Being a true leader

What does it take to be a real leader? Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones explain in this extract

Published 3 years ago on Apr 02, 2017 Read

Leadership begins with you — and you will not succeed as a leader unless you have some sense of who you are. Your colleagues — potential followers — have a simple but basic need: they want to be led by a person, not by a corporate apparatchik. It is unlikely that you will be able to inspire, arouse, excite, or motivate people unless you can show them who you are, what you stand for, and what you can and cannot do.

Consider Sir Martin Sorrell, the leader of the world’s largest communications services company, WPP, which owns, among many companies, the JWT ad agency. Sorrell runs an organisation full of creative talent. Creative people are notoriously difficult to lead or even manage but are critical to WPP’s success. Indeed, WPP’s mission and strategy statement begins, “To develop and manage talent; to apply that talent throughout the world.”

Sorell is a bundle of energy. He is opinionated, forthright, and clever. Over a twenty-year period, he has applied these talents to build a formidable global business. And over the years, he has learned to use some of his personal differences as a leader. Ask his colleagues about Sorrell, and a fairly consistent picture emerges.

First they will tell you of his legendarily rapid response to e-mails — whenever, wherever. It’s not unusual, for example, for Sorrell to spend a working week in the United States but remain on UK time for those he works with in London. All of Sorrell’s fifteen thousand colleagues have access to him. His message is clear: I am available. You are important. As he told us, “If someone contacts you, there’s a reason. It’s got nothing to do with the hierarchy. It doesn’t matter if they’re not a big person. There’s nothing more frustrating than a voice mail and then nothing back. We’re in a service business.”

But this is not the only difference that he communicates. “I am seen as a boring, workaholic accountant and as a micro-manager,” he told us. “But I take it as a compliment rather than an insult. Involvement is important. You’ve got to know what’s going on.” Anyone receiving a visit from Sorrell can expect some tough, one-to-one questioning — on the numbers as well as the creative side of the business. Sorrell’s difference reminds people that, central though creativity is, WPP is a creative business

When we talked to Sorrell’s colleagues, the other thing they noted is his permanent state of dissatisfaction. He is justifiably proud of WPP’s success, but constantly reminds people that “there’s an awful long way to go.”

Sorrell is not the most introspective character in the world — he is far too busy for that. But he knows enough about what works for him in a particular context. He uses his leadership differences — accessibility, close involvement in business detail, restlessness — to balance the creative side. These leadership assets are a foil for, on the one hand, the hierarchy and complacency that can strangle large, successful businesses and, on the other, unrestrained generation of new ideas that can lead creative organisations to lose business focus.