Thursday, 27 November 2008

King Alfred The Great and his Leadership Legacy

I have recently finished reading an excellent historical novel (The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell) that centres on the early part of King Alfred's reign (871-899 AD), defending his Kingdom of Wessex against the invading Danes.

There was much about this novel that kept me enthralled, not least the climactic battle that took place less than five miles from my home (and I never knew!). But I was also fascinated by the leadership qualities of King Alfred - I guess one doesn't earn the nickname 'The Great' lightly.

He had a clear vision - to see off the Danes and unite England as a single kingdom. Today of course, this would be seen as growth by merger and acquisition after seeing off a hostile takeover bid. He was a strategist with a carefully devised plan to support his vision. Tactical battles and manouevres were always conducted with one eye on the endgame. He was ruthless and driven to succeed (he actually stole the throne from his nephew). He was a calm but tough negotiator. And while he sought counsel from others, he was a decisive man.

But I fear there was a second aspect to King Alfred's leadership legacy that has managed to become part of our management and leadership culture. In an age where few men outside the clergy could read and write, Alfred developed a penchant, some would say an obsession, for record keeping. He would keep minutes of virtually every meeting he attended, from truce negotiations with the Danes through intelligence gathering interviews with spies or prisoners to meetings with his loyal landowners, the Earls who would support him in battle.

Could it be that this legacy led to our practice of minuting meetings? And dare I say, is it this habit that has led us to our obsession with record keeping, such as with performance review meetings? If so, I think we are in danger of losing the thread of King Alfred's legacy. Allow me to provide a simple but painful example.

A couple of months back I was chatting with a relatively senior manager (at least, he managed other managers) during a coffee break in a leadership workshop I was running. He was really proud of the fact that he had made the performance review process with his team so efficient, "We do it all electronically." he beamed, "No need for meetings now we've got this new online tool. They do their bit, I do mine and then it is all available for HR whenever they need it." He was somewhat perplexed when I aksed him about the value (or not) of having regular, focused conversations with his team about their performance and development. And of course, as this guy was managing other managers, they had all adopted the same technique of conducting their performance reviews electronically.

While this (hopefully) is an extreme example, there are elements of truth in how performance review processes are applied in many organisations. It is often seen as a form filling exercise rather than a powerful and motivational conversation. This of course, misses the point completely. The forms that need to be completed are just a record of the conversation. The forms are not and nor should they ever be the end in themselves. It is the conversation that counts and effective leaders should be having these conversations with their staff whether or not there is a process in place and a form to fill in.

King Alfred's legacy was to record the conversation, not replace it!

Simon Cooper is chief executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, author of the exciting new book, Brilliant Leader and architect of the Brilliant Leadership workshops.

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