No Bullsh*t Leadership: Havas creative global CEO Chris Hirst shares his thoughts

Leadership is about leading a group of people from a defined point in the present to a different and defined point in the future. According to Christ Hirst, Havas creative global CEO, in conversation with The Drum editor, Stephan Lepitak, at The Drum Arms at the Cannes Lions Festival, talking about his No Bullsh*t Leadership: Why the World Needs More Everyday Leaders and Why That Leader Is You, which came out earlier this year.

The Drum talked to him about what qualities make for a good leader, what leaders he admires most, and why strong culture matters for great leaders.

What makes a great leader?

“The defining character of a good leader is the one that gets the best from their team,” he said. “For me it is about creating a culture, and we might all roll our eyes about [culture] in a business context, but culture is the defining characteristic of team and that is what distinguishes between a great from an average team.

“A successful leader is the one who creates a shield around the team, because organisations can get in the way. What good leaders need to do is create a bubble around the team. And that sometimes can be an unpopular thing to do, but you have to push the organisation away to make sure you can get the best out of your team,” explained Hirst.

Hirst refused to be drawn into naming industry names as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ leaders but added that one of the greatest leaders that he admires is Sir Clive Woodward, former English Rugby Union player and coach. “What do I admire about him? The fact that he has always been absolutely focused on learning. And there’s a humility aspect to it.”

Hirst had earlier explained that the way this book came about was when he was asked to do a presentation at Cannes Lions for students on leadership and thought to himself, “How am I going to say something that isn’t the same old shit?” Following a successful presentation, he wondered if there could be a book in this and sat down and initially wrote around 10,000 words. And that was the birth of the book.

What is Bullsh*t leadership?

“I don’t know how to define it but I recognise when I see it,” he said.

Hirst expressed his exasperation at an industry - leadership schools, management schools, and training programmes - that is spending billions of dollars telling us all that leadership is complicated.

“It really isn’t. Yes difficult, but not complicated.”

Hirst went on to give an example of this “Bullsh*t”.

“This whole bullshit around purpose, mission and value. I’m not saying these things aren’t important, they are. But they are not essential in order to be an effective leader. And we have all seen teams where the leader might have incredibly clever answers about the mission statement etc, but that isn’t leadership.”

For him it is the ability to identify, define, and clearly explain something you’re trying to achieve that makes for a good leader.

Training to be a leader

Are there training schools to join to be a good leader? Or indeed, how do you coach leaders?

“Training for leadership is quite difficult. Read my book,” he quipped.

Talking about leadership in the advertising industry, Hirst said “as an industry we are not very good at that [leadership].”

And it’s not that we simply lack good leaders, it’s because “agencies are quite complicated to run, because agency networks with multiple offices are like federations and you have to work really heard to find pieces of commonality within those different businesses. There are pockets of good practice but we find it difficult to take that practice and move it across.”

Havas is launching a first-of-its kind leadership programme, “the longer I do my job, the more I see that businesses that do well are the businesses with good leaders but that good leaders need to be clear to what they are being asked to do, and have to be given the space in order to do that. And this programme would be a step towards that.”

Good leaders create good culture

The critical thing he added is that leaders need to create the right culture in order for their teams to outperform.

For Hirst, conversations or definitions of leadership cannot happen without involving people. Leadership is about leading a group of people from a defined point in the present to a different and defined point in the future.

“I can be a d**k sometimes, but my team knows that I will always have their back. Good leaders create a framework to live and breathe within, and it is an incredibly important thing to invest in,” he concluded.

Also listen to Christ Hirst in The Drum Leadership Lessons, a new podcast series where advertising chiefs share how to lead, and talk about sources of inspiration and those who showed them the way.

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