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Don’t fall for the fashion of the hardcore chief executive

The best leaders should toggle between leadership styles according to the conditions

Tufan Erginbilgic is barely two months into his job. Yet already the chief executive of aerospace group Rolls-Royce sounds like the incarnation of a style of no-nonsense, emotionless leadership that a combination of purpose and the pandemic seemed to have sent to the scrapheap.

Anonymous comments from former colleagues suggest the one-time BP executive “doesn’t do being woke” and is “not a people person” (Financial Times). Erginbilgic is “not hugely likable” and “a really hard taskmaster” but “if you’re a red meat eater that loves driving performance, you’ll think he’s great” (Sunday Times).

In January he reached for the dangerous metaphor of the “burning platform” to describe Rolls-Royce’s predicament to staff and inject urgency (another popular word in the profiles) into the languishing blue-chip.

Some managers, having exhausted their (sometimes shallow) pools of empathy during Covid-19 lockdowns, probably welcome such signals that they can return to the smack of firm discipline. Across the Atlantic Elon Musk’s hard-core leadership of Twitter was the harbinger of a wider trend of mass job losses, cost-cutting and the unflexing of remote working as leaders braced for tougher economic times.


“No More Mr Nice Boss”, to quote the headline of a Time magazine story that judged flexible employers to be a “pandemic blip”.

It is a fallacy, though, to assume that companies always reach for a chief executive with a style appropriate to the weather, discarding them like last year’s fashions when the wind changes. Among listed companies at least most board directors, most of the time, prefer to stick with what they know, as many organisations did when the pandemic hit. Whoever is CEO should be able to adapt his or her approach to the prevailing conditions.

Incidentally, the equation of flexible working with “nice” leadership is odd. The choice of where to locate staff balances efficiency, productivity, common sense, cost control, competition, employee retention and attraction, and, yes, empathy. But it is only one decision out of thousands taken by leaders.

What about leadership itself? When I paired up-and-coming leaders with sitting chief executives in 2018 for a series of podcasts the younger group picked out adaptability, resilience, diversity and teamwork as areas they expected future leaders to develop.

“Nobody wants to be managed...we all want to be inspired,” said Namita Narkar, now a senior manager in an Indian healthcare business. She told me via email that working with different styles of leader since 2018 suggested that “while the approach to improve the bottom line largely remains the same – increasing sales and cutting costs – how this gets implemented makes all the difference”.

Hermann Arnold told me in 2018 that he hoped leaders would evolve at all levels of organisations, creating strategy from the bottom up. He has since cofounded 42hacks, which puts together ad hoc teams to work out answers to climate change challenges. He cites Heike Bruch of St Gallen University, who has written about the dual requirement for leaders to inspire colleagues with a mission to “win the princess” and to make them aware of threats by urging them to “kill the dragon”. Arnold says: “If you want to be an excellent world-class leader, you have to master both.”

That assessment is backed up by the Oxford Character Project, which is researching the essence of “good leadership”. Edward Brooks, the project’s executive director, says “character, in the classical sense, is about integration of virtues in a whole person, rather than a swing between one or the other”.

In a yet to be published study the project asked staff in the finance sector to list, first, the qualities of a good leader. Participants favoured traits such as listening, empathy and approachability. But when asked to focus on qualities that were “central” to good leadership, they picked out “harder” characteristics such as risk awareness, competence, and good judgment.

One interpretation is that the first list reflects respondents’ aspirations for leadership, and the second the qualities required to handle the day-to-day reality of running an organisation.

In practice both are necessary. That is why I expect Erginbilgic’s hard-core image to soften a little as he moves from inspiring Rolls-Royce to kill the dragon (or extinguish the burning platform) to encouraging them to win the princess. At BP former colleagues say he was not only a tough performance-driven leader but also an excellent team builder.

Leaders who can’t flex styles don’t last long in volatile times. As one respondent to the Oxford survey put it, resorting to a sporting metaphor, “you need to have fitness and strength, and touch and skill”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023