Magic to tragic: What we can learn from fictional leaders

 

Introduction

Oscar Wilde once said that, 'Life imitates art far more than art imitates life'.

Nowhere is this observation more astute than in the world of leadership.

Just like real life, fiction is rich with leaders of varying effectiveness. We all remember our first exposure to the surrealist charisma of Willy Wonka and the warmth of Miss Honey – we also remember the less comfortable introductions.

Fiction has – thankfully – drawn attention to the cringeworthy ‘chilled out entertainer’ approach epitomised by David Brent, and warned us against the outright cruelty of The Devil Wears Prada editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly. As such, some of the most long-lasting and powerful leadership lessons can be learnt from our pages and screens.

So when we look to better our own leadership skills, entrepreneurialism or career development, there’s every reason to look beyond Amazon’s nonfiction libraries. As the inventors of the telephone and helicopter were inspired by works of sci fi, perhaps the leaders of today can glean inspiration from the bosses of fiction.

We set out to explore which fictional bosses most resonate with employees today. More broadly, we were keen to understand which managerial approaches people admire, and those they abhor. Do people want bosses to act as chilled out, consultants as opposed to the traditional, directional managers? How important is communication in a working landscape in the midst of a gig and remote working takeover?

The research honed in on three categories: women in leadership, sitcom leaders and superheroes. So from Jessica Pearson to Deadpool, from Spiderman to Blackadder, we can reveal who the public would like to step off the screens and into their offices. Who they believe would hit targets, and from whom they’d least like to receive a disciplinary.

Enjoy.

Chapter one. UK’s favourite fictional leaders

Our first set of questions explored the UK’s opinions of fictional female leaders, including Miss Honey – Matilda, Jessica Pearson – Suits and Miranda Priestly – Devil Wears Prada and M – James Bond. Here’s what they thought.

UK’s favourite women in leadership

Almost half (46%) of those who answered chose James Bond’s boss, M, as the fictional manager they’d most like to be led by.

Dame Judi Dench’s portrayal of M, the fictional Head of the Secret Service (MI6), is James Bond’s superior. The character, based on Stella Rimington, the real Head of MI5 between 1992 and 1996, is famously cold and blunt. She initially took a disliking to Bond, describing him as a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.’ To which, if you’ve seen the earlier films, you’d probably agree.

Despite her hugely popular standing in the eyes of British employees, early appearances painted her as an analytical leader, favouring numbers and data over humans and emotions. Indeed her own Chief of Staff referred to her as the Evil Queen of Numbers. So what’s behind her popularity?

Put simply, because she gets things done. Some 46% of those who answered believed M to be ‘most likely to hit targets’.

Miss Honey, meanwhile, ranked highest for the fictional manager ‘most understanding of failure’, with 43% of respondents agreeing. Just 28% said the same for M. Childhood favourite Miss Honey also ranked highest for possessing the ‘best work life balance’ (17%), and as the manager people would feel ‘most comfortable voicing their concerns to’ (23%). These softer – but no less important – manager attributes weren’t found so prominently in M, who scored  14% and 21% consecutively.

What leaders dish out the worst disciplinaries?

But the question on everyone’s lips is yet to been answered: from which fictional leader would our sample least like to receive a disciplinary from? Unsurprisingly, the archetypally gentle teacher, Miss Honey, is feared by just 16%. Top-tier Lawyer in TV series Suits, Jessica Pearson, closely followed with 19% of the vote, while the the plain-speaking M weighed in with 28% vote.

But for a whopping 37% of those who answered, the Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly, Editor-in-Chief of the fashion magazine Runway, was the leader to avoid getting dressed down by. Her cruel leadership approach – once famously reminding an employee that ‘a million girls would kill for this job’ – causes high staff turnover and a generally crummy atmosphere.

Strong and stable wins the vote

Overall, M stood out as the fictional manager who leads with the clearest purpose and values, with 29% of those who responded agreeing. Miss Honey received just 11% of votes on this question. Consultative and sympathetic management styles are all well and good, but where fictional leaders are concerned, people seem to want decisiveness and action.

A good manager faces challenges and finds solutions to problems for the team’s sake. This means leading with purpose and helping everyone to hit their targets. M is clearly a leader who people want to follow.

UK’s favourite sitcom leader

Next we explored opinions of sitcom managers, including David Brent – The Office, Edmund Blackadder – Blackadder, Basil Fawlty – Fawlty Towers, and Malcolm Tucker – The Thick of it. Here’s what they thought.

Anarchy in the UK

Over a third (34%) of those who answered revealed their inner anarchists by choosing Basil Fawlty as their favourite sitcom manager. Let’s remind ourselves of the ‘70s relic.

Despite only 12 half-hour episodes being made, the waspish hotelier of BBC’s Fawlty Towers is recognised around the globe. Intolerant, pessimistic and snobbish, Basil rains down as hard on his team and as he does his customers.

