Fidelio Table Talk – The Philosopher’s Angle on “A Seat at the Table”

Robert Rowland Smith is a management consultant and bestselling author, having begun his career as a Prize Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and lectured internationally on philosophy. Robert works globally with executive teams in developing leadership and organisational structure, drawing extensively on his academic and professional experience. 

Robert will lead a module on ‘Frameworks of Leadership’. He will explore the benefits of a leadership model to underpin decision-making.



Fidelio: Firstly what, as a philosopher, do you bring to this development programme for senior female executives?

Robert: The ability to stand back. CEOs and business leaders are very frenetic and taking a step back can help organise time and provide an organising principle for how to allocate time most effectively. Often, from this perspective, one can come up with models to frame issues in a different way.

Fidelio: Previously you have spoken about historical contexts. What different contexts are leadership teams now facing?

Robert: Obviously demands on leaders are changing. We’re moving toward a much more interconnected world and leaders require the ability to see situations from a number of different angles. They need to deal with complexity and still act. Technology, in particular, is having a profound effect on how organisations are structured. Leading isn’t simply from the top, isolated, but rather in a force-field of information.  A key leadership skill in this context is to sift through this data, honing in on important messages from the expanse of information.

Fidelio: How helpful are leadership frameworks in understanding the lack of female executives in particular in technology and engineering, for example? Do women tend towards different frameworks?

Robert: I do not want to categorise by sector, nor by gender, as there are leadership skills which are relevant across all organisations. However the technology sector does present some of the more profound challenges that women are facing as they enter the Boardroom, and so looking at the opportunities and challenges for women on a sector-by-sector basis does warrant thinking time. The key point here is that technical expertise is not a synonym of leadership. Good leadership can be independent of sector and, especially in the case of women, a lack of specific expertise is often translated into a feeling that one has no right to lead.

Fidelio: On a practical basis, at the Executive and Board level, how important is it to analyse and be aware of different leadership frameworks?

Robert: A framework is a methodology for thinking about the style of leadership and what one is trying to achieve. It provides a structure for allocating time and prevents the CEO from becoming totally embedded in day-to-day short-term affairs. Leadership is about simultaneously managing the short-term, medium-term and long-term, and the trap for CEOs is to end up in the short-term end of the spectrum. However, in discussing frameworks we shouldn’t belabour the point. Although frameworks are important, also important as a leader is the ability to weave a narrative—especially to key stakeholder groups.

Fidelio: Leading from that, do you think there are differences between the type of frameworks that men and women turn to, or bring to, leadership?

Robert: I don’t think there are different leadership frameworks per se. It is quite right to explore behavioural differences but men and women at the top table are facing the same business challenges and should be thinking about frameworks in a very similar way.

Fidelio: In terms of the women that you have worked with in the past couple of years in the “A Seat at the Table” programme and beyond, what is it that they have been seeking to develop?  Is there one aspect that really stands out?

 Robert: On the spectrum between decisive action and consensus leadership, women seem to spend more time figuring out where they stand—feeding into qualms about confidence and determination. This seems to be much less of an issue for men. Women often feel that there is greater scrutiny of where they are on that spectrum than perhaps their male colleagues do. But it doesn’t obviate the need that, at the end of the day, a decision must be taken. It is here that a leadership model comes into play and it is quite right that this programme addresses other, linked, topics like presence and authority.

Fidelio: I know you have spoken before about the contribution that diversity makes to innovation, is this going to be one aspect of leadership that you explore?

Robert: I think about inclusion rather than diversity. Recent business collapses have demonstrated one of the biggest challenges to successful organisations is ‘group-think’. The difficulty the business world has in grasping this idea is also apparent in the diversity debate itself. For instance, the debate on quotas is often dominated by an outcome-oriented perspective: hiring more from an underrepresented group. But perhaps more rewarding is a focus on the processes. By thinking in terms of inclusion rather than diversity, we can assess what ideas we are including and excluding by doing what we are doing, and how this affects our business. This would also break from the often binary nature of the debate which can be unhelpful.

Fidelio: On that note, what is it that you feel participants ought to take away from the “A Seat at the Table” programme?

Robert: This programme offers participants the opportunity to reflect on their own leadership style to explore new aspects of leadership and to form a strong network with women in leadership roles across a diverse range of industries. 

About Fidelio Partners

Fidelio, the Board development and Executive Search Consultancy, will be hosting “A Seat at the Table” for a selected group of senior executive females on 15th & 16th March 2016 at Leeds Castle. This programme focusses on the personal and professional development of Senior Female Executives and prepares them for the critical transition to the most senior executive and non-executive roles within an organisation.

View more information at or contact Luke Main at or +44 (0) 20 7759 2200

Robert Rowland Smith

Robert began his career as a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and lectured internationally on philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis. He has since become a management consultant and has authored a number of best sellers including Breakfast with Socrates (2009); Driving with Plato (2011); and The Reality Test (2013) which challenges what strategists and Boards should be asking. Drawing on his academic work, as well as his extensive experience as a management consultant specialising in leadership and organisational development, Robert’s focus is forging the crucial links between Boards and the broader needs of the business. He works closely with executive teams, bringing his wider fields of interest and experience to bear and helping them to develop innovative ideas and gain fresh perspectives on otherwise intractable challenges. Robert sits on the board of the Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology and is a faculty member of The School of Life and the London Graduate School.



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