This is a keynote address I gave at The Publishing Show, in March 2023. My central argument is that the way to unlock the full potential of any organisation is to instil a culture where everyone - from the board room to the most junior role - thinks and behaves like a leader.
Good morning everyone, and let me say how delighted I am to be here.
Although, to be honest, I’m already thinking about tonight, and wondering if I’ll get home in time for The Apprentice. What a show, eh? And where DO they find the contestants?
The thing that fascinates me is the weekly dog-fight to be project manager. Of course, it usually ends in a spectacular failure. And that’s what makes The Apprentice such a good watch. But it’s a million miles away from the real world. Or is it?
I suspect that all of us in this room will have come across someone who was given a leadership role and went on to make a mess of it.
Maybe it was a case of ambition outstripping their ability. Or perhaps their boss thought: ‘They’re good in their current role, so why don’t I promote them?’
Whatever the reason, in my experience, too many people are put into a leadership role before they have the skills to carry it out effectively. So we shouldn’t be surprised when they fail.
Over the next 15 minutes or so, I’ll talk about why I believe we need to create a new breed of leaders, if we’re to succeed in the complex environment we now inhabit.
And on a more micro level, I’ll suggest some straightforward techniques that can help everyone to become a more effective leader.
In my view, the more people within an organisation who possess leadership qualities and are encouraged to use them to drive towards clearly-articulated goals, the more successful that organisation is likely to be.
And that applies to the most junior, non-managerial positions just as much as the senior leadership team. Put simply, we should forget the idea of leaders and followers. We all need to be leaders now. So whatever your role within your organisation, these thoughts are aimed at all of you.
Leadership. It’s a topic that’s launched hundreds of podcasts and thousands of books but – I would suggest – it’s something that when we’re working flat-out at the coalface, we don’t think about enough.
And that’s understandable. In today’s digitally-disrupted world, teams may be smaller – certainly they are in my world of news publishing - workloads everywhere are heavier, on account of additional platforms such as social media, and management structures are generally flatter and leaner.
It's no surprise, then, with the pressure on the leader’s time greater than ever, that our attention is drawn towards the here and now, to ‘getting the job done’.
In simpler, pre-digital days, the leader was often the best practitioner in the business, the one who knew all there was to know. But today, when change is constant and even the most junior staff may know more than their leaders about certain aspects of the job, it’s no longer enough to simply roll up your sleeves and lead from the front.
As the eminent management theorist Peter Drucker put it: ‘The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask.’
Or, as I like to think of it, leaders need to be a bit less Han Solo and a bit more Yoda.
I would suggest that the way to unlock the full potential of your organisation is by having a culture of self-leadership running through its veins. A culture in which everyone is expected to share the responsibility for their own professional growth and is encouraged to ‘think like a leader’.
And that involves making time for personal reflection. The secret is to get to know yourself - your strengths and weaknesses, your foibles, your biases - and seeking out opportunities to expand your knowledge and expertise. Here’s a small example, from the world of sport.
DeAndre Yedlin is an American footballer. A few years ago, his career at Newcastle United had stalled. He was struggling to come to terms with English football and couldn’t break through into the starting eleven.
He could have sulked, sat back and consoled himself by counting his wages. But he didn’t. He decided to read a book.
That book was Maximum Achievement, by Brian Tracy, and it had a career-changing impact on Yedlin. It prompted him to devise a plan to improve his mental strength.
He noted down a set of personal goals, a week, two weeks, a month out. It created a positive, focused mindset that helped him to flourish.
Yedlin became a key part of Newcastle’s promotion to the Premier League and he eventually played 112 games for the club. And last November, he was in the United States squad that played in the World Cup.
My point is: He took responsibility for his own success, and that’s what made the difference to his career.
Let me ask you a question: How often do you put time aside to think about leadership and how you can be better at it? Not just random thoughts but quality time, dedicated to thinking about your performance as a leader and how you can improve?
Once a month? Once a year?
Back in the Nineties, I was a few months into a new job as a newspaper editor and, to be honest, I was feeling swamped. There were too many demands on my time and I felt I was losing control.
