The Leaders In London conference ( held this week is one of the premier events on the subject of leadership and given my personal interests in the subject always a highlight of the year.  The event brings together on one stage what John Kotter would call the ‘A++’ gurus, practitioners and exemplars of world and business leadership.  The 2006 rostrum included Sir Bob Geldof, Sir Alan Sugar, Larry Bossidy, Richard Branson, Col. Tim Collins and one of the true leadership legends of our time, Gen. Colin Powell. 

As usual, I enjoyed the many insights, perspectives, models and anecdotes, but I will just highlight a few of the ones that relate to the Leadership/Management dichotomy.  Some specifically alluded to the duo.  Bob Geldoff said,

“Management is about skills; Leadership is about attitude…An entrepreneur type can only take an idea so far…you need the managerial type to take it forward from there.  It’s like a band.  You need a drummer.  No drummer…crap band.  No management…crap business.”

Powell noted,

‘The science of management says you can achieve 100%.  The art of leadership gets people to achieve beyond that.’ 

Many of the speeches reinforced the idea of Leader as ‘upside opportunity’ focused.  Terms like ‘vision’ (Geldof) and ‘sense of purpose’ (Powell) and ‘standing for something’ (Rene Carayol).  Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield provided a biological premise for the power of a good vision by presenting studies which showed that thinking about an activity can stimulate the corresponding part of the brain nearly as much as doing the activity itself.  So a vision exercises our capabilities to do something before we even do it.

One of the popular techniques for getting a vision of where to go in the future was ‘following someone else’s leadership.’  Branson described his core strategy as identifying industries with dominant, entrenched players and attacking them with superior value and service.  Renee Mauborgne of INSEAD and co-author of ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ talked about ‘Challenger Brands’ like Airbus and Pepsi who defined themselves around beating the entrenched competitor.  She also highlighted that many companies then flounder when they actually do catch and surpass their nemesis since by definition their raison d’etre has been taken from them.  The other problem Mauborgne notes in this slipstream strategy is that the ‘pursuer’ then tends to define themselves in terms similar to the competitor (using the same KPIs, pursuing the same customers through the same channels with the same propositions) which is antithetical to the primary objective of marketing which is differentiation (conversely, her concept of ‘Blue Ocean’ is about creating highly differentiated niches of ‘uncontested market propositions’).

One of the recurring words of the day was ‘boldness’.  Charles Dunstone, founder of Carphone Warehouse, said with some firsthand experience with TalkTalk in recent months, “You never change anything without being bold.”  Geldof added in a lyrical way, “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”  Scott Bedbury talked about the ‘highest common denominator’ and showed ad executions that broke ground.  He described how he prohibited ‘focus groups’ on ad executions because they just ended up watering them down to irrelevance (though he embraced focus groups for generally keeping one’s finger on the pulse of customers/market interests, trends, etc.).   Carayol described the boldness as, “people getting done what everyone else said couldn’t be done” and shared a poignant story of school children raising a mountain of money on short notice to keep an exchange programme from being cancelled that adults had given up on.  There was no shortage of bold aspirations and achievements on the stage, but perhaps the boldest was the profile of Konosuke Matsushita by HBS Professor of Leadership John Kotter who thought in timeframes of centuries and envisioned his company changing the prosperity of all of the Japan.

Despite the call for boldness, the speakers similarly called for a degree of circumspection as goals need to be ‘achievable’ as well.  Matushita called for a ‘sense of humility.’  Powell referred to it as ‘facing reality.’  Geldof described,

‘People listened to me because I positioned a way out of this [famine issue]…That sense of achievement is critical to take it forward.  So you need achievable targets and I could articulate something achievable.’

One common variable to these leaders so willing to take bold risks is a modest if not deprived background.  These humble beginnings made it easier to focus on upside because largely there was nothing but upside.  As Branson described,  “Many of the leading entrepreneurs in the UK left school at 15 – me, Anita Broddick, Alan Sugar.  That’s probably because we had nothing to lose.”  Other figures of the day, Geldof in person and Matsushita in profile were other prominent examples.  Geldof also commented, “I think this entrepreneur thing is confused with leadership.  People equate leadership with this entrepreneurial thing, but I don’t think I was an entrepreneur.  But I had nothing to lose and I panicked.”  Mauborgne provided a business example of the nowhere-but-up dynamic with the hot new Nintendo Wii product which breaks ground in a number of areas – cost of goods model, target audience, focus of innovation in the interface form factor.  Nintendo is in a ‘nothing to lose’ position having been relegated to a distant third place behind Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox.  Necessity is the mother of invention, innovation and a whole range of bold leadership initiative.

In short, the pervasive lessons of the two days ‘be bold but achievable and it sure helps in focusing on the upside if you have less to lose.’