Leadership, maturity and simplicity

Double interview Herman Van Broek and Jan Peter Balkenende

Source: Management Scope (issue 07, 2016).
Interviewer: Arjan Eleveld | Author: Angelo van Leemput | Image: Mark van den Brink

One led the Netherlands as Prime Minister for more than eight years, the other has long been an authority in the field of human behaviour and leadership. Here they discuss servant leadership, maturity and simplicity.

Jan Peter Balkenende, from Zeeland, and Herman Van den Broeck, from Flanders, meet in Balkenende’s office at the Maatschappelijke Alliantie, in a grand building close to the Peace Palace in The Hague. Balkenende has just moved in and the paintings are still on the floor. Guided by Arjan Eleveld, CEO of consultancy firm Jonathan Warner, they talk about leadership and the challenges faced by the modern leader.

Van den Broeck: “In the end, it’s about impact”.
Balkenende: “Offering hope, that’s the key”.

“The people who have inspired me as leaders,” says Balkenende, “are men like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was twelve when Martin Luther King was murdered. I remember how emotional I was. He advocated a society with a place for everyone. I thought that was a wonderful message. I see Mahatma Gandhi as an example too, because of his wise life lessons among other things. The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. That’s brilliant.” Without having to think for long, Van den Broeck names another leader as a personal example: “Nelson Mandela. A truly extraordinary person. For my leadership book, Beyonders, I conducted a lot of research about him and his leadership style. One of his best attributes was a learning attitude. His adage was ‘What opportunities can I see in this changing world?’ And not just for himself. No; most importantly, for society. A special characteristic possessed by leaders”.

Balkenende: “Very inspirational indeed. I met Mandela in 1994, when he had just become President of South Africa. That kind of meeting stays with you your whole life. He was imprisoned for years and was still capable of choosing not to introduce a reversed apartheid but instead a new South Africa with a place for everyone. It’s still a fantastic story”.

And in the business world? Are there leaders there that you view as an example?

Van den Broeck: “My mind turns straight away to John de Wit, who I spent some time with. He recently passed away and was one of the founders of the telecoms company Libertel. I admired him for his realism. He was always concerned with questions like: where are we, what are we going to do, what are the threats, what are the consequences of our actions? He could tease the best out of his employees and the company. In general, I like leaders who act. In Belgium, I like to look at entrepreneurs like Wouter Torfs, who is in the shoe business, and at the former and current CEO of the retailer Colruyt. But there is also excellent leadership within the government at the moment. Frank Van Massenhove from the Belgian Federal Public Service Social Security shows that a public service can be an adaptive organisation too, if there are people who doubt that. These are all modern, realistic, no-nonsense leaders”.

Balkenende: “I think immediately of chief executives like Paul Polman at Unilever, Feike Sijbesma at DSM, Ton Büchner at AkzoNobel and Frans van Houten at Philips. These are entrepreneurs who are ‘grounded in reality’, who want to make a connection between the big themes of our time and the question of what these can mean for you and your company. This is a form of servant leadership. Internationally, Ray Anderson from Interface is a good example. During the 70s, he was exceptionally successful in the carpet business in the US and was the first to ask himself: how did I actually achieve the profit? Did I take account of the environment, human rights and interactions within the business? He then turned his business model on its head. It clicked for him and he got started”.

How would you describe a good leader?

Van den Broeck: “I would almost go so far as to say that we as academics have got things very wrong when it comes to leadership. We have always looked mainly at a leader’s behaviour. We talked about terms like ‘charismatic’, ‘transactional’ or ‘transformational’. That’s all great, but what it's really about is impact. I always say: what is the dance of your shadow? In essence, it’s not about what people do but what the consequences of their actions are, in the shorter and longer term.”

Balkenende: “In the business world, leadership for me is about linking your role with the challenges society is facing. Of course you have to make a profit, but the question of how you make that profit is the key issue in my opinion”.

Is that the moral duty of a modern leader?

Balkenende: “I do think it’s a moral duty. I think the current themes are everyone’s responsibility. You can’t turn a blind eye to climate issues or helping people with a disability to find a job. But it’s not just a matter of ethics, it’s also about business. You can certainly make profit in a sustainable way. But it does demand new creativity”.

Van den Broeck: “For me, it is leaders’ moral duty to realise that trying to hold everything together with regulations is no alternative if vision and values are lacking. Leaders need to disseminate the vision and values throughout all layers of the organisation; only then can shared leadership work”.

Are leaders in the business world focusing more on corporate social responsibility?

Balkenende: “Oh, absolutely. You can see the tide turning. The attention paid to themes like sustainability and corporate social responsibility is increasing. Every year, I attend the election of the World Entrepreneur of the Year for EY in Monaco. You notice the shift there. Last year there was an event at which all the CEOs, from Ford to Coca-Cola were asked one crucial question: what is your legacy? What do you contribute to society? This year, purpose was central. What do you stand for as a company? Major changes are taking place. Fascinating”.

Is it not actually a small elite who are engaged with these kinds of matters?

Balkenende: “Of course the situation differs in different countries. But, looking at the Netherlands, a large business without a sustainability policy will have a big problem. Young people will always ask themselves: what kind of company is this? How do they take responsibility? What is the atmosphere in the company like? These questions are becoming increasingly insistent. If you don’t make a contribution to big issues, you might as well forget it. There’s a reason that pension funds and banks are consciously considering the question of what they should invest in. I see real change. And not just in the Netherlands. I’m often in Asia and it’s all about sustainability there too. In the US, there is variation: in California and New York it’s full steam ahead but elsewhere less so. So the intensity can differ but the debate is moving forward. The debate on integrated reporting, which is now crucial for accountants, did not exist ten years ago. Things are moving very quickly”.