So I asked my PA to block out one Friday afternoon a month, when I wouldn’t be available for meetings. This was going to be my ‘thinking time’.
Unfortunately, when the advertising director asked her to set up a meeting with me, she told him: “Sorry he can’t make it – that’s his thinking afternoon’.
Which prompted the reply: ‘Oh, so doesn’t he bother thinking for the rest of the month?’
My point is that unless you dedicate regular time to thinking about the leadership aspect of your role, it will get squeezed out and you won’t fulfil your potential.
These days, an afternoon a month sounds like a luxury. But even if it’s 20 minutes over a coffee, or on your commute, or when you’re out for a walk, I’d urge you to invest in yourself by thinking about how you lead.
A couple of recommendations here: When I’m out walking the dog, I often listen to The High Performance Podcast, presented by sports journalist Jake Humphrey and psychologist Professor Damien Hughes.
They interview a diverse range of people, who have all excelled in their chosen field and have interesting lessons to share.
There are almost 200 episodes, so there’s a lot to get your teeth into, but I’d point you towards their recent interview with author and journalist Matthew Syed, who has some fascinating insights on leadership.
I’d also recommend Matthew Syed’s books, particularly Black Box Thinking, which vividly illustrates the value of failure, in terms of learning lessons, and then applying that learning to help your organisation improve.
One of Syed’s examples is Sir James Dyson’s invention of the bagless vacuum cleaner.
It’s often portrayed as a stroke of innovative genius but the truth is it took Dyson more than 5,000 attempts, constantly refining his invention, until it finally worked well enough to be a marketable product.
It’s a great example of the reality that innovation – like leadership - is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration.
A few years ago, I was in a senior management meeting with around 30 colleagues. We’d all been asked to complete a Myers Briggs personality profile. Around 70 per cent of us came out as ENTJs, who - according to Myers Briggs - are ‘life’s natural leaders’. Well, we ENTJs were pretty pleased with ourselves, I can tell you!
But then I began to wonder: If so many of us are natural leaders, why isn’t the business performing better? Why aren’t we doing a better job of tackling the challenge of the Internet? And why, in our annual satisfaction survey, are the staff always critical of the leadership?
The fact that your personality type says ‘natural leader’ counts for nothing. In fact, it may well make you think you’ve nothing left to learn.
But if there’s no such thing as a ‘natural leader’, the good news is, leadership can be learned - if you’re prepared to work at it.
So, if you want to be a better leader, where can you start? Here’s a simple, three-step model to help you improve your leadership skills…
As a first step, think about the best leaders you’ve encountered - in all aspects of your life, not just at work. What, precisely, were the qualities that made the good ones so good?
Jot down those qualities. Just single words – vision, clarity, results, passion, communication, inspirational – whatever they may be.
I’ve run this exercise many times in leadership workshops, and it’s striking that – every time - the qualities people say they value most are the so-called ‘soft skills’ – things like honesty, authenticity, supportiveness, approachability.
I’d suggest it’s these soft skills that set the very best leaders apart.
When you’ve got your list, think about how you measure up against them. This helps you to identify your areas of strength and your areas for development.
And don’t be shy about it - take the best bits from the leaders you admire and try to blend them into the way you lead. As my old boss used to say: ‘Steal from the best with pride!’
The second step in this model requires a touch of bravery. Ask a few trusted colleagues, including some who report to you, how they think you can be a better leader.
You may not want to ask the question quite as baldly as that. Maybe you could ask: What can I do – or stop doing - to help you be more effective in your job? How can I support you better? Am I giving you enough of my time?
The third step, and perhaps the hardest one, is to take a long, hard look inside yourself.
The most authentic leaders I’ve known are those who have been prepared to invest time in honest introspection, and to ask themselves some searching questions.
Questions like these:
Why do I want to be a leader?
In my view, the hardest transition we make in our working lives is from being responsible solely for ourselves to being responsible for other people. In other words, becoming a leader. It’s a big step, and we shouldn’t take it blindly.
It’s important to be honest with yourself. Do you want the job purely for the transactional benefits – the title, the money, sheer ambition, the ego-boost? Or is it something deeper – the personal challenge, wanting to make a difference?
