I am indebted to the present Mrs Bizlike for her amazing discovery that her one-time favourite comic-book hero http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ace_Garp is a paragon of leadership.
Initial reaction to my unexpected Xmas gift of the collected misadventures of the space-alien trucker was muted. It was only subsequently as she began to incorporate a page or three into her bedtime reading that she formulated her hypothesis.
It happens that the illustrious Ace manifests three very useful character traits that Mrs B can relate to in her own ongoing task as Projects Director, running an office with a staff of ten and multiple products to get out the door, on time, to budget and of the requisite quality. Or – as the blurb on the ”Complete Ace Trucking Co Volume 1” puts it – trying to earn an honest living against insufferable odds.
One night as we lay reading in bed I noticed that the hardest-working woman in e-business had not fallen asleep during her usual first two pages and so I asked her if she was enjoying her reaquaintance with the pointy-headed one.
“Yes I am,” she said. “I never realised when I used to read this before, what a fine leader Ace is. He’s always positive, always has a plan and he’s not afraid to get stuck in when things get tricky.”
“Just like you Mrs B,” I observed. Always game for a conceptual laugh, we kicked the idea around a bit and this is the result: Ace Garp’s Guide to Good Leadership
Character trait one: always be positive
One of the most galling experiences for a newly failed follower is to be asked “What the hell did you do that for?!” Modern business principles have long espoused the benefits of “fast, efficient failures” (Tom Peters) but it’s a strong leader who clears up a real mess without any trace of recrimination.
Finding himself in dire financial straits, Ace rallies his crew. “Don’t gnaw the claw, good buddies. Leave the hot-seat truckin’ to the big A! I been in tight skids before. Something’ll turn up – it always does!” he exclaims in the CB-soundbite-speak he uses. Mrs Bizlike aspires to always be similarly upbeat and, since the introduction of the office swear-box, she chooses her words carefully to express her motivational thoughts.
So – like Ace and Mrs B – good leaders don’t waste time on recriminations and confidently await positive developments. After all you can’t change the past but the future’s up for grabs. In the meantime of course, there’s work to be done…
Character trait two: always have a plan
Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke is often quoted on his observation “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” but when you consider that Mrs Bizlike is not employed to wage war on Denmark, this remark becomes less helpful to today’s typical business leader. However, the Field Marshal’s lesser-known assertion, that “War is a matter of expedients” has more direct relevance.
Moltke’s main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options since only the beginning of a military operation was plannable. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes. If, like Mrs Bizlike, you’ve ever spent eight hours at one go on serial Microsoft Project plans you will relate to this concept of “extensive preparation.”
So, faced with the competing interests of his clients, the space authorities and his highly illegal cargo of vicious alien mercenaries tranquilised in the ship’s hold, the big A calmly carries out a series of astute actions that resolve the difficulty. Modern business leaders can be relied upon to take charge where necessary but should usually rely on their staff to cope, so long as the optimisation of time, budget and quality is a clear goal that they are flexible (and well-trained enough) to achieve. Where this objective is appropriate to the purpose (the first definition of “expedient”) then its hands-off leadership for Mrs B. But where the proverbial shit has hit the fan she is expected to find “something contrived or used to meet an urgent need” (a second definition of “expedient”.)
Putting themselves “in the line of fire”, requires modern business leaders to use Ace’s third character trait.
Character trait three: get stuck in when things get tricky
American football would define this as “running interference”. So whether its Ace Garp acting as a decoy to take pursuing space-cops away from his speeding convoy of fellow space-truckers or Mrs Bizlike burning the candle at both ends on some project forensics prior to a crunch-meeting with a client (or a profitability review with the boss), there’s an element of self-sacrifice here that followers can’t help but admire.
No-one works harder than Mrs Bizlike and usually its like the old Yellow Pages ad – she’s not just there for the nasty things in life. So the ability to handle anything (from 20 years experience of most of the key roles in the business) and the will to see it through means that only occasionally does she have to “take one for the team”.
Many of Ace’s misadventures arise from his insistence on answering distress calls that usually turn out to be some sort of trap. But, as he puts it: “No trucker worth his ticket ever skidoos a thirteen breaker! It just ain’t tucker!” One of Mrs Bizlike’s primary roles is dealing with those “thirteen breakers” and the risk of course, is that when she’s right no-one remembers and when she’s wrong no-one forgets.
So modern leaders stage a continual popularity contest amongst the various stakeholders in their business – hallo George Brown and Sir Fred Goodwin – there’s only so much you can take for any team…
Good Leadership – Any Space, Any Time
Ace Garp’s tagline reminds us of the need for simple but adaptable methods of being a good leader. These should be obvious to everyone involved. My Scottish friend and business associate of 20 years standing has many, many, many annoying qualities but it took me a while to fully appreciate his continued calm acceptance of my various cock-ups over the years and his associated ability to instantly reformulate plans, damage-limit or arse-cover as appropriate. After all this time he’s finally getting where he wants to be in business and yes, he still has to go into some tough meetings, well prepared and positive.
Mrs Bizlike and I would like to thank you all for your attention – we hope you recognise the leadership characteristic(s) that you have in abundance and the one(s) you need to develop further. We’ll leave the final words to Ace:
“We’re winning this mush-rush – an’ take it from the big A, that’s the way its gonna stay!