Leadership sits at the very heart of everything we do as a civilisation, and to understand more we spoke to a group of the world’s foremost experts on leadership across the military, business, government education and research: General Stan McChyrstal (Founder, McChrystal Group & former commander of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan), Tony Hsieh (Founder & CEO, Zappos.com), General Richard Myers (President of Kansas State University, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), John Kotter (Chairman, Kotter International & Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership – Harvard), General Sir Peter Wall (Chief of the General Staff, the Professional Head of the British Army), General Sir Richard Shirreff (Deputy Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, NATO), Professor Stewart Friedman (Founding Director, Wharton Leadership Programme & Wharton Work/Life Integration Project), Drew Povey (Headmaster & Leadership Expert)and Trevor Moawad (Mental Conditioning expert and strategic advisor to some of the world’s most elite performers).
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
“The reason for having leadership is to be found in the social nature of man.” Wrote the philosopher, JJ Degeneaar. “As an individual being man has the ability to act and to direct his own behaviour. But man lives in a society with a complex structure in which the actions of many individuals within groups in a variety of situations have to be directed. In order for society to be an orderly whole, to enable it to counter disintegration that could arise if each individual was allowed to pursue his own ends in his own way, centres of authority arc
necessary to direct the actions of individuals in a variety of situations.” (The philosophy of leadership, Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies)
Thus, the paradox between our need for individual agency and our nature as social animals is resolved. Our plurality means we are not members of a single tribe or group, but rather we are members of families, ethnicities, our state, economic organisations, universities, businesses, friendship circles, sports teams and many more assemblies, all driven around shared goals, vision and interest.
It is this nature of our ability to form, lead and direct that has been at the heart of every single major advance (and step back) of our species, from our scientific and cultural leaps, to wars and atrocities. It is under leadership that we have been able to walk on the Moon, fight disease, and improve the living standards of billions; and it is also under leadership that millions exist under brutal regimes.
Leadership sits at the very heart of everything we do as a civilisation, and to understand more we spoke to a group of the world’s foremost experts on leadership across the military, business, government education and research: General Stan McChyrstal (Founder, McChrystal Group & former commander of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan), Tony Hsieh (Founder & CEO, Zappos.com), General Richard Myers (President of Kansas State University, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), John Kotter (Chairman, Kotter International & Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership – Harvard), General Sir Peter Wall (Chief of the General Staff, the Professional Head of the British Army), General Sir Richard Shirreff (Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, NATO), Professor Stewart Friedman (Founding Director, Wharton Leadership Programme & Wharton Work/Life Integration Project), Drew Povey (Headmaster & Leadership Expert)and Trevor Moawad (Mental Conditioning expert and strategic advisor to some of the world’s most elite performers).
Stan McChrystal founded McChrystal Group in January 2011 to deliver innovative leadership solutions to American businesses in order to help them transform and succeed in challenging, dynamic environments. As Founder and a Partner, he advises senior executives at multinational corporations on navigating complex change and building stronger teams.
A retired four-star general, Stan is the former commander of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan and the former commander of the nation’s premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He is best known for developing and implementing a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and for creating a cohesive counter-terrorism organization that revolutionized the interagency operating culture.
Throughout his military career, Stan commanded a number of elite organizations, including the 75th Ranger Regiment. After 9/11 until his retirement in 2010, he spent more than 6 years deployed to combat in a variety of leadership positions. In June 2009, the President of the United States and the Secretary General of NATO appointed him to be the Commander of US Forces Afghanistan and NATO ISAF. His command included more than 150,000 troops from 45 allied countries. On August 1, 2010 he retired from the US Army.
Stan is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he teaches a course on Leadership. He also sits on the boards of Navistar International Corporation, Siemens Government Technology, and JetBlue Airways. He is a sought-after speaker, giving speeches on leadership to organizations around the country. In 2013, Stan published his memoir, My Share of the Task, which was a New York Times bestseller; and is an author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, which was a New York Times bestseller in 2015.
A passionate advocate for national service and veterans’ issues, Stan is the Chair of the Board of Service Year Alliance. In this capacity, he advocates for a future in which a year of full-time service — a service year — is a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans.
Stan is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Naval War College. He also completed year-long fellowships at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Council on Foreign Relations.
In 1999, at the age of 24, Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay) sold LinkExchange, the company he co-founded, to Microsoft for $265 million.
He then joined us as an advisor and investor, and eventually became CEO, where he helped us grow from almost no sales to over $1 billion in gross merchandise sales annually, while simultaneously making Fortune magazines annual Best Companies to Work For list. In November 2009, Zappos.com, Inc. was acquired by Amazon.com in a deal valued at $1.2 billion on the day of closing.
His first book, “Delivering Happiness”, was published on June 7, 2010, and outlines his path from starting a worm farm to life at Zappos. Tony shows how a very different kind of corporate culture is a powerful model for achieving success and happiness. “Delivering Happiness” debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and has remained on the list every week since June 2010.
Most recently in October 2011, Tony was interviewed by Barbara Walters when she interviewed self-made super rich entrepreneurs. The piece included a visit to the headquarters of Zappos.com that was dubbed what “might just be the wackiest workplace in America.”
In addition to his responsibilities as CEO of Zappos.com, Tony is leading the “Downtown Project”, a group committed to transforming downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world. This transformation includes the coordination of the Fall 2013 relocation of Zappos.com offices from Henderson, Nevada to downtown Las Vegas.
Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers has returned to his home state and alma mater to serve as Kansas State University President. He graduated from the university in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and joined the Air Force through K-State’s ROTC program.
The native Kansan from Merriam loyally served his country and retired as a four-star general. From 2001-2005, he served as the 15th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was the principal military adviser to the U.S. president, secretary of defense, and the National Security Council.
As a command pilot, Myers logged more than 4,100 flying hours, including 600 combat hours. His significant commands included North American Aerospace Defense Command; U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado; Pacific Air Forces at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii; and the 5th Air Force at Yokota Air Base, Japan. He was appointed Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President Clinton in 2000. He has received numerous awards and decorations for his service, which include Legion of Merit, French Legion of Honor, and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Myers also is a Kansas State University Foundation professor of military history and leadership. He received a master’s degree in business administration from Auburn University in 1977. He also graduated from Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in 1977, U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in 1981, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he completed a program for Senior Executives in National and International Security in 1991.
Throughout Myers’ active duty and world travels, he continued relationships with his friends back home. He has provided instruction, insight, and inspiration to current students and the K-State community. In 2000, he presented the 118th Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, where he spoke about the military’s role in international relations. Kansas State University named the military science building, home of the Army ROTC and Air Force ROTC programs, Gen. Richard B. Myers Hall, in honor of his service and dedication. He and his wife, Mary Jo, serve as co-chairs of the Kansas State University Innovation and Inspiration Campaign to raise $1 billion.
Regarded by many as the authority on leadership and change, John P. Kotter is a best-selling author, award winning business and management thought leader, business entrepreneur and Harvard Professor. His ideas, books, and company, Kotter International, help mobilize people around the world to better lead organizations in an era of increasingly rapid change. Professor Kotter’s MIT and Harvard education laid the foundation for his lifelong passion for educating, motivating and helping people. His award-winning articles in The Harvard Business Review have sold more reprints than any other author’s, and his 2012 article, “Accelerate!” won the McKinsey award for the world’s most practical and groundbreaking thinking in the business/management arena. His books have reached millions, and have been printed in over 150 foreign language editions. His 1996 book, Leading Change, was selected by Time magazine in 2011 as one of the 25 most influential business management books ever written. To supplement his books and expand on his ideas, Kotter has released several videos on his teachings, many of which are accessible to anyone interested in his work via YouTube. Kotter’s research and pursuits in education, business and writing have earned the respect of his peers, helped transform organizations around the world, touched countless lives, and still inspires others to adopt his methods and spread the word. He continues to work tirelessly to achieve his vision of “millions leading, billions benefiting.” Professor Kotter is a proud father of two and resides in Boston, MA with his wife.
