Being an arsehole isn’t mandatory: how to gain respect as a creative boss

Advertising has changed, but has the creative director? In this series, Wunderman UK chief creative officer Ian Haworth explores the changing nature of the role in the modern media world.

Wunderman's chief creative officer recommends martial arts to marketers seeking wellness

I have a black belt.

There. I said it. That’s out of the way. Enough #humblebragging for today. Now I can seamlessly segue into what I actually want to talk about: discipline. Respect. Humility.

Martial arts teach people these traits. When you walk into the dojo for the first time, you come with nothing. You’re not a high-flying banker or a tech genius. You’re stripped of all accolades, any preconceived notions of self-worth, now just a white belt with zero experience. You get to the top not by reputation in the outside world but by the respect structure within the arena. In one dojo I trained at, the wooden floor was enveloped in sweat after sessions. And no matter what grade you were, no matter how long you’d studied, you were down on your hands and knees with a cloth at the end, making sure that floor was spotless for the next class. Fundamental equality.

Us creatives could learn a thing or two from this.

The Book of Five Rings was published in 1645.

Its author, Miyamoto Musashi, was a master swordsman, artist, philosopher and wanderer. He had a creative outlet in his art, his writing; and a seemingly violent outlet on behalf of, well, the killing he did.

The point here being: martial arts really isn’t about the physical side. Sure, it might seem that way when – legend has it – Musashi smashed his opponent’s ribs with a wooden sword, fatally puncturing his lungs before sailing into the sunset.

We can’t really do that now. It’s frowned upon.

But in the modern day, we can take the learnings of people like Musashi – who achieved complete spiritual clarity and renounced lethal duels after that whole lung-puncturing incident – by channelling negative energy through martial arts and turning it into something positive.

We need that in ad land.

I’ve seen people shouting, screaming, wailing, bringing the hammer down on their employees’ poor, anvilly heads. This is advertising, for god’s sakes. Nobody’s going to die. Some of the behaviour I’ve seen is indefensible and it’s fuelled by rage, an untamed ego. It often borders on the sociopathic and would see the perpetrator to crumble in the dojo.

The sad thing, though, is that this conduct is much too common.

Many years ago, I was given feedback that I was ‘too nice’. The criticism wasn’t that I didn’t make difficult decisions or didn’t get results or didn’t encourage my employees to be the best that they can be. I was ‘too nice’, meaning that I treated my team with respect and dignity like I would anyone else. Because apparently there’s an unwritten suffix attached to all senior roles stating that being an arsehole is mandatory.

There’s no need for this pent-up, benign aggression at senior or any level.

You don’t need to be a swine for people to realise you’re their boss. They should know this by, well, your title, and the fact that you know what you’re doing and that you’re using your experience and knowledge to better the team and yourself.

Mental wellness helps attain this and can be found in spades by devoting yourself to a martial art. To be really creative, you need to free your mind. Discipline yourself. Let go of the negativity that’s driving your fear. It’s not about being fearless. Nobody’s fearless – even Mr. T was afraid of flying. It’s about handling that fear, recognising it as something that ultimately isn’t a true threat. Making a friend of fear.

Take the code of behaviour that you’ll find in every dojo. It’s pretty simple. You follow it to the T or you’re not allowed in. That means no, you’re not allowed to humiliate a newcomer. You’re not allowed to peacock around because you’ve been there longer than someone else. That respect comes naturally – status is achieved through skill and commitment, so put in the time and you’ll climb up the ladder. No social hierarchy. No ego. Return to innocence, to the reasons why you started doing this in the first place. Just believing in yourself and what you do.

Like in ad land, the key to becoming a well-rounded practitioner in martial arts is by conquering haste. You need to nail the foundations first – there’s no point trying black belt material when you’ve just started, because you don’t have the knowledge or discipline to do so. Similarly, people promoted at work beyond their means aren’t grounded. They’re not the best that they can be at their job.

They usually just shout a lot.

The longer you have a black belt, the whiter it becomes. It fades. It’s cyclical; you never stop learning, even when you’re supposedly at the top. Masters have masters. Don’t take that for granted. Don’t shut yourself off from new things, exciting things, unusual things.

Harry Leslie Smith practices tai chi at 94 years old.

Anthony Bourdain started Brazilian jiu jitsu in his late fifties and said it was one of the best things he’s ever done.

It doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are or how many juniors you’ve reduced to tears. At the end of the day, it’s just a job. And you’ll be much better off if you don’t act like a baby who’s just found out the Rusks have ran out.

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