Working for good leaders is an essential education.
A serial leader in local government describes how, having surprised herself by landing her first CEO role aged twenty-eight, ‘a fantastic, experienced local party leader prevented me making an idiot of myself. Since then I’ve surrounded myself with a few, hand-picked, experienced advisors.’ ‘Without brilliant delegators I wouldn’t have had the chance to lead,’ admits another.
A leading ethical banker began his career by joining the British army regiment his father commanded. He remembers his first leadership-moment: ‘I was out on an exercise. I was wet, cold and miserable. Then an officer tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘You’re in charge for the next twenty-four hours.’ I felt a massive mental change – the cold disappeared, energy coursed through me and I know I had to lead and protect my men. I’ve worked hard to motivate those around me in more mundane roles ever since.’
Good leadership is spurred on by inspiring ideas. ‘In my twenties I read Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars’ says a financial services entrepreneur, ‘the final chapter, which is about what gives meaning to life, marked me. It changed me.’ ‘You supplement what’s there,’ says the CEO of a utility ‘fifteen years ago I did a masters in corporate leadership at Harvard. The theory, case studies, simulations were very powerful. I use what I learned to this day.’
The experience of bad leadership is equally formative. One CEO worked for a public leader whose ‘interpersonal skills button was set to off as its default. He had zero empathy, among other hints at psychopathy. Did I learn from him how not to behave? You bet.’ A leading regulator says he learned most from observing bad leaders. ‘In my earlier years’, he says ‘I assumed leadership was synonymous with extrovert, dynamic, egotistical men. It isn’t. It’s absolutely not about projecting personality and power. It’s enabling people to do things, not barking at them.’
As Napoleon noted of his generals: successful leadership means being lucky. Being lucky to have a family background that spurred you on, to emulate or escape; and to learn from searing personal experience of good and bad leadership.