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You're not a rock star, you're a leader

Recent events have shown how real leadership does - and doesn't - work

By jeremy lee

As the prime minister’s dead hand is finally prised from the levers of power, it’s sadly unlikely that Boris Johnson will reflect that things could have been so very different if he’d bothered to read No Bullsh*t Leadership, the seminal book by Chris Hirst, the global CEO of Havas Creative. Indeed, Johnson’s approach to leadership appears to be the very antithesis of the path that Hirst espouses.

Historically, advertising has had a smattering of similarly toxic leaders who have dissembled, blustered, bullied and deceived their way to the top. Instead, they relied on their own carefully curated cult of personality to sustain their ambition, regardless of their suitability for the role (sounds familiar?). Some of them were even christened “rock stars”, a monstrous description that gave them a convenient excuse to indulge in egregious behaviour and then revel in the attention this provided. Happily, though, that particular strain of music has stopped and consequently those days are far behind us.

Over the past few months, we’ve been profiling the new breed of agency leaders and leadership teams that have recently stepped in to fill the places of those who are now consigned to distant memories - not all of them happy ones. The latest to tell us of their vision, ambitions and approach are BBH’s London CEO Karen Martin and global CCO Alex Grieve.

While, thankfully, all leaders have a different vision (“it’s about the mission, not the mission statement”, as Alex points out), proving that there’s a healthy diversity in agency thinking, common threads have emerged from these interviews. The most important of these being their approach to leading their agencies. This chimes nicely with what people in general want from their leaders, as the recent by-elections have shown.

Integrity, honesty, collaboration, humility, warmth and a sense of humour are words that feature frequently as important personal attributes, as well as an ambition, not for themselves, but for their people. When “the ball comes loose at the back of the scrum” (as Johnson famously described his own prime ministerial ambitions), this is what real leadership looks like.


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