Howard Gutman about leadership: “If you want to find it, come to Belgium.”

“The world has never had a stronger need for leadership than today,” opened Ingar Skaug his speech at CCL’s Day for Change yesterday. They presented their renewed EMEA campus to the world and I was impressed: state of the art development spaces, coaching rooms and future proof collaboration and office spaces. Skaug, CCL chairman, continued the case for more leadership in the VUCA world and, not surprisingly, presented CCL as solution. With new programs and offices in Africa, Russia, China, CCL’s reach is global and their offer “serves nations as well as individual lawyers”. The question  which kind of leadership we need and what leadership is, remained unanswered. CCL contributes to the success of many organizations, as Ignacio de la Vega, CLO of the Spanish ‘Universal bank’ testified later on. But what is success in the current economical world? Is it still about economic growth?

Alison Maitland, co-author of ‘Future work’ continued the session with a keynote on the future work. Future work goes beyond flexible work that’s most of the time  “HR driven and therefore stigmatized and experienced as a cost”. Future work goes beyond “offices as meeting spaces”. Future work is also not a nice to have. It’s a need to have, for every job and every person. To implement it, culture is critical. You need a type B culture that is democratic, open and treats people as adults. You also need trust to make it happen and have a sole focus on results. Organizations have to go  ROWE: Results Only Work Environments. Maitland emphasized that managers will lose in the future if they hold on to formal power and control. Success will depend on expertise, influencing and collaboration skills. In those areas women outrank men.

Then came Howard Gutman, the roving US ambassador to Belgium. He knows how to make an audience feel good and it’s his key for leadership: it’s all about trust. “When I came here, Gallup poll showed that 8 % of the Belgian citizens had a favorable view of American leadership and 65 % unfavorable.  US expats felt uncomfortable, tourists had to hide their Boston Red Sox T-shirts, US business experienced distrust. The election of Obama changed things and the last poll shows that 46 % of Belgians are favorable and only 22 % is unfavorable. Belgium finishes first in the world. ” Gutman contributed by “kindly admitting the errors of the past, by promising to listen and learn better and by reconstructing the bridge. He learned French & Dutch: “Mon français est mauvais en Nederlands is niet gemakkelijk.” He visited more than 550 of the 589 cities and villages in Belgium and proves in this way that he really wants to connect to this country.

Gutman continued that trust polling is not a contest. “Trust is effective. Belgium stays side-by-side with US in the transition plan for Afghanistan. Belgium was one of the first in the air in Libya. We share common values. We can differ in tactics, but we have to stay on the same highway of our shared passion, values and sense of decency.” It sounded a bit as if the restored trust serves only the US agenda, but he made his point clear that without trust no joint action is possible.

Gutman concluded that leadership starts with its audience. Politicians don’t create opinions and leaders are created by the people. “Belgium understands that,” Gutman said, “if you want to find leadership and how to deal with change, come to Belgium. Belgium doesn’t speak often, but when it speaks, people listen. Belgium has the ear of all.” Maybe Gutman behaved as the rockstar who says each evening “you’re the best audience ever”. At the same time, he confirms the idea that Belgian managers and politicians know how to live and deal with complexity and that this can be a valuable leadership asset for the current hyperconnected world.

Later in the evening I got the opportunity to ask André Bouffioux, CEO Siemens Belgium about his leadership. During his lecture for the alumni of Antwerp Management School he sketched the same gloomy picture of the evolutions in Europe and Belgium as Skaug did earlier this day. Megatrends as climate change, demographics, urbanization and the shift to the East hit “the old continent” hard and it’s time for change and action.

“So how do you deal with that reality in your organization of 1000+ people”, I asked him. His answer: “the first thing I did during my 100 first days was to build a new factory, even without full consent of the board. It takes a bit of courage to make decisions. I had some credit in the company to take that decision.” Leadership  dares to take action even in highly uncertain situations. Leadership uses earlier gathered political capital. He continued: “You have to be authentic and clear. For me it’s also important to understand the meaning of what we’re doing, to ask “why”, again and again. Maybe it’s because I wanted to become a historian. Anglo-american style is more and more about the “what”. No wonder that people, when they get up in the morning, start wondering why.

“And how do you develop that kind of leadership capacity in your organisation,” I continued the interiew. “I have introduced the Flex office concept. We no langer have fixed desks. We also had a servant leadership program. It’s about being human, humble, give trust and stand up. I hate shoe polishing behavior. I’m also close to the people, I’m one of them.” During the lecture Bouffioux sounded rather harsh and critical. But interviewed about his leadership style, he sat down and in a more relaxed voice tone, showed his drive for value based leadership and to balance the need for the reality checked action and results, and the concern for values and wellbeing. “Democratic leadership has an autocratic element in it”, as David De Cremer formulates it in his new book about “Leadership on Hold”.

Any comment?


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
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