Manners maketh the manager

Last week we were talking about the right kind of purpose and how too often people assumed the purpose of business was a ‘tooth and claw’ fight to win at all costs. Then this week, I heard an article on Radio 4 about Donald Trump: while he was winning Republican primaries, he was losing among general public opinion because he was seen as ‘vulgarian’ i.e. rude, brutal, unfeeling and lacking in manners.

Trump represents what many people think a successful business person is like: straight talking, ruthless, and, frankly, rude. I think it’s a dated image and it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I know that perception is an issue with many aspiring leaders in today’s world.

They believe (as I do) that business can create wealth, purpose and dignity and can contribute positively to society. They also, critically, want people to understand that success in the business world does not automatically equate with ‘being an arsehole’. Incidentally I rather like Herb Kelleher, the founder of one of the most successful businesses in modern history, Southwest Airlines, who spoke admiringly of a simple core hiring philosophy: ‘no arseholes need apply’.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time with inordinately busy people. I’m writing a book which includes interviewing some extremely senior global business leaders, plus we are lucky enough to work directly with some incredible business leaders at Caffeine.

What I’ve noticed is that there is a direct correlation: the more successful a person, the more courteous their approach. It’s really striking. I’ve seen it time and again. The global FMCG CEO? Communicates with charm and principles. The famously ‘nails’ female business leader? Delightfully prompt and polite on email. The successful entrepreneur? Human and helpful.

Grace under pressure.

It strikes me as no coincidence that most of the smartest people in business realise that consideration for others is not something to ignore. They don’t perceive respectful behaviour as a fundamental weakness. In fact, it’s a highly valuable trait. The most motivating managers show empathy (recent studies point to the benefits of empathetic leaders) and it’s also amazing to be led by people who stay calm in the face of constant challenges. The world of business is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous so I think ‘grace under pressure’ is an incredibly desirable trait in a leader which should be praised, lauded and role modelled consistently.

Business karma.

So it’s good for business to have leaders with manners who are human and respectful. And a consistent diet of considerate behaviour is definitely good for individuals. All the experience we have at Caffeine in business always demonstrates the ‘tremendously small world’ we operate in (helped even more so by LinkedIn). People talk. People ask. People like to work with decent people. Yes, you have to be smart and savvy but if people trust you as well then you’re on a highway to winning friends and influencing success. Conversely, if you behave badly to others in business it does rebound on you. I won’t share the stories here but you’ll all have your own examples of where people have lost out on jobs or opportunities because they have alienated people in business.

Tough but thoughtful.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not advocating softness. As a leader you have to make tough decisions, you have to fire people (which isn’t a fun thing but is often essential) and I’m a firm believer in the challenging but important value of radical candour as a cultural approach. If people are messing you around, being courteous does not mean putting up with insolence or poor performance from them.

As a woman in business, this feels particularly important; I worry that sometimes people will push the boundaries further with ‘nice’ seeming female bosses. Karren Brady is a fantastic role model of someone who is smart, tough and incredibly full of grace; quite one of the most courteous, loyal and dignified people around. But being a diplomat does not mean being a doormat. I love the example of Brady who was on a bus with her players (early in her career as MD of Birmingham City FC) and a player shouted “I can see your tits in that shirt” to which she replied – quick as a flash – “Don’t worry, when I sell you to Crewe, you won’t be able to see them from there.” And reader, she sold him.

So, to be crystal clear, I am not advocating the pernicious attitude of wanting to be liked. A senior agency chief for whom I have great respect described ‘leaders wanting to be liked’ as the most dangerous waste of time in business. I agree wholeheartedly; this is not about a craven desire for people to like you (impossible for everyone to do so and wrong to want it in the workplace) but about behaving with manners and dignity so people respect you – and you respect yourself.

Don’t say sorry but do say thank you…

There is a world where behaving with integrity and courtesy goes hand in hand with business success. I get irritated by people (including myself) saying ‘sorry’ too much but I definitely think we should all say thank you a little more.

Business – and life – can be challenging. To feel appreciated and to see someone showing consideration for you is warming and inspiring. It takes seconds, it costs nothing and it can have a bonding, boosting power that should not be underestimated.

We are drowning in too many emails but acknowledging important ones with a short message or putting thought into your response is incredibly powerful. It’s part of a world where most smart businesses are moving towards ‘purpose before profits’ and people like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple say: “You don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well”. Part of this focus on purpose filters down into respectful interactions between employees.  Talking of drowning in emails – my top tip is to move your organisation to the fabulous Slack about which I am evangelical for its timesaving, team uniting brilliance. And Slack has ‘courtesy’ as one of its core values.

Thoughtfulness – the new business essential.

The future of business I hope, and believe, will be a world where good manners, courtesy and consideration for others continues to rule. For your customer and your consumer and for your colleagues. One of Caffeine’s core values is ‘thoughtfulness’ (critical for us in both senses of the word). I want to work with – and see the world run by – leaders who exhibit manners and thoughtfulness; those with purpose in their goals and politeness in their approach. Let’s make common courtesy and manners even more common. You can be commercial and courteous. That will win you fans and business success.

So. Thank you for reading. Agree? Have something to add? Please let me know. I’d like to hear it.


Sophie Devonshire
Latest posts by Sophie Devonshire (see all)

Need a Shot of Caffeine?

Sign up to the Extra Shot mailing list to keep up to date with the latest stimulating insights and thoughts from Caffeine.


  1. Nice piece Sophie. Totally agree. Integrity is a fundamental principle by which all good leaders should operate. My mothers Golden Rule was always to treat others in the way that you should be treated, good leaders do that by instinct, they support, stretch and challenge others.

Leave a Comment