Let’s face facts, simply being ‘the boss’ doesn’t necessarily make someone a leader. If we assume this is true, then first we need to ask what the difference really is.
There are several statements that give a good insight into the qualities a person needs to be considered a leader. Lao Tzu, the 19th Century Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, provides arguably the best, though: “When the leader’s work is done, the people say ‘we did it ourselves’.”
What makes this so fitting is the principles on which Taoism was founded - fundamentally the need to live in harmony with ‘the way’. This can be applied to everything from a way of life to nature, but most importantly within the context of this work, it’s relevant to community. A requirement to have genuine balance, and not to be too overbearing, while remembering how important it is not to reside in the shadows.
For the last decade, Rick Guttridge has been MD at Smoking Gun, a PR and communications specialist agency based in Manchester. Starting from relatively humble beginnings, the business currently employs more than 10 members of staff, occupying a bespoke designed office in the city centre, and lays claim to a number of prestigious industry awards.
Perhaps what’s most commendable, though, is the way in which the company operates. From investing heavily in its workforce through training and skill development, to nurturing tomorrow’s talent with paid interns and graduate schemes, and pledging a percentage of annual profits to charity, it sets a clear stall out for itself. Some might call it corporate social responsibility.
This position is continued in the firm’s approach to work. As a PRCA Approved Measurement Champion, Smoking Gun is considered a pioneer when it comes to transparency and evaluation, helping to establish a new standard for what clients should expect from media campaigns - i.e. a clear understanding of where there money is going. A far cry from smoke and mirrors, again this feeds into the overall Rick’s overall desire to help inspire the next generation of talent to operate in a positive manner. With this in mind, I caught him in between a rather hectic working schedule to get his thoughts on what he sees as the most vital knowledge every leader should pass on to younger, or at least less experienced minds, to prepare them for their own leadership roles in the future.
“Courage, communications and calmness are, on the whole, the three most important qualities I think need to be passed on,” he explains. “Don’t be afraid of failing, just learn fast when you do. And your team will be looking for you for leadership all the time. You won't always know all the answers, but you must appear to be steadfast and have conviction. Trusting yourself to back your gut instinct always takes nerve too but it's usually right and making swift decisive calls could be the difference between success and failure.
“Regular, clear and concise communication with the business as well as key external stakeholders is imperative. Having the vision, setting the strategy and building a team to over see implementation are all key. However with poor communication, trust quickly evaporates and the whole project starts to collapse, issues become problems and teams become demotivated and disinterested. Keep stakeholders abreast of the plan, the performance and crucially the WIIFM (what's in it for me).
Don’t be afraid of failing, just learn fast when you do
“It’s also important to be a swan, no matter what's happening around you i.e. graceful and calm on the surface even if your feet are paddling like mad. Culture and behaviour patterns are set at the top so demonstrate the behaviour you want your team to show no matter how tough, busy or frustrating things get.”
This idea of ‘what’s in it for me’ is also significant in terms of helping potential future leaders realise that potential. After all, developing exceptional professionals will only benefit the business they work for in the long run, from reinforcing the reputation of producing great work, to filling more senior roles through in-house promotions.
“If you have serious aspiration to grow your business you have to be able see that you can’t do it all yourself and you sit let go and delegate,” he says. “This is seemingly one of the hardest things for many entrepreneurs to do. Building a senior leadership team, then a second management team is all part of the process and identifying leaders from within as part of a succession plan is vital to not only succeed but also hold onto your top talent so they can see their career progression path.”
In order to achieve this, Rick is clear on the main knowledge areas that today’s leaders should focus on passing on to their staff. In short, these are remaining true to your core values and beliefs, understanding why you're better than competitors and how to stay ahead of them, what has lost customers in the past, and the ability to maintain a ‘relentless quest for improvement’.
Food for thought if you’re in a position of professional influence, while figures like Tzu, Guttridge, Jones and Freeman don’t come around everyday, perhaps there will come a time when they will.