I am not a leader.
It took me many years to realise it. Indeed I was in a position of some responsibility when the truth dawned. I finally understood that I am in a relationship business, but I’m uncomfortable with relationships; that I shrink from delivering bad news, when I should be characterising it as good; that I am emotionally squeamish, when leadership requires psychological strength. I was a disappointment to myself.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this revelation, I have remained interested in the art of leadership. What defines a great leader? How do you spot leadership potential? Can you train it, learn it, define it? I’m aware that a wealth of airport management books endeavour to answer these questions, but I confess I’ve never felt compelled to read them. Let me offer my own, admittedly simple, perspective on the subject.
In the course of my career I’ve been fortunate to have worked with quite a few great leaders. And I have to say that, on the face of it, they have little in common. Some were passionate and visionary, others were practical and pragmatic; some were sensitive and personal, others were pugnacious and combative. None was in any way a perfect paradigm. Indeed all have been flawed, often in very engaging ways.
But there was one particular thing they all shared. Their leadership style was consistently an extension of their own strong personalities. They were authentic, but they were also larger than life. Their very real virtues had found a louder voice, a bigger stage. They were hyperboles of themselves if you like.
Leadership in my experience is The Amplified Self.
This analysis has led me to a relatively straightforward piece of advice for the aspirant leader: establish what you’re good at and do it in a bigger, bolder way.
And yet this is easier said than done. ‘Know thyself’ was inscribed above the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It was a resonant maxim precisely because self knowledge is so difficult to achieve.
I probably spent the first ten years of my career working out what I had to offer professionally. However much my appraisals identified the occasional virtue, I couldn’t help concentrating on the cited shortcomings. Because they were the same shortcomings year after year: a sluggishness with spreadsheets and Harvard Graphics, a lack of commercial rigour in my arguments, a failure to make eye contact in meetings. Like a diligent student I would concentrate on addressing my weaknesses. But however hard I tried, with every passing year my appraisal changed very little. And I never did win that IPA Effectiveness Award…
I think there comes a point in everyone’s career when we give up addressing the faults we cannot correct, the blemishes we cannot wipe clean. The point in one’s career when one focuses on building on strengths and virtues, accentuating the positives rather than eliminating the negatives. And I think that’s the point that one finally gets to discover one’s true leadership potential.
If you think you have the charisma, stamina, vision and appetite to lead, don’t spend your time reading the text books, mimicking your predecessor, emulating your hero. Don’t be someone else’s shadow, their pale imitation. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
Look in the mirror. Isolate your truest strengths, the ones that set you apart, that make you unique. And turn those strengths up to eleven.
Be your own Amplified Self
First Published: BBH LABS 28 /07/2014