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Traits of the ideal manager: ethics, a sense of humour and the ability to engage

What ten traits does the ideal manager possess? A sort of love of rankings has led Corriere della Sera (on 13 June in an article by Iolanda Barera) to conduct a survey of experts at a number of leading international business schools ranging from Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford to HEC Paris. And the result? Topping the charts of traits of good conduct are humility, ethics and a sense of humour, important values that show how the rules of leadership have changed even in business and how critical reflection and achieving consensus are just as important as propensity to lead. In fact, an ability for honest self-reflection ranked higher than the much-touted vision given that one must first know oneself before being able to know where to lead a team or a business. “If you don’t know yourself well, you can’t lead others,” said Peter Tufano, dean of the Saïd Business School (applying to business the Delphic aphorism of “know thyself”, which was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo and was held so dear by the wisest of the Greek philosophers). In other words, critical awareness and, of course, self-awareness (and so a sense of humility), a sense of responsibility and, at the same time, of curiosity (a tendency to ask questions of oneself and of others, to take on the challenge of the unknown or of that which is not yet understood), and the foresight to grasp context.

Markets are volatile. Business contexts change. The factors that affect business decisions and conduct are tied not only to a rational calculation of interests, but also to a lengthy – and often contradictory – series of desires, expectations, emotions and other psychological factors, and differences in attitude, orientation and culture are accentuated by the intersection of multiple factors when it comes to multinational contexts. This is why a profound, sincere propensity to challenge ourselves, to learn to communicate effectively (which also means knowing how to listen before seeking to persuade), to ask questions, and to take advantage of a variety of talents is so crucial.

Try, make mistakes, start again. Throughout the twentieth century, the philosophy of science taught us that research moves forward through falsification and a cycle of trial and error (hence the importance, for a good manager, of paying close attention to the lessons of Karl Popper), so we must shun out-dated dogmatic approaches, empty authority, and fear of criticism by our peers even when delivered in a brusque manner. The boss isn’t right just because he’s the boss, but rather his leadership rests on his propensity to listen, to admit when he’s wrong, to reassess and to start from the beginning. Infallibility is no longer a virtue (and perhaps never was).

What is needed is a healthy sense of humour and a gentle touch even in the most important things, as well as a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility, so as to earn, defend and renew authority and merit and to give new strength to leadership. “Nowadays, managers need to be more flexible, particularly in the international marketplace, ready to adjust the trajectory of their decisions or to change direction entirely,” continued Tufano – to be resilient (to come back to an aspect of the culture of enterprise that has been discussed here on multiple occasions).

It takes “convocational leadership”, a term used by the sociologist Francesco Morace to describe leadership based on the paradigm of trust and sharing and on the commitment to not only pursue a vision (which is the age-old work of the innately innovative entrepreneur), but also – and above all – to stimulate the interest of others and motivate them to play an active, responsible part in that pursuit. It takes a “chain of trust”, something that was discussed recently at the Pirelli Foundation during the nineteenth Amici di Aspen (Friends of the Aspen Institute) conference, which was chaired by Beatrice Trussardi and was dedicated to “The New Entrepreneur”, one who is international, open to risk, and a skilled communicator. It’s the challenge of leadership.

It does take a propensity to lead, but above all it takes an ability to lead through influence, engagement, and setting an example. “Don’t demand that people do this or that. Make it so that they want to do it,” as explained by Alexander S. Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher and Michael J. Platow in The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, a good read that includes an interesting foreword by George A. Akerlof, Nobel Laureate in Economics.

It’s a sort of “identity-based” leadership founded on four pillars: leaders represent the group that they hope to lead; they are defenders of the group’s interests; they exercise their influence by promoting the group’s identity and by engaging its individual members; and they actually embody that identity by using available energies to achieve common goals.  It is a new type of charisma, a new culture of responsibility: leading, engaging, pointing the way forward, properly interpreting the surrounding context (without being hard-headed and fanatic about a cause), and, of course, smiling.