After Basil Fawlty, the British working population are attracted to the management of The Office’s post-cringeworthy pushover David Brent (29%) and the cunning Edmund Blackadder (28%). This leaves the Thick of it’s foul-tempered (and foul-mouthed) Malcolm Tucker as the UK’s least favourite fictional manager, getting just 10% of the vote.

While the widespread attraction to Basil Fawlty could simply be down to his maniacal magnetism, it’s also possibly a reaction to the over-analysed, affected roles of modern managers. Each has his pros and cons – mainly cons – so we explored exactly why the people voted the way they did.

Whose cunning plan will hit targets?

Understandably, most of our respondents said they wouldn’t feel comfortable voicing their concerns to any members of the list. Of those who would, 36% said they’d confide in Basil Fawlty, 29% in David Brent, 25% in Edmund Blackadder, and just 10% would entrust the fictional Labour Party spin doctor Malcolm Tucker.

Interestingly, though, respondents had more faith in the two least popular – Blackadder and Malcolm Tucker – to hit targets. Blackadder, the intrepid leader who could get his team out of the ‘stickiest situation since Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun’, won over 30% of the public’s confidence. Meanwhile, Malcolm Tucker, who’s ‘writ runs through the lifeblood of Westminster like raw alcohol, at once cleansing and corroding’, instilled a similar tentative confidence in 29% of our sample.

From whom to avoid a ‘damn good thrashing!’?

Three of the four characters have something in common: they don’t suffer fools gladly. But would  a ‘damn good thrashing’ from Basil Fawlty be favourable over a dose of Tucker’s ‘whisper boarding’? Or is actually the spreading ‘of a nasty rumour’ from Blackadder best to be avoided? We asked our respondents who they’d least like to have a disciplinary from.

Unsurprisingly, they were least afraid of the incompetent people pleaser, David Brent, who gained only 19% of the vote. Meanwhile just 21% feared getting a dressing down from the ‘Scottish Simon Cowell’, Malcolm Tucker. Blackadder, who believes that abuse kicks downwards (“I kick the cat, the cat pounces on the mouse and finally the mouse bites you on the behind"), put the fear of God in 24% of the public.

Despite being the most popular manager, 34% of the British public said they’d least like to have a disciplinary from the waiter-punching, car-beating Basil Fawlty. Very wise.

UK’s favourite superhero leader

Next we asked our respondents’ preferences on the management styles of popular superheroes. Within this category respondents could choose between Batman, Spiderman, Deadpool, and Iron Man.

Batman of the hour

Over a third (35%) of those who answered said they’d most like Batman, most popularly portrayed by Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood trilogy, as a manager.

Some 26% believed the wisecracking mercenary Deadpool was the superhero with the most exemplary leadership skills, while just 22% voted for the imintable Iron Man. This leaves the arachnida vigilante Spiderman trailing behind with 17% of the vote.

Brits see Batman as the most likely of our superheros to hit targets, with 42% of those who responded in agreement. Clanking in second with 29% of the vote was Iron Man, while Deadpool gained just 16% confidence. True to the unravelling pattern, Spiderman falls in fourth, with just 14% of the working public believing him capable of hitting targets.

Interestingly, our respondents also found Batman to be ‘most likely to be understanding of failure’ as well as the manager they would feel most comfortable voicing concerns to. Spiderman came close second in the latter among 26% of those who responded. The nocturnal vigilante also ranked highest in ‘best work life balance’ (15%). Suffice to say his role flouts the typical nine to five.

It seems Batman is unanimously the most well-rounded and favoured of the bunch. Clearly, he harnessed the woes of his tragic childhood, which involved witnessing the murder of his parents, and used it to develop and grow into a successful leader that many look up to.

Which leaders hand out the worst disciplinaries?

Despite his well-roundedness, Batman stokes the most fear in his followers. Over a third of those who voted said they’d least like to be disciplined by the billionaire, who has the backing of former SAS soldier and butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Surprisingly Deadpool was voted to be the next most tough disciplinarian, getting almost a third (31%) of the vote.

British employees also believe Iron Man would rule with his Iron first, with 22% wanting to avoid such conflict. Perhaps it’s little surprise to find Spiderman was voted the soft spot, with just 11% believing him to dish out the worst punishments.

Chapter two. Manager traits favoured by the UK employees

According to Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, the UK has roughly 2.4 million ‘accidental’ managers, those fulfilling managerial posts because of their skills in the job – not qualifications for leadership.

The risks of shoddy management

As the adage goes, ‘people leave managers, not companies’. Poor leadership is perhaps the biggest cause of employee churn and disengagement, with CMI research estimating the cost to employers of £19bn a year. But shoddy management doesn’t just cost businesses financially, it can trigger mental ill health, lost productivity and it can waste resources. What exactly, then, does good management look like?