Peter has completed a full career in the British Army, retiring as its Chief in 2015. He led the Army’s most significant transformation programme for decades, whilst sustaining its operational focus. He is now CEO of Amicus, a specialist leadership consultancy.
He has extensive experience of dealing with British and foreign governments at the highest levels, and a proven track record in the strategic leadership of large and complex organisations. He is a recognised speaker on geopolitics and military command techniques in business.
Peter is a Director of the General Dynamics Corporation and an adviser to Cyrus Investment Management. He is President of Combat Stress and Chairman of the Gurkha Welfare Trust. He is an avid follower of sport, sails, skis and plays the occasional game of village cricket.
Born in Kenya in 1955 where he spent his early years, Richard Shirreff commissioned into the British Army as a cavalry officer after reading history at Oxford. In his 37 years of service he commanded soldiers on operations from the most junior to the most senior levels. He saw combat as a tank commander in the First Gulf War, experienced many of the complexities of Northern Ireland during his three tours there and learned first-hand the challenges of bringing peace to the Balkans in both Kosovo and Bosnia. He returned to Iraq as a multinational commander in 2006-7. When not in command he spent time either being educated in the art and science of war on a succession of different command and staff courses or in a range of posts as a formulator or executor of policy in the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters. His last seven years in uniform were spent in two senior NATO command posts: Commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe; the Alliance’s deputy strategic commander and the most senior British general in the Alliance.
Since leaving the Army he has set up Strategia Worldwide, a risk management consultancy.
Stew Friedman has been on the Wharton faculty since 1984. He became the Management Department’s first Practice Professor for his work on applying theory and research to the real challenges facing organizations. As founding director of The Wharton Leadership Program, in 1991 he initiated the required MBA and Undergraduate leadership courses. He is also founding director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project.
An award-winning teacher, he appears regularly in business media (The New York Times cited the “rock star adoration” he inspires in his students). He has been recognized twice as one of HR’s Most Influential International Thinkers and as one of the “world’s top 50 business thinkers” three times by Thinkers50. In 2015 he won the Thinkers50 Distinguished Achievement Award in the talent management field. He’s published 50+ articles for HBR.org, including one listed first among Harvard Business Review‘s Ideas that Shaped Management in 2013. He was chosen by Working Mother as one of America’s 25 most influential men to have made things better for working parents, and was honored by the Families and Work Institute with the Work Life Legacy Award.
Stew’s most recent book is Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Harvard Business, 2014), a Wall Street Journal best-seller. It builds on his award-winning best-seller, Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life(Harvard Business, 2008), which has been translated into many languages. The program it describes is his challenging Wharton course, in which participants complete an intensive series of real-world exercises designed to increase their leadership capacity and performance in all parts of their lives by better integrating them, while working in high-involvement peer-to-peer coaching relationships and completing much of the activity online in a cutting-edge social learning environment. Total Leadership is used by individuals and companies worldwide, including as a primary intervention in a multi-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health on improving the careers and lives of women in medicine and by 135,000+ students who were enrolled in Stew’s highly-rated MOOC on Coursera.
In 2001 Stew concluded a two-year assignment as a senior executive at Ford Motor Company, where he was director of the Leadership Development Center (LDC), running a 50-person, $25 MM operation. In partnership with the CEO, he launched a corporate-wide portfolio of initiatives designed to transform Ford’s culture; 2500+ managers per year participated. Near the end of his tenure at Ford, an independent research group (ICEDR) said the LDC was a “global benchmark” for leadership development programs.
Stew worked for five years in the mental health field before earning his PhD in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan. He has published on work/life, leadership, and the dynamics of change, including the widely-cited Harvard Business Review articles, “Work and life: the end of the zero-sum game” (1998); “Be a better leader, have a richer life” (2008); and “Work+Home+Community+Self (2014); and “The Happy Workaholic: a role model for employees” (in Academy of Management Executive, 2003). In 2013 Wharton Digital Press published his landmark study of two generations of Wharton students, Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family. Work and Family – Allies or Enemies? (Oxford, 2000) was recognized by the Wall Street Journal as one of the field’s best books. In Integrating Work and Life: The Wharton Resource Guide (Jossey-Bass, 1998) Stew edited the first collection of learning tools for building leadership skills for integrating work and life.
Stew serves on a number of boards and has advised a wide range of companies and public sector organizations, including the U.S. Department of Labor, the United Nations, and two White House administrations. He gives keynote addresses and conducts workshops globally on leadership and the whole person, creating change, and strategic human resources issues. (Here is the master class he gave for Wharton’s Lifelong Learning Tour in San Francisco.)
Follow on Twitter @StewFriedman and LinkedIn, read his digital articles HBR.org, and tune in to his Work and Life show on SiriusXM 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton, Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m. ET (selected episodes now available as a free podcast.)
Drew Povey is one of the UK’s most influential Leadership authorities, with a unique multi-sector viewpoint on creating innovative and sustainable change that can help prepare and empower individuals and teams for our ever-changing world.
Drew is a highly in-demand speaker at conferences and leadership events, both regionally and nationally, on the concept of ‘multi-sector’ approaches to leadership. His unique view and approach have positioned him as an innovative leadership coach and facilitator. He has a wealth of experience through his coaching of and work alongside leaders within Education, the Police, the National Health Service, professional sport and international businesses. This extensive network of partnerships has led to the implementation of Drew’s philosophies and concepts across a range of customer-focused organisations.
As an Executive Headteacher, Drew leads on a programme of school improvement and coaching with other Headteachers and leaders from various sectors. During the first year of his career, he won the prestigious ‘Teacher of the Year’ award, which recognised him as an outstanding classroom practitioner with a focus on behaviour management. Drew was appointed as Headteacher at Harrop Fold School in 2009/10 and led the school through a sustained journey of improvement; including the raising of results to the best in the school’s history and two ‘Good’
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (FRSA), a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management (FILM) and in recognition for his work with children, young people and families Drew was invited to Buckingham Palace.
Trevor Moawad is a renowned Mental Conditioning expert and strategic advisor to some of the world’s most elite performers. Trevor Moawad recently partnered with Russell Wilson to form Limitless Minds whose mission is to both optimize performance and enrich culture within some of the world’s top organizations and elite performers. In 2017, Trevor was named the “Sports World’s Best Brain Trainer” by Sports Illustrated. From Ft. Bragg to Harvard Business School, from elite Quarterbacks to top level CEOs. Moawad’s mission is clear – to motivate the motivated. Moawad is well known for being the mental coach to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and has worked closely with prestigious NCAA Football programs and coaches, including Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher. Moawad has been part of eight National championship games. Additionally, Trevor continues to support the U.S. Special Operations Community, Major League Baseball, the NBA, UFC and many other elite professionals.
Prior to starting his own mental conditioning company, Trevor held multiple roles as both Director of Mental Conditioning and Director of the multi-disciplined IMG Performance Institute (at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida). More recently, he was the Vice President of Pro/Elite Sports and Mindset at the prestigious Athletes Performance Institute (now EXOS in Phoenix, AZ).
Moawad was raised in Washington State and is the son of world-renowned peak performance educator, the late Bob Moawad. Bob was an original contributor to ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ and the former President of the National Association For Self-Esteem.
As an athlete, Moawad was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, Washington, and in 2018 was selected as the Academy’s Distinguished Alumni of the Year. Trevor was an all-conference, two Sport athlete at Occidental College, the same school that produced both Jack Kemp and Barack Obama. At Occidental, Moawad received both his Bachelor’s degree in Politics and his Master’s degree in Education. Moawad yearly presents the ‘Trevor Moawad Leadership Award’ at Occidental, a designation to the top male and female athletes, who make an exceptional commitment to making their teammates better both on and off the field.
