Don't fall for the hardcore CEO fashion

company in crisis needs. The CEO of Rolls-Royce Aviation Group, Tuvan Erginbilgic, is a no-nonsense, emotionless driving force that a company in crisis needs.

It has only been two months since Tuvan Erginbilgic has been at his job, but the CEO of Rolls-Royce Aviation Group already seems like the embodiment of a no-nonsense, emotionless driving style. It seems like a combination of purpose and plague has sent this driving style to the scrap heap.

According to anonymous comments from former colleagues, one-time BP CEO Erginbilgic is "not hugely likable", and "a really tough taskmaster". However, he is also described as "if you're a red meat fan and likes to drive, you'll think he's great".

In January, he came up with the dangerous metaphor of 'burning platform' to describe Rolls-Royce staff's predicament in order to insert urgency into the languid blue chip.

Perhaps some managers, having depleted their (sometimes shallow) empathy pools during the Covid-19 lockdowns, would welcome such signals that they could return to the quality of tough discipline. 'No More Mr. Nice Boss,' to quote the headline for a Time magazine story that judged flexible employers a 'point of plague.'

However, it is a fallacy to assume that companies always come up with a CEO in style for the weather, and to brush him off like last year's fashion when the winds change. At least among the listed companies, most of the time, most board members prefer to stick to what they know. Whoever is the CEO must be able to adapt his approach to the prevailing circumstances.

The strange formula for flexible work with 'nice' leadership is choosing where to locate employees. This balances efficiency, productivity, common sense, cost control, competition, employee retention and attraction, and yes, empathy. But it is only one decision among thousands of decisions made by leaders.

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What about the leadership itself? When I paired rising leaders with CEOs in 2018, for a series of podcasts, the younger group chose adaptability, flexibility, 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 at an Indian healthcare company. Working with different styles of leaders since 2018, she tells me over email that "While the approach to improving the bottom line remains largely the same--increasing sales and reducing costs--how this is implemented makes a huge difference."

In 2018, Herman Arnold told me that he hoped leaders would develop at all levels of organizations, strategizing from the bottom up. Since then, he has co-founded 42hacks, which brings together teams dedicated to working on answers to climate change challenges. He cites Heike Bruch of St Gallen University, who wrote about the dual requirement for leaders to inspire colleagues with a mission to 'win the princess' and make them aware of the threats by urging them to 'slay the dragon'. 'If you want to be an excellent world-class leader, you have to master both,' says Arnold.

This assessment is supported by the Oxford Character Project, which investigates the essence of good leadership. According to Edward Brooks, executive director of the project, "Personality, in the classical sense, is about incorporating the virtues into a whole person, rather than oscillating between one or the other."

In a study that has not yet been published, the project asked financial professionals to list the qualities of a good leader. The participants favored traits such as listening, empathy, and reconcilability. But when they were asked to focus on qualities that were 'central' to good leadership, they chose 'harder' characteristics such as risk awareness, competence, and good judgment. One explanation is that the first list reflects the respondents' aspirations for leadership, and the second reflects the qualities required to deal with the day-to-day realities of running an organization.

In practice, both are necessary. That's why I expect Erginbilgic's hard-headed image to soften a bit as he moves on from inspiring Rolls-Royce to slay the dragon (or put out the flaming platform) to encourage them to win the princess. At BP, former colleagues say he was not only a strong, performance-driven leader but also an excellent team builder. Leaders who don't bend patterns don't last long in volatile times. As one Oxford survey respondent put it, resorting to a sports metaphor, 'You need fitness and strength,
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