We outlined six commonly accepted management styles and asked 2,000 British employees to identify their favourite three.

It’s impossible not to notice the changing role of management in today’s workplaces. Increasingly, businesses are realising the problems involved in micromanagement, instead promoting a more hands-of, transparent and coach-style of leadership.

Consultation in management is key

Far and away, the favourite management style is the ‘consultative’, those who actively seek employee feedback before launching into initiatives. The natural result of consultative management is better employee relationships, a healthier attitude to feedback and, ultimately, staff retention.  

Laissez-faire management – where managers act as mentors and coaches as opposed to leaders – was the second most popular, with 30% of the British employees preferring them. Under such styles, employees are empowered to make decisions and seek guidance from their managers where necessary. This unlocks creativity and freedom, while reserving the manager’s for when it’s needed.

A democratic approach, in which managers make decisions through popular votes, ranked third, with 29% of employees favouring it. Perhaps the oversimplification of ‘yes-no’ decision-making is finally being recognised as a breeding ground for confusion and deception. But we promised not to mention the B-word.  

Cut through the chaos

Despite Basil Fawlty ranking as the UK’s favourite sitcom manager, ‘chaotic’ leadership styles ranked lowest of the six, with just  6% favouring them. Chaotic leaders give power to employees without structure. This is the logical conclusion of flat leadership structures, and while it can work in some isolated creative tasks, is not recommended to be rolled out as the go-to approach.

Also unpopular among our sample was autocratic leadership. Unsurprisingly, the top-down dictator approach, which rules with fear and discipline isn't at all popular, getting a 16% vote. While autocrats might be mission focused, the toxic atmosphere they inevitably create soon catches up with them. Thankfully most people have a choice to leave authoritarian managers.

Whatever the approach, one thing is clear: employees crave communication. Our study found that a whopping 70% of employees said communication skills are ‘very important’ to leadership, while a further 21% said they are ‘somewhat important’. Just 1% believe communication is not at all important.

Chapter three. How to become a better manager

The people have spoken. According to our results, the British working population most value leaders who seek feedback before acting. Those who have the managerial wherewithal to stand back and mentor them through challenges, demonstrating trust and unlocking creativity.

No one is quite sure which leadership skills we’re born with and which are obtained, therefore many leaders choose to do what comes naturally. In doing so they miss the opportunity to hone their greatest skills and nurture new ones.

While there are paint-by-number frameworks to follow, there’s a huge amount all business leaders can do to nurture high performance. The following nine suggestions are tried and tested actions that facilitate short and long term managerial high performance.

Leaders and managers should: 

Build the right team

Leaders need to recruit people with records of high performance results and provide continuous training and support once they’re in. When someone loves their job, work doesn’t feel like work. In other words, you need to match positions to patients. This is often overlooked during the recruitment process which becomes a battle of qualifications on paper, rather than a real passion for the role. It’s about creating an environment in which you can lead.

Feedback continuously

A considered approach to feedback underpins pretty much all high performing leaders. It’s a practice that’s easy to elude in our daily lives – giving and receiving feedback takes effort, and demands a degree of emotional intelligence. Partakers must neither be blunt nor shield the truth – a balancing act that comes naturally to few.

You need to be prepared to broach sensitive topics, this will demonstrate value and trust. Empowering your employees to put forward their best ideas and hone even your own performance is a crucial to successful leadership.

Lead situationally

Leading successfully means walking a tightrope: on the one side is micromment, the other is standing  back and assuming employees have everything covered. You need to consider adapting your leadership approach to fit the task at hand. In business education circles, this is called ‘situational leadership’.

In essence, situational leadership means knowing when to be be directive and when to delegate, when to offer support and when to give people more freedom. Situational managers use coaching approaches to highlight autonomy and unlock creativity.

Business expertise

The business needs to be your mastermind topic. You need to know the intricacies of the products it’s selling and the ones it’s trying to improve. You need to know what the competition are up to, and where the business is streamlining, and so on.  

Without getting bogged down in the day-to-day mechanics of each department, managers should use their bird’s eye view to provide clarity and help solve problems.

Goals and measurement

A large part of good leadership is accepting there’s no one size that fits all. Clearly define what success looks like for each employee, team and department. This will of course differ fundamentally in terms of output, but you should also consider individual learning styles, skills and personality types to make any training most effective.

This requires every leader to act as a coach. Coaches ask people probing questions – What do you think is the best way of doing this? How are we going to measure our success? What do you think the most important success measurements are?

Celebrate your people

Remember to drink your own champagne. That doesn’t necessarily need to be taken literally (though at times is should be), it means taking a step back and rewarding your people for what they’re doing.

Acknowledging everyone’s extra efforts boosts morale and strengthens team relationships.

By Oliver Matejka

Content Writer

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