What made me successful? This is a potentially dangerous question to answer. Once we have won some victories as a leader, and received feedback in many ways on how we did it, we develop a sense of our own distinctive style. We then begin to hone that style, getting better at communicating it and demonstrating it. This is good to begin with, as we are now controlling and creating our own personal brand: people know who we are and how we do things. The danger comes when our own awareness of our style stops us from considering alternatives.
In his article here from the 20-15/16 season, Jonathan Wilson argues that Arsene Wenger, who has managed Arsenal for 20 years, now has this very problem. Wenger’s Arsenal are known for attractive, creative, football and for nurturing emergent talent, rather than breaking the bank for established superstars or picking up seasoned pros who still have class.
To alter that course now (by playing more ugly football, for example, or buying established stars) would be like admitting that the manager’s much-vaunted philosophy of football was flawed. He now, it is alleged, wants to win the Arsene Wenger way or not at all. This, claimed Wilson, is Late Style – pure Wengerism.
However, in his early years at the club, when he achieved the most and for many, was at the height of his success, Wenger inherited a set of defenders who were legendary for their dull, negative strategies, with toughness and tactics valued over skill. He got those old pros to play a bit differently but – crucially – had the nous to utilise what they already had. These days their original qualities – which he has never since sought out – are absent from the team. A gap in tactics that pro and amateur pundits notice and comment on.
So the challenge for the successful leader with the powerful personal brand is how to adapt and progress their style, and even more than that: how to do the exact opposite of what they are known for. Because what if that is precisely what becomes required?
What we need to do is avoid becoming more and more like ourselves. Instead, we should add to our set of skills and broaden our outlook. When choosing a training or development course, far too many people choose to focus on something they already do, or like doing, and so miss out on the chance to learn something they truly lack. And of course, once people become successful and senior they often opt out of all Continuous Professional Development (CPD), leaving them open to the risk of becoming a caricature of themselves, still insisting on the same principles and swearing by the same old methods.
The best leaders are still curious. They check out books or articles, interview colleagues and acquaintances, not to confirm what they already know, but to have those beliefs challenged. What emerges from that process is the latest version of their leadership style – as fresh and effective as it could possibly be.