Are You a Fight or Flight Leader?

Last Updated Jun 18, 2008 8:11 AM EDT

It's been said that Winston Churchill was a great wartime leader, but less effective during peacetime.

There are some senior executives that fall into that category, too.

Today, Trevor Bish-Jones, Woolworths' chief executive, has stepped down, the latest in a list of top executives who can't seem to handle the heat. He was hardly booted out in shame, but Woolworths' failure to establish a clear identity as a 'value retailer' has resulted in disappointing sales and downgraded forecasts, and the buck stops with him.

Erin Callan, until recently the CFO at Lehman Brothers, is another: she was recently demoted, along with Lehman's COO Joseph Gregory. That seems quite a bit more ignominious, but the point's the same: she wasn't a wartime CFO.

(By the way, how does demotion work? Are you literally relegated to a lower floor, or is it like being 'asked to leave' a smart school that never uses the word 'expulsion'?)

When Bradford & Bingley's Steven Crawshaw resigned (not because of B&B's profit warning, but too swiftly ahead of it for anyone's liking), there were mutterings of 'high time' and simultaneous snorts of disgust.

CEOs on their way out are called 'embattled'. But that's exactly what they aren't. They are the ones leaving the trenches. "Like rats abandoning a sinking ship," is how one bank's customer put it.

Yet if they don't have experience of recession -- Bish-Jones, Callan and Crawshaw are all in their 40s -- is it better that they leave, or stay on and potentially make a hash of it? If you go out on a low, are you automatically a rat?

You could argue that this is where true leaders come into their own: they have character traits that make them great bosses in fair weather or foul.

Maybe so. But I doubt many boards would take a chance on an unproven executive in today's economy. Unless you've had cause to demonstrate your 'under siege' abilities, who's going to know you come into your own under pressure?

Anyway, there's no substitute for experience. Talking to property company Segro's chairman, Nigel Rich, about the credit crunch, he came across like a four-star general. He could draw on 30 years' experience and recall lesssons from two recessions (1990s Britain and 1980s Hong Kong).

It's given him perspective that cannot be faked. (Mind you, it couldn't save Segro's shares from falling by 3.1 per cent.)

Maybe it's just about inspiring confidence. In which case, all leaders -- that includes managers, anyone in charge of another person -- should be able to don battle gear when necessary.

Coincidentally, a compact version of Robert Greene's '33 Strategies of War' landed on my desk this morning. Timely. And I thought the workplace-as-a-battlefield ethos was over.

Photo by Dierk Schaefer, CC 2.0