Trevor continues to be a thought leader in the performance space, appearing consistently in the global media, including ESPN, SI, Fox Sports, NPR, USA Today, The Herald Tribune, Outside the Lines and a number of national, regional and local outlets. Moawad costarred with Russell Wilson in ESPN’s QB2QB in 2018, as well as appearing for a third season in ESPN’s DRAFT ACADEMY.
Q: What does it mean to be a leader?
[General Stanley McChrystal] People often define leadership as influencing people to do things. I think it’s a little different than that. Leadership is about creating an environment where people who work with (or for) you can all do better than they would do alone, or in a lesser environment. Leadership is about creating a culture of enablement- that’s not about rubbing everyone on the stomach and being nice- but about helping people make real contributions.
[Tony Hsieh] I try to avoid the word leadership.
If you imagine a greenhouse as being a metaphor for a typical company, the plants in the greenhouse could be considered the employees, and the tallest, strongest plant that all the other employees aspire to be… that’s the CEO. That’s not how I think of my role; I’m the architect of the greenhouse, and my job is to create an environment that enables growth and flourishment.
I see my role more as trying to create the right environment, context and systems to enable employees to really be the best they can be and find that intersection between what they’re passionate about and what they’re good at!
I never set out to find a better or worse way to run a business, it was really just more about what works for my personality and what I’m interested in.
Years ago, I used to throw lots of events and parties. I would try and think about things like what else was on in town that evening, what bars would be open on route, their opening times, and everything I could in order to get the circulation and flow for my guests. I was never the centre of attention or life of the party…. Once the party’s going, I just kind of enjoyed being there in the background and watching the flow.
I guess it’s kind of the same way I think about a company. How do you create the right contexts and environments so that the employees are the ones in the position to really do what they’re best at and what they’re passionate about…
[General Richard Myers] Nothing good really gets done in life without somebody taking a lead and organising people to do something meaningful for society.
To me, a leader is the one who organises teams to meet a mission or some specific goal… a leader is the one who is able to get people moving in the same direction in a collaborative environment to get things done.
A lot of people think that military leaders just bark out orders, and I wish they could have followed me around when I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I didn’t command anybody, so everything had to be done through persuasion and collaboration.
[General Sir Peter Wall] Leadership is an essential element in the overall human condition, and of course leadership is essentially what the recipients experience as much as what the leader is seeking to deliver.
I think increasingly we are in a society where people think much more as individuals than perhaps they might have done in the past, with much less deference which is very positive, and this puts the onus on leaders absolutely to understand how individuals and groups are going to receive their next message and respond to it.
Leadership is quintessentially about getting the best out of groups and individuals, and ultimately it’s only groups of people that get stuff done!
[General Sir Richard Shirreff] Leadership about getting people to do willingly, and well, what we as leaders want them to do.
How did it come into my life? I was a professional soldier for 37 years and leadership is absolutely at the heart of command, and of commanding soldiers. There are many other aspects to leadership in the army, but if you can’t lead soldiers you’re never going to be any good as a soldier or as an officer.
The selection process for army officers is all about establishing whether or not an individual has the potential to become a leader, and how their natural talent can be combined with the nurture, the training, to ensure their potential is realised.
[Prof. Stew Friedman] I think about leadership and what it means to be a leader not so much as an aspect of one’s position or role in an organisation in a hierarchy, but instead as a quality that anyone can embody.
The simple definition I use is that leaders mobilise people towards valued goals. They bring people to a better place . And you can do this either very well, with no one reporting to you in a formal hierarchy, or, conversely, very badly when at the top of a pyramid.
[Drew Povey] I have always been fascinated by leadership, success, achievement and the link between the three. Why do some people and teams seem to do great things, others fall short and others not even seem to get started? For me the difference maker is leadership. When I first started teaching I noticed the links between what a teacher does to gain the best from their pupils and how this is the same as leaders working with a team and so I started to look at what this thing called leadership actually is. I began reading widely on the subject and have been hooked ever since!
Q: Are there any essential characteristics to leadership?
[General Sir Richard Shirreff] Different people will draw up different characteristics for what constitutes a great leader; for me, physical courage obviously in a military setting, but I would also highlight moral courage… the courage to take difficult decisions and be prepared to speak truth unto power and to look after your people.
Integrity is fundamental along with charisma, that ability to communicate to your people and to understand, almost through intuition, through empathy, through emotional intelligence, their thoughts, their fears, their needs.
As a leader, you must be able to reassure your team, and make them believe that you can address and look after their concerns, and therefore they’re more likely to follow you as a result.
Without a doubt though, that ability to communicate, that ability to stand up ideally in front of people, look them in the eye and tell them exactly what your thinking is, and this is how we’re going to do it, and this is how we’re going to do it together.
[Drew Povey] I believe that there are a number of things that make the best leaders the best at what they do. The first thing I’d mention is the notion of ‘Level 5 Leaders’, a concept that has been widely talked about and that has numerous definitions. My favourite, however, is from Jim Collins; he talks about the mirror and the window. He believes that ‘Level 4 Leaders’ look in the mirror during times of success and out of the window (at the people) when things don’t go right. A ‘Level 5 Leader’ does the opposite – the mirror for challenging times and the window when the successes arise. I like this distinction, as it highlights the need for leaders to be humble and serve the people that they have the privilege to lead. Other traits I look for are what we at Harrop Fold refer to as the ‘5 Cs’ which are; curiosity, confidence building, collaboration, charisma (which is seriously misunderstood) and the ability to change.
Q: How can leaders effectively change behaviours?
[Dr. John Kotter] We are in a world that is changing faster than ever, and if the rate of change inside your business is slower than the rate of change outside your business, you’re in trouble.
Organisations have to change, the most fundamentally complicated aspect of that is the behaviour of their employees. People get into jobs, habits and cultures which in general are borne out of the tendency for organisation’s to reach equilibrium. Organisations tend to have a lot of hierarchy, policy and procedures- the aim being ‘to get the trains running on time.’ Against that backdrop, it’s difficult to figure out how to accommodate changes- from the mundane, to the disruptive… from changing train schedules, to someone like Uber changing everything.
Leadership is the need to change things for the better, and that starts with people. It’s about figuring out how to get a group of people, in particular circumstances, to keep moving forward… it’s about that grand vision for the future, and getting people to move in a single, unified, direction…. It’s about creating conditions that engage, empower and energise so you can keep pace with the world outside you.
Management is about processes and procedures that keep trains running on time… it’s about planning, systems, budgeting systems, organisational structure, HR and so on.
Today’s organisations are struggling to change direction fast and it’s because they just don’t have enough people taking leadership roles throughout their structures. Leadership is a set of actions, it’s a behaviour, and one that can be adopted by anyone in an organisation.
Leadership helps firms become social movements, but if you said that to most managers, they simply wouldn’t understand it.
Q: What distinguishes elite performers from the rest of us?
[Trevor Moawad]: There are some behaviors that align across disciplines, whether it is sports, military or business. Success leaves clues, and by following those clues, we can more deeply understand what allows people to succeed – and how they apply techniques like marginal gains to do what they do. In life we make progress by aggregating marginal gains.
No matter where I work, the same truth keeps emerging. Neutral thinking is the key to unlocking a set of behaviors that can turn also-rans into champions and champions into legends. But you don’t need to be an elite athlete to take advantage, and that’s the part I’ve found particularly fascinating.
Q: What is the nature and importance of neutral thinking?
[Trevor Moawad]: Very early-on, we started to realize that the efficacy of being positive was anecdotal at best – but what did make an impact was the power of negative thinking, negative language, negative behaviors and negative consumption (for example, social media, entertainment and music). Verbalizing and consuming negativity does not drive good outcomes.
