My path in practical leadership

When I was in my late 20’s, I was invited to work with a Nordic communications company. This business would, over time, become notorious, famous and very successful. Their original flag the Skull & Crossbones. It said it all.

I had spoken to the founder on the phone, “come for a month, see what happens” he said.

In early January I was on a plane that was landing at midnight in a frozen north. It was a childlike experience for me looking out the window, of a solitary fuselage and wings silhouetted by the moon, descending over a winter wonderland of white snow. I could only be excited as the landing gear touched down. I had never been so far north before. Why did I go? Because I was intrigued, the founder was charmingly persuasive. The next morning the day I walked in the front door; it felt like I had come home. Music was playing, there was an energy, like a buzzing creative machine cranking it up ready to rip itself off its foundations. It was unexpected, and I loved it.

The founder showed me around, showed me the work the company was doing. He explained that things were going great financially, but they needed help to increase their overall creativity. I was given a briefing on all the people that worked in the company. I had never experienced that before either. So candid, yet that information was trusted I would keep it to myself. Would I take the job? It was an unexpected brief. I agreed, because looking back, I was way out of my comfort zone, and wanting to test myself.

Walking around the agency, I could see all these men and women were highly awarded. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, were awards. These people were all successful in their own right. I needed to respect that. How to achieve the goal I had been set? Because I could also see there was definite room for improvement.

Never had I been given such a challenge. Certainly I understood I did not have all the answers. I knew I was still learning my craft (of course the truth is, we all are, until we step away, put down our tools, or lose interest). So how to lead? What I knew was if I assumed the role as judge of good and bad work, taste, skill etc., I would not be there very long. That was felt knowledge. There were proud men and women who worked there, and who was I exactly?

So these were the decisions I made. I would take on my own projects, becoming a financial resource and contributor to the business; put my best work out there for others to see and form their own opinion. I would produce a ‘weekly magazine’ that I wrote and compiled over the week, and during weekends, it was called ‘Who Cares About Typography Anyway?’. Every Sunday I would place a printed copy on every person’s desk, sometimes it was 6 pages, other weeks and working late into Sunday evening, it could be a hefty 40pp of creativity, and making. Who got it? There was no hierarchy, no omissions, from the founder to the office secretary. I did not ask permission, I just did it.

I organised visits from graphic designers, artists, photographers, filmmakers; anyone and everyone that led a creative life and made money from it. We went on learning journeys, to other countries. We visited the people that visited us. We drank, laughed, argued, discussed. It was through all these things, that I opened the window for others to look through, including me, and then form their own opinions. That is all.

By giving credit to the intelligence and motivation of my class of pirates with whom I would fall in love with. By respecting their emotional intelligence as the key in unlocking their personal desire to be better. We formed a bond of trust. I was just one of them, with my sleeves rolled up, passionate about what it was I was doing.

Looking back there was all the necessary components. I was competitive, so I pushed myself and my work, hard. It set a benchmark, but I also shared willingly and openly.

I had no special title. There was no big announcement of the founders desire to up the ante. I am not sure even they had an idea of what that outcome might look like? There were no kpi’s (key performance indicators) of what I had to achieve. Except that the company was sold to an international concern convinced they had bought the most creative company, therefore, the most commercially attractive, in that geographic region.

I hung out, worked hard, played hard, invested time when it was invited. I was not precious about with whom I would give my time, energy and love of my work, too. This was the daily practice; turning up and really wanting to make a difference, understanding the company was a family, fractious at times. But, with the right nurture an incredibly powerful unit. This was to be proven many years later, when we really did climb a mountain of success.

Trying to make myself better, was a clear point to all. No judgement of others, just working on improving myself, improving the work we did collectively. Celebrating the successes of awards, new clients and youngsters knocking on the front door wanting to work for the most creative company in the Nordics.

I saw all that I did as a form of invitation. As a friend said to me, ‘how do you invite and invitation?’ Because when you are invited; the invitee’s mind is open, their heart is open, motivation is pure. So when you turn up fully attentive, and clearly in service to an ideal, that means the world to others, they sense your personal commitment. You have skin in the game. Your personal behaviour is an invitation.

My belief in teams was forged here. Everyone was different, everyone needed to be tended differently. Each was an important contributor to the process of good work well made.

This is what I believe

We must all have our own standards as individuals: never satisfied, always questioning. This is my personal practice. We as leaders must always be a work in progress, quietly getting on with that work. Never lose sight or empathy for the people you lead. Leading with empathy, and humility to be in service to all, is key to great leadership. You may have a vision, and a destination you believe in, and your hard work has enabled you to believe this destination to be real and necessary. But if you depend on the souls of others to collectively work towards that goal they too must believe it to be true; they must believe in you and your purpose.

People embrace what the create

Muhammad Ali was once asked what his shortest poem was. He replied in two words: ‘Me, We’. In these two short words Ali gave insight into our true human nature. We need to be truly ourselves as individuals, but we can only be so when connected to a greater ‘We’. The Me needs the We to create more than is possible as an individual; and the We needs Me – every Me – to come with their full capacity to create meaning collectively.

‘We’ is how we create narrative, culture, context and meaning – it’s the glue that binds us. Strip a community or a business of the means to create We, and we all suffer as a result.

Journey further

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