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What can modern leaders learn from Star Wars?

Modern Leadership isn’t about menacing voices or minions. Empowerment means more. Just ask JJ...

The Independent last month reported on a small handwritten note from director JJ Abrams to his team, as they embarked on making the new Star Wars film. This personal, encouraging act of modern leadership triggered a stream of discussions about the value of taking a supportive, empowering approach to management, and its role in business today

We spoke to Investors in People Practitioners Gwen Carter-Powell and Stephen McQuillan to find out their thoughts on the note, empowerment and their firsthand experiences of effective modern leadership…

Investors in People (IIP): What did you think of the JJ Abrams story. Is a handwritten note really a good way to lead a team?

Stephen McQuillan (SM): JJ Abrams was on the right track. I think he was trying to do something more personal, to connect on a deeper level, which is important in leaders.

Gwen Carter-Powell (GCP): Yes, and I’m reading between the lines a lot here, but it does seem that it was a clear indication of his desire to build a constructive relationship with his team. But it’s important to remember that an informal note might work for JJ Abrams – because it chimes with his own personality and style – but it might not work for everyone. Building relationships is important, but in a way that feels authentic and connected to the leader’s own personality.

SM: It’s really about self-awareness for leaders, which is not just ‘what do I know about myself?’ but also ‘how aware am I of the impact I have on others?’ When leaders capture that, they learn how to get people committing rather than just complying. It’s all about establishing and maintaining relationships and enabling people to do things because they want to, because they believe in it; not just because that’s what they’re expected to do.

GCP: The South Essex Partnership Trust is a great example here. They’re an organisation that employs around 4000 people and the CEO there, Patrick Geoghegan, knew all of them by name. He used to be a nurse and he never lost sight of his roots. We would walk around the wards on the Trust’s Investors in People assessment and it was clear he was genuinely friends with people. They knew they could have a frank, honest discussion with him whenever they needed to. It was amazing, actually.

SM: Yes, I always say a good modern leader listens on three levels, for facts, for feeling and for meaning. Leadership today is about being an empowering leader, acting for all with emotional intelligence. About focusing on connecting and enabling.


IIP: So an effective modern leader concentrates on supporting his team?

SM: Absolutely. One of my clients, Glasgow Housing Association – now part of the Wheatley Group – knew they had to look at staff satisfaction and customer satisfaction if they were going to develop and improve. So they asked themselves ‘What is it that stops our people from providing the service our customers would like?’ It then became very apparent it was the culture and structure where people sought approval and permission. So they built a solid internal brand, which encouraged everyone to challenge their inner thought process and take ownership of decisions. It was about shifting the perspective of the staff/customer relationship. In doing so, they reduced layers of management and empowered the front line. It changed how staff perceived their jobs, how customers related to the team and how effective and productive the business could be.


IIP: And how did the leadership team manage such a huge cultural change?

SM: They were the initial lever for it all. The top team knew they really needed to challenge what they were doing. They realised that they were programmed to lead in a really traditional way, which was blocking progress. So through the Investors in People process they started encouraging staff to capture blockers on a visual measures board, asking them in weekly meetings ‘what stopped you from doing your job this week?’ The leader’s role was then to remove these blockers, so they became enablers, finding the things they could do to make people’s jobs easier.

GCP: I’ve had a similar example of leadership from both the top down and the ground up – Hughes, an electrical retailer currently being reassessed for its Gold Investors in People Standard. You imagine an organisation like that as fairly normal, but I have been bowled over by them. I met the CEO and he was outstanding in terms of empowering people – he wants ideas from the whole team, so the whole support mechanism for an evolution at the bottom for staff was impressive. I went out onto the shop floor, and into other parts of the business too and I found a huge level of consistency in terms of people making decisions, making suggestions, being exceptionally innovative. It’s the only time where empowering, inspiring leadership at people level was so, so clear.


IIP: But what about when difficult decisions or difficult conversations have to be made? Can this sort of leadership style still work?

GCP: Undoubtedly. If you’ve built a work culture where your people are empowered, supported and encouraged, there’s almost always a high awareness before something becomes an issue and a high sense of personal responsibility too. People are more willing to take ownership of underperformance and rectifying that – which can mitigate many difficult decisions, before they arise.

SM: I think the days of managers being trollied off on ‘how to handle difficult people,’ courses are over. If leaders enable their team to work with confidence, clarity and a clear sense of business vision it sets up a chain reaction where people begin to deal better with change and take ownership which reduces the need for difficult decisions.  


IIP: It’s interesting you talk about vision there. How important do you think a clear vision is for a business, and for leadership?

SM: Vital. But it needs to be shared – with everyone feeding in. That’s how you empower teams. If as a leader, I go to my group and say ‘ I’ve got an idea of how our business should look, what do you think?’ that group might react with how it affects them individually. But if you say ‘when I look over the horizon here’s what I see, what do you see?’ you begin a conversation.


IIP: So you’d say that today an empowering leader and a visionary leader are the same thing?

SM: I would say it’s more about being a co-creator. Management was invented to be a control of the means of production, to be more efficient, to ensure people complete tasks. Today we need our people to use more cognitive skills. We need them to be flexible, creative and innovative. So the goal posts have changed and management needs to change too, to reflect that. You can order people to complete a task, but you can’t order them to be creative, or think differently. They need to be empowered to do that. And it starts with a shared vision and identity.


IIP: So if an individual or team in a business knows they need to look at leadership as a priority, where would you suggest they start?

GCP: It might sound abstract, but I would ask them to consider what family values they have as a business. Because where I’ve seen this type of effective modern leadership it's come from the values and how they can then correlate to behaviours. It’s working out ‘who we are round here’ and ‘how we do us.’

SM: I would suggest working together to shape a clear business identity, defined by how you would like your people and your customers to describe you. Then it's a case of asking the question, ‘what is the purpose of leadership in achieving that identity?’. It all starts with a conversation.


Take this further:

Check out our How To guides to find out more about empowering your team by developing your vision together and walking the talk as a leader.