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What is real leadership? Marketing execs weigh in

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By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

July 15, 2022 | 7 min read

With the UK thrown into political turmoil following the ousting of Boris Johnson, more than a few of us have probably been wondering: just how hard can it be to be a good leader? We asked five leaders from The Drum Network what it means to be a leader.

A waxwork of Boris Johnson

Waxwork leader Boris Johnson – but what does real leadership mean to industry figures? / Mathew Browne via Unsplash

Julie Cohen, chief executive officer, Across the Pond

Everybody should have a dentist and a therapist. It’s the one truism I’ve clung to doggedly throughout my career. As an American living in London, please don’t take this as a slur about the state of British molars (a horrible stereotype: you guys have beautiful teeth). What I mean is that everybody should treat mental health as seriously as they do their physical. This extends to members of the government too, even Boris Johnson.

As the monsoon of MP resignations has shown, it can’t have been easy working in such a toxic, frat-house culture for so long. This is true of any company (including BrewDog, the Met and that chief exec who fired 900 employees over Zoom), not just the Tories. Leading by example obviously starts at the top: ineffectual leadership allows rotten cultures to flourish. Under Boris, a “habitual liar” who showed zero contrition in his resignation speech last week, his ‘dorm’ has run riot: karaoke parties while the rest of us quarantined and couldn’t mourn loved ones; shocking sexual harassment; and watching porn, sorry tractors, in the House of Commons.

Whoever the successor to Boris might be, I hope they embody the new type of leader needed for these unsettling, post-pandemic times: we’re all burnt out and need a boss who’s honest and empathetic, displays humility and can safeguard our bruised mental health. In the months ahead, I hope anybody whose mental health is or has been affected by toxic bosses calls it out and seeks treatment. As for Boris, his entire political career has been defined by an ability to bluster, quote Latin, make us laugh and wing it. He survived by the skin of his teeth. There’s an awful lot to unpack there: both for his dentist and his therapist.

Roger Perowne, chief executive officer, Savanta

Being a good leader is more than just wanting to be in a position of power. Too many people want the title but then don’t have a plan when they get there; wanting the job and knowing what to do with it are two very different things.

Wanting the job alone is like taking a plane to the top of Everest, jumping up and down and causing an avalanche that wipes out your team – those carrying the equipment.

Knowing what to do is more like the role of a Sherpa: taking responsibility for the group; acting as a guide and porter; setting up camps on the mountain. It’s identifying and encouraging people along the path.

Being a leader means having a vision of where you want to get to, creating the map (strategy) on how you’re going to get there and giving individuals the tools and encouragement they need to tread the path.

Looking at the recent activities in Downing Street, it looks as though Boris opted for the private jet over the Sherpa.

Chris Pitt, managing director, Vertical Leap

Leadership is about setting the tone, direction of travel and expectation of standards. The rest is enabling people and then getting out of the way to let them get on with it. To achieve that you need trust. Trust from you that people will give their best in any given moment; and trust from them that you will back them in any given moment, without judgment. Rightly or wrongly, the perception of Boris is that he can’t be trusted.

James Sandford, managing director, Propellernet

Great leadership is the antithesis of what we’ve seen from Boris Johnson throughout his tenure as prime minister. Lies and deceit are not traits we want to read about in a cover letter. But what should we be looking for in our leaders in 2022?

It comes down to two central leadership qualities: strong values and confidence in your people.

Put simply, a strong leader must lead by example at all times. At Propellernet we set the tone through three shared values that are the foundation of everything we do: we’re progressive (forward-thinking, trying new things and constantly evolving); we’re genuine (pragmatic, honest and real); and we’re conscious (of our impact on people and the planet).

We’ve been leading with trust and autonomy for several years and it just works. We give people ownership and control of how they work. All we ask in return is that they are diligent, and always act in the best interests of our business. Can the same be said for how our politicians have acted for our country?

Leading with trust and autonomy built on the foundations of a strong shared set of beliefs is the way forward. Were the UK to be led in a similar way, we’d be at the forefront of best practice politics globally, setting the example on the political stage, instead of the laughing stock.

Ollie Bishop, chief executive officer, Tipi Group

Politics is a funny old game. While the top job in the land should be about leadership, recent events show us it really isn’t. Although there are many crossovers (strong communications, decision making, a clear vision, team management and competent delivery), leadership counts for nothing if you don’t bring people with you, voluntarily.

Leadership is about trust, building relations, taking responsibility. It most definitely is not about self-promotion. Sometimes it's the extra little things that make someone a great leader: being present, supporting others, mucking in, and being authentic. Luckily, I believe the UK have lots of talented people who can fill this type of role (just, unfortunately, not in the current government).

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Propellernet

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Vertical Leap

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Savanta

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Across the Pond

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