Importantly; the next step is to realize that it’s not about being positive per se, but rather to engage in non-negative thinking. You can think of it like driving a car. If you’re going backwards, it’s got to go to neutral before going forwards – and that is essentially what we need to help our minds to get to. You don’t have to be a robot, you can be intense, you can have emotion, but you also have to ground that in the knowledge that whatever happens (good or bad) is real, and that whatever happens next is dependent on your next behavior not the past.
Fundamentally, neutral thinking is a high-performance strategy that emphasizes judgment-free thinking, especially in crises and pressure situations. It is the cornerstone of what I teach the athletes and teams that employ me. It resonates with so many elite athletes, most of whom are deeply skeptical of any self-help, because it’s real. It’s true. It acknowledges that the past is irrevocable, that it can’t be changed with mantras or platitudes.
Neutral thinking shuns all attempts at illusion or outright self-delusion, which are often the foundation of other motivational systems. Neutral thinking strips away the bull and the biases, both external and internal. The most dangerous bias when discussing performance is our innate privileging of the past. We elevate it. We give it too much importance. We serve the past when we should be giving it a wide berth.
Q: What is the role of company culture?
[Tony Hsieh] Culture has always been critically important for me. My previous company didn’t give company culture enough attention, and as the company grew- the culture went downhill to the point where I dreaded getting out of bed in the morning. With Zappos I wanted to make sure we didn’t make that mistake again.
In the early days, until we reached around 100 employees, myself and Fred Mossler did the final interview after everyone else had done theirs. We weren’t interviewing for skill-set,…as the final interviewers we were really there more for cultural reasons. It’s pretty simple, the criteria was ,‘is this someone that I would choose to go grab a drink with, or go to dinner with, even if we weren’t forced to work together?’. And if the answer was no, then we just wouldn’t hire them… As a small business, this was fine, but as we grew? we ran into scaling problems – we couldn’t possibly interview every single candidate! That led us to create our 10 core values, instilled into our culture.
So now, our recruiting team does a separate culture interview or core values interview separate from the hiring manager and his or her team. T role is just to make sure that we do the best we can to hire people that are a cultural for the company.
We look for people whose personal values align with our corporate values, and after that? It’s pretty simple. We tell all our employees to be themselves, it’s not about prescribing behaviours, but finding people who naturally match our culture.
Pretty much every research study that I’ve read that’s looked at this topic has found that over the long term, companies with strong cultures (with all things being equal) financially outperform companies with weaker cultures. And purpose serving companies outperform ones that are through their actions aren’t purpose serving, more financially motivated.
Q: What are the key deficits you see in leadership, within the commercial world?
[General Richard Myers] In the military we spend a lot of time on the topic of leadership, and we give people- early on in their careers- many opportunities to lead. In the first 20 years of a US military officer’s career, they’re likely to spend 2 years in education; so 10% of the first 20 years is education and throughout this, they’re always asked to think about leadership, are given critique, opportunity and support.
This is the approach that is sometimes lacking in the civilian sector and the net result is that you end up with people who simply aren’t used to leading, making decisions or- indeed- acting at a pace that’s needed to get things done.
Some of the companies I’ve been with, John Deere for instance, have a very aggressive leadership programme to bring their young leaders along, to mature them so they have people in middle management, in upper management that are ready to lead. Some companies take it very, very seriously and some less seriously.
Alongside education, the emphasis is on making sure people have the experience, the feedback and they’re able to improve as leaders.
Q: What is the role and importance of stress in our lives?
[Trevor Moawad]: Stress essentially has two parts. You have distress which is negative, and eustress which is good stress. There’s an idea which was made famous by Billie Jean King that pressure is a privilege. Pressure is a force being applied on you from all different directions, but it’s driving you into the unknown- which is where new and better can happen.
We need to get people to look at the term stress and embrace it, understanding the unique challenges that come with pressure . You can be the favorite or the underdog; and if you want to be the favorite, you need to accept that it comes with pressures, comes with responsibility, and that the characteristics that earned you that position can also drive you forward?
Q: Should everyone in an organisation have leadership skills?
[General Sir Peter Wall] In organisations big and small, you want everybody to be able to play a leadership role. As a society, we want every citizen to be able to play a leadership role, and a lot of that is just about doing the right thing rather than the easy thing, on a difficult day.
Leadership might be showing moral courage when your peers aren’t, over some issue in the street. You’ve got to help the old lady across the road, or who’s going to pick up the litter? That has an element of leadership about it because it sets the example. And it sets a standard. It might not necessarily be about getting a group of people to fulfil an objective or achieve a task or outcome, but it has a leadership flavour about it because it’s an acceptance of responsibility on behalf of other people.
Good leadership should exist everywhere, and the best organisations are the ones who are trying to engender that sort of code of behaviour in their youngest people right through to the top. There are lots of jobs that need doing and the more people who are leaders accepting responsibility for the outcome, the more brains you’ve got on the job and the more chance you have of getting it done.
Q: How do leaders gain the respect and trust of their peers and teams?
[General Sir Peter Wall] The keyword in leadership is trust.
You don’t win people’s trust instantaneously, it’s a high ambition, it’s a high-quality emotion and there are stages people go through before they trust you.
As a leader, people don’t need to like you, but they do need to respect you… they have to believe in what you’re asking them to do. They need to see that you’re someone who is resilient and behaves consistently. From that sort of resilience you acquire a reputation, and hopefully the next step down that pathway is trust.
Any individual who’s likely to end up in a leadership role will be thinking about their personal standing, their reputation. They want to be seen to be resilient which means they can cope with problems, they’re strong under pressure, their communications are sound, they’re basically a finished item that doesn’t suffer from inconsistency, who is only effective on a good day… we can all be good on the sunlit uplands, but what matters is how we perform when its problematic – which is what we’re there for.
As you are taking yourself through different levels of leadership this is what you are seeking to acquire. Most people have to learn this themselves from experience, which is why mentors can be so useful.
[Drew Povey] The mistake I see most is that as leaders we believe we should have all the answers. We try (and often fail) to be all things to all people, which is never possible. I think that humble leaders will generate more respect than the mythical hero leader who comes in on a horse (or other mode of transport) to right the wrongs and deal with everything…single handedly! When working with leaders I try to get them to look at this through the two elements of character and competence to develop trust and ultimately respect. Allowing people to see your personality and your ability creates a strong pairing that develops relationships to a whole new level – one without the other means that you are losing out in some way. Business is about people and people are about relationships and we develop this through trust and respect.
Q: How do you balance the seemingly conflicted needs for autonomy, management and control?
[Drew Povey] I feel that autonomy should come with accountability, otherwise it isn’t true empowerment. When this happens at it’s worst, is when leaders allow staff to make decisions about things that don’t matter…this means nothing to anyone and has no impact. However, if people are given autonomy and are also made aware of how it’s impacted on them this is true empowerment. I’ve observed that people want this in their working lives and it does wonders for engagement too.
Q: What are your views on technology in leadership?
[General Stanley McChrystal] Technology is a double-edged sword. It has allowed us to connect people, to pass on lessons, information and communicate. Technology allows you to reassure people, and do all the things you need to make it easier for somebody to be geographically distanced, yet still confidently operate.
Technology also has some insidious characteristics; it makes people feel like everything they do at every moment can be watched or measured. It can intimidate people, but also prevent people from taking initiative and learning. It becomes a tendency to call and ask permission for things that you shouldn’t; and a lot of bosses don’t know the difference so they give answers. Organisations are struggling with where decisions should be made, because it is possible to centralise them now. It seems stupid, but we’ve got to understand the tension that this creates.
[Dr. John Kotter] Technology is a blessing and a curse, it’s becoming an obsession and I wonder if there’s anybody out there doing any work as opposed to sitting there looking at their Twitter feeds and iPhones.
The obsession with technology forgets one crucial thing; a firm is made up of human beings. If these human beings aren’t doing their jobs, and aren’t doing them well, helping the firm adapt to the future, technology becomes irrelevant. We have this fantasy that technology will create itself, that AI will learn so much that we won’t need people. It simply will not happen any time soon.
