Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

For Chartered Management Institute Companion Sir Bryan Nicholson, the mark of a great leader is strong decision-making.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Throughout history, the world has seen many leaders, but only a few are deemed great. As a wartime kid, I have in my lifetime admired Churchill, Roosevelt and De Gaulle. What sets great leaders apart is their ability to engage those around them in a shared vision of the future. By making the right decisions, they demonstrate their commitment to turning that vision into reality; and by doing so successfully, they instil in others the confidence to trust in their leadership.

Of course, all of this is much easier said than done. As Churchill once said: 'The price of greatness is responsibility.'

In my opinion, making the right decision - one that is both timely and accurate - can be one of the most difficult and pressurised elements of leadership. I have found this to be true whatever sector you're in: private, public, voluntary or charitable. I have worked in them all. The decision-making process may vary, but the need to make the right decision, often under time pressure, remains the same.

Life was very different in the days before the technology boom. Access to advice and support was not as readily available as it is today. If the boss was away, decisions had to be made without the benefit of a call to a mobile or a quick e-mail. Whatever the outcome, right or wrong, the decision-maker had to assume full responsibility for the decision that had been made. The world around us may have changed, but the principle remains the same: when handed responsibility for making decisions, one must simply get on and make them.

I learnt this in my first general management job. Appointed to run the heavily lossmaking Australian subsidiary of an American multinational, I rapidly realised that I had very little time to decide whether to recommend closure or put in place a recovery programme. That experience taught me a lot about myself and about the importance of the people around me in shaping any decision I made.

More recently, there was the decision on how to translate the Higgs Report into a new combined code on corporate governance. That involved, under much pressure, vast consultation with a range of representative bodies and individuals. But it still involved someone - in this case myself - having to decide the approach, the issues and the likely path to resolution.

Authority, adaptability and responsibility - these are essential elements of the decision-making process. They are also terms synonymous with good leadership. If put into play, they will not only improve the effectiveness of those in a leadership role but will also provide companies with a competitive edge.

But those attributes alone are not sufficient for good decision-making.

Decisiveness is only an asset if the decision is right, and it is more likely to be right if it is well-informed. Wise leaders will recognise where they can benefit from the knowledge and experience of others.

In UK corporate life we have a long tradition of the unitary board. The benefit of the unitary board is the value of executive knowledge within it, alongside non-executive directors who can bring wider experience.

Although we rightly give great authority to the CEO to drive the organisation, it is the check and balance of scrutiny of key decisions by the whole board that makes those decisions stronger.

When the Financial Reporting Council revised the combined code on corporate governance in 2003, we strengthened the parts relating to independent non-executive directors, building on recommendations in the Higgs report.

Derek Higgs had identified sound judgment and an ability and willingness to challenge and probe as key attributes in a non-executive director.

The FRC's overall aim is to promote confidence in corporate reporting and governance. As part of that work, we aim to influence companies to achieve and maintain high standards of corporate governance. We assist them in this by providing guidance and a framework to help improve governance practice, in the form of the combined code.

However, the framework alone is only half the picture. The key to successful corporate governance is effective implementation. The first principle of the combined code states that it is the role of the board to provide entrepreneurial leadership and to set the company's values and standards. It is those at its helm, supported by their professional advisers and encouraged by the investor community, who have primary responsibility for achieving high standards of corporate reporting and governance.

Good governance should not be process-driven. Really good governance is about making better decisions. Companies must be prepared for the future and have a good understanding of the risks and opportunities they face, and be able to manage those risks effectively.

They must be able to demonstrate that an investment in the company is a good investment.

To turn this vision into a reality, companies need leaders with integrity and an ability to exercise sound independent judgment. Where they lead, others will follow.

CV - Sir Bryan Nicholson is the former chairman of the Financial Reporting Council. A former president of the CBI, he has served as chairman of numerous companies, including Rank Xerox (UK) Ltd and BUPA. He is also a former chairman of the Post Office and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, and was until recently the pro-chancellor of the Open University.

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