mclaren-1211258_1280The sports world news has been punctuated by stories of pending leadership changes in F1. Bernie Ecclestone is due to step down as the FI Chief and the McLaren team has just parted company with founder of the modern team, Ron Dennis. Both Ecclestone and Dennis have been central to the emergence of modern FI and both positions (at McLaren and the overall FI position) have been offered to American businessman Zac Brown. He has a tough choice to make!

But all this is just background to something that caught my eye about the situation at McLaren.

Dennis’ removal (he decided to ‘walk away’) from McLaren as been a bitter one that has been brewing for some considerable time. The fact that his tenure there has not ended well is particularly sad given his role and influence in the success that McLaren have enjoyed over the years. Therein itself is a lesson for any leader and that is how to ensure your tenure ‘ends well’. For most football managers such a goal is practically impossible but it shouldn’t be the case for corporate (or any organisational) leadership. How to end well should be something you think about from the very start.

But I digress.

What caught my eye was what seemed to be the source of discontent between the Board and Dennis. It had to do with Dennis’ leadership style that was described by the Board as being ‘high handed’ and ‘dictatorial’. Dennis’ response was that these grounds were, “entirely spurious” before adding that, “my management style is the same as it has always been and is one that has enabled McLaren to become an automotive and technological group that has won 20 Formula One world championships and grown into an £850 million-a –year business”

Fair point (the success record) but therein sits the problem: the acknowledgement that his management style hasn’t changed and clearly he believes doesn’t need to change. Dennis is 69.

One of the surest leadership maxims is that, ‘what got you here’ will be sufficient to ‘get you there’. In other words the formulae that were successful in the past will be sufficient to guarantee your future success. Tom Peters suggests that the surest way to fail in the future is to simply keep doing what you have already done. In a changing world leadership – and how it is practiced, needs to change. Leaders have to constantly appreciate the changing context and seek to adapt their approach accordingly.

It would seem that Ron Dennis has failed to recognise the necessary changes required in his personal approach to a changing context. It is an all too obvious yet easy trap for many a leader, especially those with a long track record of success.

I don’t pretend to know the deeper story to all that has happened at McLaren but certainly the various public pronouncements point to a failure to adapt. Leadership is always context specific and clearly there has been a contextual shift within McLaren that Dennis has failed to acknowledge and appreciate.

Yes, Ron…your management style might well be the ‘same as it always has been’ and that is the problem!

Smart leaders learn, grow and continually adapt and for as long as you are in leadership – whether you are 40 or 69, this will be something you will need to grapple with, embrace and learn to appreciate.


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