Many firms however, are embracing the power of the various forms of communication technology we now have at our disposal. Tools like SLACK enable huge amounts of communication to occur efficiently across an organisation, on many channels and devices; but we must not forget human interaction is core to this.
Technology is not a substitute for the boss getting his or her employees together occasionally and talking to them, and listening to them. There’s no substitute for that one-to-one discussion, and the best technology cannot replace it.
Q: What does authenticity mean to leadership?
[Prof. Stew Friedman] Over 30 years ago, I started to write and teach and talk about the idea of being true to yourself. That concept is now deeply embedded in the consciousness of business leaders around the world, in part as a reaction to what many thought of as people acting in ways inconsistent with who they really were.
We were researching how people who lead effectively manage different parts of their lives, and we found these principles: being real, acting with authenticity by clarifying what’s important; being whole, acting with integrity by respecting the different parts of your life and striving for coherence among them; and being innovative, acting with creativity by continually experimenting with how things get done.
The best leaders consciously and deliberately sought harmony among their work, home, community, and private selves.
Q: Why has it taken us so long to understand that the whole person matters?
[Prof. Stew Friedman] There are a number of important trends over the last few decades that have shifted our thinking about leadership. One of those has been the increase in the number of women in positions of power throughout the business and political world; men and women now have greater consciousness of the need to be more focussed on life beyond work, including raising families. It’s been liberating.
If you look at today’s young people, they insist on having a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their work and understand how that can enhance one’s capability and performance in their work and career.
More people are actively trying to heal a world that’s clearly broken. That’s something we all have to do. We have more information, more communication capability, and a stronger ability to act; and those among us who have the resources and the capacity to try to do something, do. We are encouraged to have a sense of purpose and significance that’s beyond economic gain.
It’s hard to articulate a vision and lead if you don’t have a clear grasp of your own values and vision and an understanding of how your aspirations and story fit into that. The sense of why you’re living has to be deeply connected to your work; and people want to know that about you. When they don’t see a connection between what you’re asking them to do and how you’re living yourself your message falls flat and people become cynical and disengaged.
Q: How can we lead ourselves?
[Trevor Moawad]: We all need guardrails in our lives. For some this is a scale to help manage our weight. For others it’s a quarterly evaluation. For others it’s a friend or a partner or a coach that keeps you honest. But what I’ve learned is that you have to cultivate the ability within yourself to go to the truth. Ask yourself: Do I have what I want right now? If not, could it be that I’m competing against my own choices? If so, fucking stop. Self-esteem is the idea of how we feel about us. We earn these feelings within ourselves both by what we do and don’t do. Check in with that daily.
Self-reflection is critical. You need to come to a situation and see that there are things that you need to do to allow yourself to succeed individually, and within whichever team you belong to. You also need to understand the things you cannot do, the things that you need to stop doing in order to be more successful, and also the things which have detracted from your success – perhaps things that you’ve said or not said, things you’ve watched or not watched, people you’ve associated with, or not. Moving away from things that are hampering our success is a powerful first step – and that process begins with curbing our negative thoughts, and our self-talk… that’s where meditation is really powerful. You also need to lead your language– not just your inside language but the things you say out loud in your workday, amongst friends and with your significant other. The language of what you say out loud is a powerful, it’s predictive, and you need to get it in control.
To be clear, positivity is important – but here’s the truth. If you spend your workday saying ridiculous things out-loud, consume 5 hours of negative news, 3 hours of sad music…. And then your plan to get positive is to go to your mediation app for 10 minutes at night? That’s not going to work…
I truly believe that everyone has the power to access the tools of neutral thinking and to use them as a fundamental platform to build success and unlock potential.
Q: What are your views on the role of choice in success?
[Trevor Moawad]: Firstly, you need to understand how I’m defining the difference between options and choices. Options are what I call choices that don’t have real consequences… what you watch on TV tonight, what you order at the restaurant, what music you listen to on your commute…. But choices, even small choices, are decisions that matter, however small they might seem.
If there is something you want to accomplish, most likely- there is a fairly clear path set-out to accomplish it. Your choices at that point become finite and you are then selecting how you sleep, how you prepare, how you train, how you recover… it’s a path.
Average people become average through average behavior, not average aptitude.
A lot of people are going to be average or below average, and they have every right to be. Ultimately, you can follow whatever path you choose but you cannot deny the fact that the choices required to get to where you want to, are limited and—if you want to achieve in life—you have to understand the role that choice plays in your life and how neutral thinking can help you understand that where you’re at may well be based on what you’ve done, but where you’re going could be different based on what you do next, not how you feel.
If you let your behavior get ahead of your emotion, your emotion will eventually catch up.
Sometimes, by breaking a task down into a series of choices, we can greatly improve our chances of achieving it. Think about the marathon runner. She has to go 26.2 miles, but is she thinking about the finish line when the race starts? No. That’s too daunting. She’s thinking about her pacing for the first mile. She’s planning out when she wants to grab water or eat a gel pack. Thinking about all 26.2 miles is completely overwhelming. Thinking about the next few steps is always manageable, and it works whether you’re running a race, playing for a spot in the Super Bowl or trying to save your own life in space.
Q: How can we apply neutral thinking into our lives?
[Trevor Moawad]: There are a number of simple, easy things that can help people get into a neutral thinking mindset. Firstly; if we stop externalizing our frustrations and our negativity, it can be transformational – it’s like closing 70 webpages on your computer… your mind becomes free to find solutions. We have to watch how we consume and verbalize negativity; awareness of language and being predictive can make a transformational impact in our lives, and quickly.
You might walk out of work and think, ‘man, I hate this place…’ – someone pulls in front of you and you’re like, ‘…it’s going to be another one of those days…’ – any of those reactions can become a self-imposed limitation.
Next; you have to align your behaviors with truth-based thinking and a plan. It’s really incredibly simple.
You can develop these skills if you’re willing to let go of a few things. Negative, cynical thinking doesn’t make you more realistic. It just makes you negative and cynical. Biased thinking doesn’t help you, either. You need to steer clear of your feelings and make an honest assessment of each situation you face. Don’t worry about what you feel. Rely on what you know.
This translates to any workplace. You may despise your boss. But are you going to half-ass an assignment out of spite for the boss? If you do, you might only hurt yourself. Instead, try to look at that assignment neutrally. If you complete the task, you will be successfully doing your job. And if you continuously complete your tasks, the boss will get off your back. You may even get promoted and become his boss. This happens when the truth guides us. When judgment diminishes. We recognize that the present determines the present, and today’s behavior is what influences tomorrow’s outcomes. Start now.
I believe your destiny is defined by what you do next. It’s okay if you believe something external moved you to do it, but you still have to do it. No one can live your life for you. Maybe they can live it through you, in some way, but the doing is still up to you.
Q: Why does intellectual openness matter to leaders?
[General Richard Myers] The best leaders are those who collaborate and remain open to all kinds of ideas, and solutions. Today’s problems are sufficiently complex that if leaders go into their job thinking, ‘I can do this by myself, I can be the idea machine for the team,’ they will fail miserably.
Today’s leader has to be emotive, open to pushback and debate around ideas without bringing personality into the situation. That’s hard to do, but that’s the leader who is useful today; one that embraces the contrarian as part of their strategy.
Q: What does power mean to leaders?
[General Stanley McChrystal] Power can be positional, reputational, financial and so many other things; but the bottom line is this- it gives the leader leverage. It gives the leader the ability to get things done, or to force some things which can cause more people to be willing to interact with them or follow them.
If you look at who has the power in today’s world, a certain percentage will be people with money, and many others will have created a persona, or have resources that create a following.
Power is much more subtle than simply the ability to give orders.
Leaders have the ability to create a shared consciousness built on consensus; that’s the strongest power there is- it creates a multiplier effect.
