Right leaders at the right time for a sustainable business strategy

Winston ChurchillWhy great leaders are not always good for business

History has shown that when you have Great leaders in the wrong place at the wrong time, they can often fail.

Our last blog outlined the contingent nature of Business Management advice and how it is vital for consultants to be able to apply the right business models combined with appropriate practical experience into appropriate situations.

The same thing applies to great leaders.  To illustrate the point let me first give a few examples:

 1. Winston Churchill

His name is synonymous with great leaders, and for many is the greatest British leader of all time.  Ironically the period for which he, rightly in my opinion, has this stellar reputation is the Second World War, which didn’t start until he was 65.  Up until this time he had enjoyed a very good military and political career, but not great.  When the war began, and he became Prime Minister, he showed truly great leadership skills in the wartime environment.

Right leader Right time

The British people were very grateful but recognised his skills were possibly not designed for peacetime and the country’s post war recovery, and quickly voted him out of office.

Wrong leader wrong time


2. Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher surprisingly came to power in 1979 and struggled to make a difference for the first couple of years in the wake of the Winter of Discontent in 78 and the stranglehold of the unions at that time.

The Falklands War made the difference and she proved herself to be a good wartime leader leading to her re-election in 83.  Following this her power increased and she led Britain into a new era of prosperity in the 1980s.

Right leader right time

The environment changed, she lost her edge and she was unceremoniously bundled out of power in 1990.

Wrong leader wrong time


3. Robert McNamara 

One of the whizz kids who turned around the Ford Motor Company after the Second World War.  McNamara’s love of numbers and statistics had proved incredibly successful during the war as head of the office of Statistical Control saving the US millions of dollars.  When he joined Ford in 1946 these statistically based organisational skills were instrumental in saving Ford and returning it to profit.

Right leader right time 

By the time he was coming to the end of his career at Ford his reputation had become greatly diminished by his single-minded view of numbers and his apparent lack of care and sensitivity towards his staff.

It was said, anecdotally that ‘The greatest thing ever to happen to Ford was Robert McNamara arriving, and the greatest thing ever to happen to Ford was Robert McNamara leaving’.

Wrong leader wrong time

These examples serve to illustrate how great leaders, possessing great skills and being able to engender support from all around them at a particular point in time, are invariably taken over by events and the changing environment within which they are working.


Organisational Cultures managing the managers

The current situation at the Co-Operative is a great example of this.  It seems the culture of the organisation is mired in the past, and that this has enabled the appointment of someone with little or no experience, Paul Flowers, who wasn’t going to challenge the status quo: followed by a highly experienced businessman in Lord Myners who quickly resigned when he realised that his proposed changes would be blocked at every stage.



Hopefully the above examples show how important it is to every organisation to make sure they have the right leader whose style and skill sets match the requirements of the current situation, the Culture of the organisation and the External environment.

It’s tough to get it right but the consequences of getting it wrong in the first instance or not changing when the time is right are critical to the future success of the organisation.


If you have any comments on this article or would like to discuss any aspect of it please contact me at john.thompson@transcapital.co.uk or on 0845 689 8750.

John Thompson is Managing Director and founder of Trans Capital Associates

Image by: Alex Drennan

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