Are people always open to ethical leadership and to what you call ‘beyondership’?

Van den Broeck: “Well, you’re always dealing with mankind’s nature. I can’t believe my eyes watching what is happening in the United States with a leader like Donald Trump. You follow it all wondering, how is this possible? What normal person with a little maturity would be taken in by this? And still Trump has won the Republican Party nomination. That intrigues me greatly. People seem to find it incredibly difficult to estimate the longer-term consequences. There is blind belief in testosterone-driven leaders who say: I’m your saviour. In today’s society, you can see that people struggle to grasp complexity. So they choose simplicity”.

Balkenende: “Exploiting uncertainty is a trait of populist leaders. You see that with Trump. And you saw it in the UK around the Brexit campaign. There, Prime Minister Cameron played the Europe card for his own political future. The Brexit campaign was very successful but now they are at a loss, because: what are the consequences? The threat of a recession, the value of the currency is falling, house prices are under pressure. Uncertainty reigns. These are the consequences of exploiting feelings of uncertainty, without having a strategy”.

Van den Broeck: “I like to place leaders on an axis with two contrasting interests. On the one hand you have leaders who have the ability to think holistically. These are leaders who are in a position to look further than the bonus in two months’ time. On the other hand you have individualism. Here you see the testosterone-driven leaders who mainly think in the short term and focus on their own company or their own department. Maturity, I have no other word for it, plays an unbelievably important role in dealing with both these forces. You see it in all areas, including in your personal life: do I share with the community or do I just do things for my own family? In the company: do I look at my share, my target, my bonus or the greater good? Mature managers can do the latter. They remain calm in their decision-making and therefore create a legacy in the longer term”.

It can also make you very gloomy: if the uncertainty becomes too great, we choose simplistic leadership...

Balkenende: “Gloom is the worst guiding principle you can have. Even in the most difficult situations, you should always look to the light at the end of the tunnel. Populist leaders exploit the gloom and feelings of uncertainty. I don’t see populists providing solutions. The people who help me develop as a person are the people who can offer me perspective”.

Van den Broeck: “I like leaders who are realistic. Reality is what it is. If I drive my car into a tree, it’s not pleasant. It’s bad for my car, bad for the tree and bad for my wallet. Good leaders acknowledge and recognise this. Modern entrepreneurs like Torfs and Colruyt say: ok, we recognise the problem. What can we do, what can we change? Agility in terms of learning is hugely important. Our society is facing a choice: are we going to be hoodwinked by populists or are we going to move into the future with a constructive, learning attitude?”

Balkenende: “I have a lot of contact with trend watcher Adjiedj Bakas. He is an advocate of ‘the axis of hope’. As a leader you have to offer hope. That is the key. But offering hope does not come easily, you have to work for it”.

As a leader, do you have to dare to take unpopular measures?

Balkenende: “Definitely. Look at my time as Prime Minister. That is a good example of this. My second cabinet had to introduce major reforms: the Disability Insurance Act (WAO), social security, the Sickness Benefit Act, healthcare, the pre-pension. Everything had to be revolutionised. The trade unions called us a ‘horror cabinet’ and economists thought we were going too far. But we did what we had to. No minister was talking about opinion polls then, they were just looking at the question of what measures were necessary. We went against the flow. From that I learnt: don’t think about yourself, play a serving role”.

Van den Broeck: “That’s what I call maturity! To at times like that not be concerned with opinion polls or journalists”.

Balkenende: “You are not the higher purpose, it’s about the social objective you are striving for”.

How can a CEO embed the important themes in the organisation?

Balkenende: “You have to make sure it goes beyond good intentions. So dialogue with the stakeholders is important, for example. You have to invite others to join the discussion. Unilever has a sustainability strategy and the evaluation of this is expressly carried out with others: critical NGOs, scientists, government officials. And you have to unite. Last year, I was Chair of the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition. This is a group of companies who are working to integrate sustainability in their business models. You have CSR Netherlands, for example, in which small enterprises work together, or the Goldschmeding Foundation. You can’t expect a company to do everything on its own. If you work together, you can achieve more”.

Van den Broeck: “You also have to make good use of your Board of Directors. You can’t use your Board to push your plan through, you have to use it to listen to opinions and to start a dialogue. The dialogue creates commitments. Daring to say things is what we need. Traditional leadership spends too much time window dressing. We have to stop that”.

Balkenende: “A strength of DSM, in my opinion, is the fact that in the annual report they have a section about what went badly. You can use that as a learning process within your organisation. And I don’t believe they have suffered damage to their image as a result. On the contrary: they have received praise because they practice openness”.

So, in the end, haven’t we come back round to the age old question of standards and values?

Balkenende: “When I was Prime Minister, I was subject to a huge amount of criticism. Now I hear more and more often: you were completely right! I regularly visit companies in Japan and they almost all start by talking about their values. What do we actually stand for? What’s it all about? Why do we do things? We have to talk about that. It gives me hope that these questions are being asked again. If you don’t ask these questions, there is a threat of populism. If you do ask this question, you come to the ‘axis of hope’”. 

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