New roles for new leaders (or what Rupert Murdoch can learn from UPS)

There have been a couple of really prescient examples this week of an old model of leadership proving defunct and irrelevant. Last Wednesday, Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone – a landmark judgment for the ICC. Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch was accused of being unfit to run a major corporation. Interestingly in both cases, there was insufficient evidence to directly prove either leader had actively done wrong. But whether Taylor ordered the rape and mutilation of thousands of civilians in irrelevant. Whether Murdoch explicitly ordered a cover up of phone hacking, or just created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture devoid of moral questioning is moot. In both cases, leaders created a culture that allowed evil to occur. And in both cases, the leaders have been called to account, and have been found wanting – regardless of their plausible deniability.

Diana Whitney draws the useful distinction between leaders (as people with competencies) and leadership as an emergent process in an organisation that enables better performance. Given the rise of megalithic companies (or states – for that matter), it seems necessary to move past the assumption that an individual leader (no matter how competent) will be able to keep tabs on an entire organisation.

So if Taylor or Murdoch are guilty of enabling a culture where evil could occur, what does positive leadership look like through this lens? Arguably the most important aspect of leadership in a post-command-and-control space is to act as a moral compass. To ensure that good ideas are megaphoned, and ideas that can lead to evil are stamped out.

Beyond that, there is also the requirement to create a culture where everyone is enabled to question, experiment and engage.

In this respect, you could do worse than looking at UPS. At some point in the last couple of years, someone had the counter-intuitive idea to redesign all their routes so that trucks in the USA never had to turn left. No, it was not an ‘Ode to Zoolander’s inability to ambi-turn; the idea was to cut down the amount of time idling and sitting in traffic. The strategy has helped them shave over twenty million miles off their clocks in 2011, while delivering 350,000 more packages. They have also reduced their carbon footprint by 20,000 metric tonnes.

Regardless of Bob Stoffel’s (UPS CEO’s) charisma, personal insight, or knowledge of the activities in every nook and cranny in his organisation, he has created a culture where ideas like “let’s never turn left anymore” can not only be voiced, but can gather momentum and actually become reality.