[General Richard Myers] As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it meant that I was the highest-ranking individual in the US military, a position which people assume has great power.
I never thought about power though, I didn’t dream about it, think about it… My job was fulfilling our responsibilities to the security of our nation, our friends and allies… it was collaborating, generating better ideas, better plans and better strategies… it was about looking after our people, and getting the mission done.
When the law says you’re the most senior military person in the United States, people respect that- you don’t need to say anything about it, you just have to get the job done.
If people over-emphasise power, they will forget a lot of things which make leaders effective including the most critical- relationships. Who wants to follow some leader on a power trip? Nobody!
Good leaders have to find ways to put their ego way off to the side and work on building relationships, building credibility, building trust.
Q: How do you stay motivated, resilient and inspired?
[Tony Hsieh] The ultimate goal is for all employees to find out what that intersection is between what they’re passionate about, what they’re good at and what moves the company forward. It’s the same thing for myself… and so for me part of it is reframing what we’re actually here to do.
If Zappos were just an ecommerce company selling shoes and nothing more, nothing less, I wouldn’t be here anymore. I would have left a long time ago. In reality, we have been a continual evolution of things I’m personally passionate about, for example we decided early on to build the brand around customer service and so we’re passionate about customer service… we decided to have company culture be a competitive advantage, and so we’re passionate about company culture.
Companies tend to move more slowly as they get larger; so right now I’m working every day to enable more entrepreneurially minded employees that are able to move the company forward faster.
We need to think of each team within the business as its own start up or small business, and enable them to have as much autonomy as possible while at the same time making sure it makes sense for the company overall.
[General Richard Myers] Resilience comes from lots of places; your faith, your family, your purpose. A few days after I was sworn in as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our nation was at war in Afghanistan, and for me – resilience came from serving the country and wanting to do my best.
And then frankly it comes from the people you’re leading. I would make frequent trips to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere with our allies. I gained resilience from meeting my peers, we support each other- but also a lot comes from the troops themselves and their families.
Here in Washington, around Memorial Day and Veterans day, the White House would always host events for the families of those men and women who were killed or badly wounded. Coming into the job, I expected these to be sombre events, but in fact, they were inspiring. These families were so proud of their son or daughters service, and would fill all of us with energy and positivity.
You also have to be authentic in your communication. When you’re giving testimony at congress, or on a TV show, you have to appear confident, but not overconfident so people respect you will get the job done. You have to show balance, be realistic and explain your plans and strategy. One of the heaviest burdens for any leader is probably this communications piece.
[Drew Povey] I use a variety of strategies to stay motivated, resilient and inspired. To keep inspired I make sure I learn every day. I love audiobooks and feel they are a great way for me to develop. I also keep a journal of the best ideas that I encounter, which is something I’ve done for over 12 years now. To keep motivated I spend time with students and staff, which I find keeps reminding me why I do what I do – we know why power beats will power every time! In terms of resilience I make sure I surround myself with the right people. This starts with my family who make sure I keep grounded. Having good mentors and advisors is also crucial; people that will be honest and optimistic about what can be achieved. Dr Zella King talks about having a personal boardroom and I wholeheartedly agree with this! In short, get your team around you as nobody achieves anything alone.
Q: How important is transparency and honesty in leadership?
[General Richard Myers] Transparency is absolutely crucial to leadership. In the private sector it’s a must, when things go wrong, people don’t want to admit failure… they try to hide it, they cover it up, that’s when things really go really wrong.
In truth, most of the world is pretty forgiving of mistakes. We’re all human, we all make mistakes every single day. The best thing to do is admit it, move on, and try not to do it again.
Leaders who try to be perfect are not going to succeed because they can’t be perfect.
When I was commander of space command here in United States, within a couple of weeks we had 2 rockets blow-up on the way to space with huge expensive payloads. I’d only been in the job a couple of weeks and asked, ‘how often does this stuff happen?!’ – ‘well sir, it never happens.’ But here’s the thing, it happened twice, in quick succession so we had to determine that something was wrong and bring in the experts to determine what was going on. By w0rking together deeply on the problem and being honest about mistakes, we found solutions, and the next launches were all perfect. If we tried to say, ‘well, everything’s fine we don’t need to look at this’ we would have lost a lot more payloads on the way to space.
If you don’t have intellectual openness and agility, if you’re not going to change and learn, you won’t be an effective leader.
Q: What is the relationship of kindness to leadership?
[Prof. Stew Friedman] My book Total Leadership describes the program I created when I was at Ford Motor Company in charge of leadership development for a few years, when I was on leave from my Wharton faculty position. It’s about creating better performance in all aspects of your life, and we’ve brought it to companies and audiences all over the world. I often get asked, ‘Well that all sounds great, but what about in the real world when you just have to sacrifice everything to succeed and climb the mountain?’
So in my next book, Leading the Life You Want, I examined the lives of the great leaders, individuals who have lived lives of significance. What you find is that there are many who strive to be real, be whole, and be innovative. They pursue better performance in all the different parts of their lives by finding harmony among them. They succeed not despite their personal, familial, and community commitments, but because of them.
Contrary to popular belief, then, this research demonstrates you can achieve greatness without forsaking your family, community, mental and physical health, and spiritual growth. These parts of life require compassion and kindness and give you the strength that allows you to persist in the face of adversity and resistance.
The challenge for anyone who wants to grow as a leader is to ask themselves ‘What kind of leader do I want to be?’ And then to find a way to answer that question.
Q: How can leaders develop themselves?
[General Sir Richard Shirreff] I think it’s absolutely incumbent on leaders to develop themselves intellectually, develop themselves physically and stay ahead of the game, but also to develop resilience. You have got to have the mental, and physical resilience to be able to take the knocks, and come back up and really see things through. That also requires an ability to have confidence in your team, to be able to delegate, to be able to trust your team, to be able to say ‘well this is what I’m looking to achieve’, and then to be able to step back.
To be able to think strategically you have to step back from the day to day, the tactical, and really think through the next, the what-ifs. Think things through for the future, and to be able to give time to thought and the vision and direction of travel.
Any organisation needs clarity of strategy, and that can really only come from the leader making the time for himself or herself to do the necessary thinking. Of course, supported by the team. It’s incredibly important to be able to bring the team together, to help the leader do the thinking. This is about harnessing the group rather than just trying to think we can do it all by ourselves.
Q: Are businesses doing enough around leadership education?
[Dr. John Kotter] Great leaders not only create social movements, but have a great instinct for human nature. Too much leadership education is idiosyncratic, and focused on management. Our leadership education is not challenging enough, nor teaching the skills that get to the heart of becoming great leaders.
In one of my books, I decided to go in-depth looking at a single business leader. I searched around and came across the man who founded Panasonic. His name was Kōnosuke Matsushita. Outside of Japan, nobody knows anything about him, but in his lifetime he created 60,000 jobs by building an incredible business, and perhaps 500,000 outside that in the supply chain and elsewhere. He went on to work with other people to write best selling books, became a philanthropist, the list goes on and on. He started from a very humble position, but his capacity to learn was stand out… but he was not a natural. He was kind of short, a little bit shy, a little bit squeaky voiced, probably drank too much after World War 2. But he learned. And he was still learning when he was 94 and dropped dead.
A lot of the great leaders, sometimes very early in life, get on this kind of learning track and they just develop themselves and they keep developing themselves.
Q: What is the role of growth to leadership?
[Prof. Stew Friedman] I like to ask people to think about the older people they admire in their lives, and to ask themselves what is it about this person they find admirable and interesting. It’s almost always about how they’re learning, they’re continuing to stretch, they’re never sitting still. They’re discovering, they’re creating.
Businesses require leaders that continually innovate and learn to do things in ways that make them (as leaders) and their organisations better. The world is changing, ever more turbulent, and so we have to continually improve and adapt.
