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How to lead

Friday, 12 February 2010

Way back at the beginning of November, I wrote about the sacking of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and what this story could demonstrate about both the challenges and importance of effectively managing dissent within teams and organisations.

My original article is here, but, for now, the story continues following an interview on BBC Radio 4 with Lord Krebs, the chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

The re-igniting of the saga come about because the government have published a set of draft guidelines for the rules of engagement between government and scientists or academics. This served as a great prompt for me, as my earlier article looked at dissent from the viewpoint of the dissenter; this one will tend to look from the side of the leader or manager.

Lord Krebs made a series of great challenges to the draft guidelines on how government should handle its relationship with advisors in this area, and there is an awful lot that can be lifted straight from these into principles of managing disagreement and dissent in teams. Summarising what I took as his main points about the guidelines:

Openness and transparency in communication is a fundamental principle of the way we train and run training courses here, and I love to hear others giving it the emphasis I believe it deserves. In addition to that though, there are some wonderful possible translations of Lord Krebs’ advice for leaders who are in the challenging position of managing dissent. Here are my thoughts:

Cut the apron strings

You don’t employ people to be clones of you. The greatest value in a team is the difference of opinion, approach, and style – so value it. Let your people do things in their way; love the differences; and make the most of them.

Explain yourself

The era of dictatorship, at least in most organisations, is over. If you employ good people, who have high quality independent thought, you owe them explanations of your decisions. They are your decisions, but, if you want people to follow you, have the decency to make the effort to explain why!


You’re not the only one with the answers. Leaders and managers can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, know everything about everything. Having a great team around you expands the available pool of knowledge and skills, but you need to take a dip in that pool to benefit from it.

Be uncomfortable

The three points above can make life difficult and uncomfortable for you. So what? That is part of the challenge, the joy, and the reward of leadership.

Expect all of the above from your people

If you do all of this, and more, you have every right to expect that of your team. It’s incredible how much less uncomfortable it gets when all of this is a shared experience.


Call it “Level 5 Leadership”. Call it “Authentic Leadership”. Call it damn hard work if you want to – the labels are simply not important. What is important is accepting the responsibilities that you have, as a leader, to acknowledge the importance of your team, and, if you’ve hired people to do something, let them get on with it.

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