Sometimes real leaders surprise you.


Sometimes real leaders surprise you.

In my case it was a tap on the shoulder.

True: I've been lucky enough to work with great ones, and outright pretenders too; psychopaths with the Midas touch. (The annoying thing about the latter camp, of course, is they often seem so nice... give me a proud reprobate any day! You know what you're dealing with.)

But I was lucky this guy was the real deal.

I was in my first job, less than a month into the game and there it was - a call to go see the CEO. Not even a call, a nudge. I'd been touched by the hand that had shaken paws with all the greats; Hegarty, Beattie, Tiger Savage - Sir Martin Sorrell himself.

Clearly, my time had come. Twenty-one, ambitious but overly academic in my approach, maybe even just a little bit super fucking weird. I was nervous.

For the occasion, I decided to don my jacket - Gieves & Hawkes (Savile Row, obvs), a lovely soft wool chalk stripe number that in my early vulnerable years basically played the part of body armour - and walked into his office expecting the brief of the century.

Send me stratospheric, daddy.

He looked up, surprised to see me.

'Oh,' he said, handing me a printed document. 'Could you scan this for me please?'

Oh fuck. Of course: the inverse correlation of age and technological literacy.

But - I didn't mind. Cause I looked down at the document, his notes for a training course. And what was written on that bit of paper changed my entire trajectory.

Leadership isn't about being the boss, the first page said, it's about facilitating everyone else to be brilliant.

It hit me like a thunderbolt.

Every day I had rolled into work expecting to be let go. (In fairness, I was working for WPP, this sense of terror was not without foundation). At the nucleus of my fears was simply the idea of being a bad fit. The advertising industry in London, anywhere probably, was full of personalities big enough to give you vertigo; bolshy charismatics filled with insane amounts of confidence, intelligence and sass.

That wasn't me. No way. Not from what I saw, and certainly not from what Hollywood had taught me. Leaders played squash, ate at The Ivy, snorted coke while driving Ferraris through Mayfair, made witty cutting remarks during their $500 blow dry, finished drinks at 2am and still looked immaculate the next day. Leaders whispered or shouted but were always listened to. They lived bold and reckless lives at the hyper-insanity of Moloch. If you hadn't pulled a sword from a stone in Cannes while having your pants rummaged by the Executive Creative Director's PA, you simply weren't going to make it.

Anyway. In that moment my entire concept of what leadership was exploded.


With 15 years behind me now, a bit more seasoned - I recognise what I'd read as the kind of ‘servant leadership’ popularised in that era. The kind of thing encouraged by HR as a way to de-fang Alpha management, a chamomile school of thought that played in the 1990s the kind of role Brené Brown plays now.

But for me it set a foundation that radically altered my concept of great teams, and great organisations.

The ad industry was built on a military model, informed by its progenitors: World War 2 veterans. They implemented a hierarchical corporate structure based around gaining strategic advantage through land position (typically; opening agencies near wherever their clients were, or from the vantage points of places like SoHo). They imported military methods  - faith in hierarchy, rigorous process - even military language, where every client meeting is documented with a 'contact report'.

At its best it made for vibrant places to work and brilliant outcomes. But also a culture of egos and starfuckers, one that still cares more about finishing strikers than playmakers.

That bit of paper had offered me an alternative: the playmaker matters.

Playmakers create the opportunities for everyone to succeed. They're grease in the wheels. (And if you know your Samin Nosrat, you'll know that fat is invaluable in any recipe... a medium, a garnish and a signature flavour).

It's leadership as a circle not a pyramid; a confluence of equals where energy comes from the middle. It's why I've heard the term 'ecosystem leader' thrown around now. Same thing.

It's a desire to put the spotlight on others and let them shine. Help them be great, be centre stage, be profound, be better.

It's about seeing the raw uncut minerals within someone and giving them the gentle pressure that compounds their carbon into diamonds.

I'm not there, have tried, never got there, ever might. But did you know The Rolling Stones have a head of vibes? Those guys get it. Know the benefit of a playmaker who can touch up every play by 1%, maybe 100%, maybe more. 'Yes And' the team to kill the problem.

Is it the only solve? No. After all, where would we be without messiahs?

And like a counter-terrorist, the successes of such subtle leaders largely go unknown; only the failures are noticed. But you, yourself, will always know.

That was what surprised me.

Leadership doesn't always look that way.