I have spoken to audiences around the world and asked them what they think is needed for leadership today, and the thing that I hear most often – whether it’s in Brazil or France or the USA – is adaptability. That means having the capacity to learn, which fortunately everyone is able to get better at. You have to be conscious of what it is that you want to improve – to have goals for your learning – and to set out an idea of how you’re going to do that in your real life by taking some action that’s under your control and you expect will help you to pursue that goal. Then you surround yourself with both people who are going to help you understand whether or not you’re successful and data, feedback that’s going to give you information about whether you’re learning. Then take time to reflect and engage in dialogue about what’s working, what’s not, what you have learned, how can you teach it to other people. Everybody can do that, and most people really enjoy doing so.
Q: What is the role of failure in leadership?
[Tony Hsieh] I don’t think failure is the right word to use. I know there are many companies that talk about ‘failing fast’ but I personally don’t think of things in terms of success or failure, but rather- experimentation. We want to move towards incorporating experimentation into our everyday language such that we’re able to do experiments in a financially sustainable way, learn, and grow.
I think a lot of first time entrepreneurs are afraid of failure in the typical context of the term. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book outliers, said that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something – whether that’s piano, tennis, or business. So, rather than worrying about success and failure, you have to think about your career as a series of experiments racking up towards your goal of 10,000 hours of practice.
[Prof. Stew Friedman] We have to be more vulnerable and expressive of our mistakes. Everyone has stories that have shaped their values and beliefs, and often these are about some disappointment or loss; but that’s when you learn the most about yourself and the world.
There’s a movement now where people at all levels are understanding that to reveal yourself as a flawed human being who has failed, like all of us, prevents the glossy from overtaking the real. We need to give people safe spaces to innovate, and to fail, and to learn. We’ve created this culture of perfectionism and careerism and the pendulum, fortunately, is starting to swing back toward genuine growth and humanism.
Q: Can we all learn to be great leaders?
[General Sir Peter Wall] Great leaders bring two distinct skill sets, their knowledge of project management and their human qualities. Management procedures can be learnt. Human qualities are an extension of your personality, and there is probably a limit to how much that can be developed.
Procedures include understanding situations, planning courses of action, making decisions, communicating those decisions and delegating tasks, and then following these through to get the job done. The human dimension applies in different ways in each of these stages to get the best from individuals and teams. It involves reading people, and building their confidence, commitment and trust. I agree with those who think EQ, emotional intelligence, is the decisive factor between good leaders and great leaders.
Leaders are always learning as their experiences unfold. Different techniques are needed for different situations. The learning curve can be at its steepest in the latter stages of a career. At the ‘top’ you tend to be more isolated, responsible for much more exacting issues in a situation of greater political tension. Lots of alpha people who may be after your job!
Q: Can you teach people to be great leaders?
[General Richard Myers] Teaching leadership is not enough, you have to be exposed to leadership situations… you have to take chances and expose yourself to risks, and to criticism- and a lot of people don’t want that.
You can perhaps learn the fundamentals from books and biographies, but you have to find yourself in all of this- who you are, and how you relate to others. You have to practice leadership, experience failure, be encouraged and keep going. It’s a lifelong activity.
Q: How can you make strategic decisions based on incomplete information?
[General Sir Richard Shirreff] One of the core pillars of command is that you have to make the right decisions, in a timely manner, when faced with incomplete information. This is something you develop as a leader through training, through education, and most of all- experience. You develop intuition, that gut sense that now is the moment.
The military has a principle that you don’t move on to the next level of leadership and responsibility until you’ve proved yourself out of subordinate level. So as an officer, your first appointment is to command a platoon of 30 men or women. You then, after more experience, more training, more education, perhaps command a company which has got 4 platoons. In time, you might command a battalion or regiment which has got 4 or 5 companies. And if you prove yourself at that, you might go on to be a brigade commander which has got again 4 or 5 regiments. You’re always having to prove yourself at different levels.
I always come back to a quote from T. E Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), “Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals, and it can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by thought practicing the stroke so that after crisis it comes naturally a reflex…” – As leaders we need to have the thinking, training and education; but the practice is critical and that’s as relevant to a great business leader as it is to a soldier or anybody in any sector I think.
Q: How can you effectively lead large and diverse groups?
[General Stanley McChrystal] You have to create a community of interest, and convince people they are part of something. You see this every day with football teams or schools, but you have to create an environment where people have a shared connection with everyone around them; ultimately that’s how you win the game, the war, or whatever you’re doing.
Across geographies, everyone in your organisation has to wake-up and feel they’re part of the whole. They have to feel connected through their work, through the doctrine of the organisation and of course financially. If they do well, the company does well, and vice versa. You also have to make people connect culturally and this is where it becomes an art, and not a science- every individual is different, and requires different motivation and commitment. This is the nuanced skill of a good leader.
Q: What is the role of failure in leadership?
[General Stanley McChrystal] I was recently with a group who asked me, ‘in wartime, are people scared of failure?’ and the answer sometimes surprises people… in wartime, people are much more afraid of failure than physical harm.
For leaders, fear of failure is hugely important; if you look at the negative behaviours of many organisations and people, they are as a result of dodging responsibilities and decisions through a fear of failure. Fear of failing limits organisations.
A little bit of fear is good, it generates a creative tension and gets people to respect the task at hand, but as soon as you’re more scared of failure than you are excited about succeeding, that’s when fear becomes a problem.
Organisations have to train and condition people to understand what the risks really are, and how to not be terrified by them. You have to look at risk as individuals, teams, organisations and even the existential.
You have to make sure people in your organisation are not scared of failing, and don’t feel there’s a checklist of who’s failed X amount of times. You have to look at who accomplishes, who succeeds, and realise that there will be a percentage of failure needed to get there. You have to focus on who makes a difference, and that’s not always measured by money.
[General Sir Peter Wall] No-one enjoys failure, but organisations do encounter failure, and the ones that embrace that fact and use it to learn and change fastest are the ones that will be most resilient over time.
If you want a resilient team around you, don’t just look for people who’ve never failed- because first of all they’ve not had the searing experiences that give them mental resilience when the pressure’s on, and secondly, they won’t have learnt from those experiences.
The idea that leadership is about sustaining perfection and a zero-defect culture is flawed. I think that to be a good leader you’ve got to give your people their heads, take calculated risks, anticipate the things that can go wrong, and then you’ve got to be able to react to those. But every now and then, something is going to bite you in the arse really hard, which you haven’t anticipated and you’re going to have to work out how to deal with it. That’s what resilience is all about.
[Drew Povey] It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again, fail should stand for First Attempt In Learning. This may be twee, but it’s true. We learn by failing, it’s an iterative process. Matthew Syed explores this well in ‘Black box thinking’. The important thing to remember is that we make mistakes; mistakes don’t make us, it’s all part of (or should be part of) the learning. I do think that too many schools, sports teams, businesses and organisations don’t encourage failure enough, which means they are probably ‘colouring between the lines’ or ‘playing it safe’ and not reaching close to their individual and organisational potential. In short, no failure means no learning, which means limited progress.
Q: How do you lead through difficulty, change and challenge?
[Drew Povey] Dealing with difficulty is something we have much experience of at Harrop. When you have been deemed the worst school in the UK (2005) and dealt with the worst debt of any school in the UK (not of our making) you learn an awful lot! The first point to make here is that we often look to leadership and change when the challenges come, and that’s understandable. However, I believe that we can be more proactive than this. If we were to create a culture that is resilient and linked to its purpose, then we can be well prepared for it. This means being strategic about our culture, which is a skill within itself. Once this foundation is built, its then important for leaders to do 2 things when the difficulties arise…which they will. My two ‘go to’ foci are to hold your nerve and to lead with hope. These are important to keep things stable and also foster a belief that things will get better.
Q: How do you lead across cultures?
