Nice guys finish last, is a belief held by many in competitive fields such as politics, business or even sport but more so when it comes to leadership – ability to evoke fear and get things done is popularly considered effective. The Bartleby column of The Economist features a new book, “The Art of Fairness” by David Bodanis, which seems to argue otherwise with its subtitle: “The power of decency in a world turned mean”. The article cites a few examples but most strikingly that of Danny Boyle:
“Public projects also require management skills. When Danny Boyle, a film director, was asked to organise the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, he faced the tough task of keeping the details secret when the project required thousands of volunteers. The conventional approach would have been to make the volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, he asked them to keep the surprise—and trusted them to do so. They did, thanks to the grown-up way he treated them. He listened to their ideas for improving parts of the ceremony and ensured (by threatening to resign) that the volunteers did not have to pay for their costumes.
Mr Boyle demonstrated one of the most important traits of good leadership, the author argues, which is a willingness to listen. This relates to a concept known as the “power distance”. If a relationship has a high power-distance score, it is assumed that junior staff should not question their superiors’ decisions; a lower score means that senior staff are willing to listen.
Perceptions may differ sharply over whether listening takes place. A study by Johns Hopkins University found that 64% of the medical specialists interviewed felt that their operations had high levels of teamwork, whereas only 28% of their nurses agreed.
Individuals can become fixated on a particular approach to resolving a problem and ignore any advice that suggests a different tack, especially if it comes from a junior colleague. “When your underlings aren’t terrified of you, and you’re modest enough to know you’re fallible, you can set up the channels that will help you avoid fixation,” Mr Bodanis writes. It is a wise lesson. Ruling by fear may work for a while, but it is doomed to fail in the long run.”
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