists’ notebook, and you can take this notebook anywhere for a year-long ethnographic study relevant to what we’ve been talking about. So where do you think you would take this notebook and go and study with it?

Stefan  39:02

Well, I may have missed the most exciting part of it – the transition – but I would still would like to hang out with Satya Nadella at Microsoft, as you mentioned earlier, because something pretty remarkable seems to have happened to Microsoft in the past few years when most of us, all us wise guys in the media and in the business community, said, ‘Microsoft’s finished, that’s a dying company.’ I mean, dying very, very slowly and it’s all rich and powerful, but don’t look to Microsoft for anything interesting to happen. And they have completely confounded that and they’ve shown that there can be second lives, even for great corporations. And he has transmitted something – yes, as a strong leader, but also probably in a collaborative way – to the organization that really seems to have made something interesting happen there.

John 39:46

And that’s something incredible, because it’s such a big organization and to get that kind of change is incredible. Well, I’ll be looking forward to your ethnographic anthropologists book that you’ll be writing on Microsoft hopefully in a couple of years. Stefan, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure having you as a guest.

Stefan  40:05

Thank you for having me.

John 40:07

Thanks for listening to the Decoding Culture podcast. Please do subscribe to it on iTunes and give it a rating. If you want to learn more about other shows and podcasts on This Is HCD network, visit, where you can also sign up to the newsletter and join the Slack channel, where there’s some fantastic conversations happening. Stefan has also kindly provided me with a signed copy of his latest book, How to be a Better Leader. To receive this free copy, please visit and sign up to the newsletter. Then email me at and write a short sentence relating to ‘What does leadership mean to you?’ The best email will receive the book in the post. See you next time.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ipsum blandit at sed a, vulputate eget. Integer in egestas rutrum risus tortor. Augue sed ac magna semper vitae, orci morbi auctor. Diam dui ut ut purus aenean volutpat.