[Drew Povey] Leadership should be situational at all times. I fully subscribe to this and this is multifaceted and multidimensional. Each setting will need a certain style to achieve maximum results, not just the style that the leader prefers, which is often what can happen. Leaders need a toolbox of tactics and styles at their disposal, and can’t just reach for the first tool from the box! Learning about the people and the situation is crucial before we take action. This means that we have to understand the cultural nuances and biases that people will carry with them. To get this right, we have to observe, we have to listen and then continually ask why. This is a challenge as we want to do things as quickly as possible, but for positive and sustainable change, we must look deeply at the people and the circumstances.
Q: How do you lead through significant change?
[General Sir Peter Wall] Some change brings great opportunities. Other changes are definitely not opportunities, they’re quite unpalatable.
By way of example I was responsible for a military style M&A a few years ago. We were merging two brigades into the army’s most exciting, progressive and in some ways best equipped brigade which was about to take the Apache Helicopter into service in the early 2000s. For the most part, this project was very positive, although we had to meld some quite diverse cultures into a unified team- and that required a lot of understanding. We had to expose the opportunity to people, and it called for some persuasion to overcome natural scepticism and get them to buy into it. It wasn’t a huge organisation – about 7 or 8 thousand people coming from 2 or 3 different directions in terms of where they sat in the army. The Army is a tribe of tribes, and the leader of each has to take their own tribe with them, going back to their team and saying, “We’re going to have this role, it’s going to be fantastic, follow me…”
On the other hand, trying to sort Iraq out in 2003 with one hand tied behind our backs was not particularly easy. We were light on the ground. We had legal responsibilities as the occupying power and we did not have a very good understanding of, or rapport with, the people who we were trying to help move from Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule to the post-Saddam environment. There were really no Iraqi leaders at all, there were no middle-class executive types who knew how things worked and could take an idea and develop it. It was a really tricky situation, and in the end the Iranians had the last word: they got under the skin of Basra before we got under it and, well, you can read about the history of that.
We also had a very unattractive challenge dealing with the reduction of the army by 20% under the Cameron government in 2011. We had to develop a 10 year change plan including repatriating large numbers of soldiers from Germany to new barracks in the UK, and commissioning new equipment with long lead-times.
With a problem of that scale and complexity, you need a methodology to understand the problem, break it into manageable elements, and communicate those in a way that, as far as possible, sustains the trust of the organisation. You also need to manage interference from the outside. Very often the people demanding change are quite prepared to impede it when it starts to bite. That calls for a niche sort of leadership.
Once we got our planning underway I was quite sure we could take our people with us if we kept talking to them, explaining why we didn’t have all the answers to the key issues, whilst sticking to a timeline of when those answers would be available.
These are very human problems: imagine you’re married with children and you don’t know whether to buy a house because you don’t know whether your regiment will exist, and if it does- where it will be based, and what role you will have. Our job was to be able to say, ‘OK everyone, this is where the Army is going – this is where you’re going to be, we’re not going to move you around as much, we’re going to encourage you to buy homes, pick schools, and we will do everything we can to honour our commitment to your stability so we can have an effective fighting force…’ Leading through change means keeping people on side and sustaining their trust. Being able to communicate an inspiring plan is a big success factor.
Q: How are you taking your learnings from the army into business?
[General Sir Richard Shirreff] We protect value by understanding risk, and we help clients protect value by understanding the risks they face, designing strategies to manage that risk. We deliberately apply a derivation of military campaign planning and military strategy design to manage risk.
Once we get an understanding of the direction of travel and vision of an organisation, we start to work on risk management- firstly, ensuring the right leadership. You only have to look at many of the recent issues in the corporate world such as Uber’s working practices, Volkswagen’s scandals, Ryanair’s scheduling… The military learns from mistakes and this is something companies must do very carefully.
The military also spends a great deal of time building integrity and moral courage into leadership and spending real time on values. These are not ‘nice to haves’ but rather, essential to the functions you need to perform.
Q: How do leaders instil culture?
[Drew Povey] Wherever I talk to leaders I ask them if culture is important and the answer is always the same – a resounding yes! In fact, I don’t believe I can hear a leader talk for longer than 10 minutes without them mentioning culture. My interest lies in how strategic leaders have been about their culture. Is it in their development/action plans? My experience is that we often let culture create itself, which we wouldn’t do in any other area of or businesses. Deciding on the type of culture is key and then making sure that leaders exemplify this through their behaviours will make it ‘hit and stick’. As Ghandi said we must be the change we want to see and this is what Ken Blanchard, in his many books, refers to as leadership by example. The final point I’d want to make here, is that people will listen to what you say, but the culture is created by what you do.
Q: What have been your greatest leadership learnings?
[Drew Povey] I’ve learned so much about leadership, that I couldn’t possibly list everything here…it would literally be a book in its own right! My greatest learning is around perspective and mistake making. I’ve learned that taking time out to reflect and see the bigger picture is essential. Our first thoughts can be accurate (as Malcolm Gladwelll teaches in Blink) but gaining perspective allows me to see and understand much more. Hindsight, perspective, zooming out and many other names for it, really does reframe situations and helps us make better decisions. I need help with this, but it certainly makes me a better leader. The second element is around failure. No one likes making mistakes, no matter what they tell you, but this can make us better, if we are willing to learn. I believe this is misunderstood, as I’m not suggesting that a major crisis should be allowed to happen and simply categorised as a learning point, but we need to encourage people to try things, which will mean we fail from time to time. It’s what we do with this newfound knowledge that’s key. I often combine these two points to help me gain the clarity and drive to keep moving forward towards my own and the wider organisation’s potential.
In The Genius of Battle, General W. F. Smith (1824-1903) wrote, “Since history first began to make its record all the centuries have given to the world profound and eminent philosophers, states men, lawgivers, and mathematicians, but to none of them has the public voice ever affixed the title of great. That alone has been reserved for those who have won it by extraordinary success in leading armies in war. The reason for this is that the great captain combines all the talents and genius necessary to make men eminent in the other walks of life, and in addition he must possess rare powers of physical endurance and a personal courage which is exceptional in degree. To the profundity of the philosopher he must add the qualities of a statesman, as policy is an element which must enter into his plans for a campaign. A common place general may plan a campaign and select his time of operations and points of concentration, but there will be as wide a difference between his work and that of a great captain as between the rhymes of a village poet and the sentences of a Shakespeare. The genius of battle must have an eye which at once enables him to discover the key-point of a battle-field and the weak point of the enemy’s position, not often the same, and to judge promptly and surely which is to be selected for the attack. He must have the unerring faculty to see and press every advantage of the battle-field and to repair every disaster.”
War is the most extreme of human experiences. We have achieved much in the spirit of progress politically, culturally, economically and socially; but in battle we face a more existential threat- that being to our lives, or our civilisation. No surprise therefore that often the greatest leaders of our culture are those who lead a nation through a war.
Smith notes that, “M. Thiers, in his History of the French Revolution, summarizes the account of the brilliant campaign of 1796-1797 in Italy, and in one sentence gives the essence of military philosophy. He says: ‘When war is conducted as a purely mechanical routine, and consists in pushing and killing the enemy in front, it is hardly worthy of history ; but when a conflict takes place in which a mass of men is moved by a single and vast intellect, which amid the lightning shock of battle has the same clearness and precision as that of a Newton or a Descartes in the silence of the closet, then the sight is worthy of the attention of the philosopher, as well as of the statesman and the soldier ; and if the identification of the multitude with a single individual, which produces force in its highest degree, serves to protect, to defend a noble cause, that of liberty, then the scene has a grandeur in its moral as well as its other aspects.’”
Is that not the story of our civilization? Is it not the case that when humanity ceased to live mechanically, and began pursuing intellectual endeavors, that our progress became worthy of philosophical discourse. The difference of course, is that battles in isolation may have singular leaders- yet for humanity? We all are.