Academic studies suggest that the transactional factors – the trappings of the job, if you like – don’t lead to genuine fulfilment.
Fulfilment comes from a combination of two things - hard work and having a sense of purpose.
But whatever your motivations, it’s better to be clear about why you’re doing it before you take the leap into deeper waters rather than simply falling in and drowning.
Secondly…What difference am I going to make?
It’s important to be specific here. Write down a short list – maybe 3 or 4 things - that you will do drive improvements. It can be anything – from making day-to-day operations more efficient, to getting more value from your meetings, to improving team morale.
Think about how you’re going to do it - and set yourself some realistic deadlines.
Your boss probably sets you targets, but this is about taking personal responsibility for identifying and delivering additional improvements - in line with the overall company strategy - that YOU believe will enhance the organisation’s performance,
And thirdly…Am I prepared to work hard on developing competencies that may be alien to me?
When I was an editor, I thought of myself as being creative - an ‘ideas person’. But then, on a management awayday, one of my colleagues said to me: ‘Doing stuff you’re good at and that you like doing is all very well. But you’re not a completer-finisher are you?
That comment stung, but when I reflected on it, she was right – I was constantly coming up with ideas but I didn’t see enough of them through, which was creating unnecessary work for my team.
I decided that from then on, I’d concentrate on launching fewer ideas but see them through to a successful conclusion. In other words, I trained myself to become a completer-finisher.
Twenty-five years later, I still wouldn’t say this comes entirely naturally to me, but I do know it’s made me a better leader.
This idea of developing skills that may feel alien to you was put very neatly by Sarah Rettker, of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. She wrote this:
‘We are moving into an unpredictable future where you must challenge yourself to gain new skills and embrace positive discomfort in order to evolve and advance your career.’
So here’s a small challenge – when you get back to the day job, think about the skills that don’t come naturally to you but which would make you a more effective leader. Then choose one of them and think about how you’re going to add it to your skillset.
A little earlier, I was talking about what makes a great leader. If you Google ‘What are the characteristics of good leadership?’, you’ll get thousands of search returns.
Arden University thinks there are five characteristics every leader should have. The Harvard Business School lists six, while Forbes.com says there are eight.
The Center for Creative Leadership believes there are ten, as does the Southern New Hampshire University – only it’s a slightly different ten.
BetterUp.com says there are 18, Emeritus.org says 20 and VantageCircle.com is top of the shop with 25.
There’s a good deal of crossover. Things like Vision, Communication and Strategic Thinking crop up in almost all of them.
And because I don’t like being left out, I’ve come up with my own list, which I use to prompt a debate when I’m running leadership workshops. Here are my eight traits of good leaders, based on a mixture of reading and my personal experience.
MY EIGHT TRAITS OF GOOD LEADERS
A CREDIBLE PLAN
A SENSE OF HOPE
There’s nothing too out of the ordinary here, until we get near the end. I’d like to dwell for a moment on the final one – A Sense of Hope.
Amid all the disruption our industry has had to face in recent years – the impacts of digitisation, then the pandemic - and with new challenges like artificial intelligence emerging now, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and for staff morale to dip.
This is where the leader’s behaviour becomes super-important, because what you say, what you do and how you do it are permanently under the microscope.
So, some very simple things to think about. Try to look positive. Be aware of your body language and the message it sends to your team. If your default position is sitting with your head in your hands, they’ll notice.
Similarly, try to sound positive. I don’t mean being all happy-clappy, but if your words and the way you say them might suggest we’re all doomed, then that’s what your team will take away.
And if you look like you’re enjoying your work, that gives your team permission to have a smile on their face too.
The final point is an old concept but one which I believe is more relevant today than ever – M.B.W.A. or Management By Walking About.
A managing director I worked with made a point of taking half an hour every day to walk around the building, calling in at each department, asking individuals how things were going.
He found out more about the real issues within the business than the staff forums or team meetings ever did.
And the staff loved the fact that he took the trouble to come and see them on their own turf. It’s a great example of how the leader’s behaviour sets the tone for the organisation.
I hope that’s given you some food for thought. I’d better stop now or I might be in danger of missing The Apprentice. Thank you for listening.