Leadership lessons from 2014

I’ve been lucky in my career to work with some pretty inspiring leaders. I’ve found myself reflecting on the lessons from some of those people recently given the time of year and, more importantly, because one of them, Pat McGovern, died in March this year and one of the others, Alan Rusbridger, announced he is leaving his long time post at the Guardian.

Pat McGovern was a remarkable person. He had some unusual quirks as most great leaders do, and you couldn’t help but wonder if those things that made him unusual were fuel for his accomplishments.

A good example of that was his notorious holiday handshake. I loved that he did that, as painful as it was for himself and for the hundreds of staff members he spent a few minutes speaking to directly, one on one. But it showed a deep commitment from him which everyone valued and respected.

As Harry McCracken wrote,

“His emotional and intellectual investment in the company he founded was boundless. Why would he not love traveling to IDG offices to talk with IDG employees about their work at IDG?”

Pat also had some strong philosophies underpinning his approach to working.

Pat used to say, ‘the specific wins over the general’. He understood the Long Tail before that became a thing.

He didn’t want big, centralized command-and-control systems and preferred to keep decision-making with self-contained business units that were focused on a particular market or customer base. He was happy to put money behind people he believed in and let them run their business…unless they started losing his money which never lasted very long.

He used those concepts to build a global network of 350+ businesses.

Alan Rusbridger’s recent announcement is still pretty fresh, and I don’t think any of us understand the extent of his impact, yet. But I can speak to his influence on me.

When I first started at the Guardian in 2008 I was under the impression that Alan’s presence was more directive than what I later learned to be the truth.

Yes, he was very good at achieving the results he wanted and was clear about what he expected. And there was never any doubt about who was in charge.

But he achieved that state by supporting those whose ideas and intentions would lead him in a direction that interested him rather than directing everyone’s actions. And with an unending collection of interests and an insatiable curiosity that meant the many explorers he surrounded himself with were expanding his influence in all those areas and, as a result, the power of the Guardian brand.

Alan was very loyal to his people, and that loyalty was given back to him.

I recall an eye-opening chat with one of his long time lieutenants as the initial hacking coverage by Nick Davies began to unfold in the pages of the Guardian.

“Alan is putting himself out there pretty far with this one, and I’m not sure we know how to back him up. That’s the problem with visionaries. You don’t always know what you’re following until you get there.”

By the time Edward Snowden got through to Glen Greenwald, Alan had created the window through which others could see where he was taking the Guardian. He had the kind of support needed not just to execute the journalism he envisioned but, more importantly, to act as a truly independent voice in the world.

Similar to Pat, it was a philosophical underpinning to the meaning of his work in the world that he was able to apply every day. His 2010 Cudlipp lecture is a classic in that regard.

“There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started – here, in newspapers, in the UK. It’s not a “digital trend” – that’s just shorthand. It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.

As Scott said 90 years ago: “What a chance for the newspaper!”

Alan’s strategy for the Guardian meant that the Snowden revelations and other stories of that scale were possible in a way that the digital era had not yet seen. For that we should all be thankful, regardless of your view of the Guardian.

I’ve had many encounters with people who dislike the Guardian yet willingly admit they want it to exist. Alan’s accomplishments are so great that competitors and enemies alike respect and admire him.

I imagine John Wooden was a similar type of character in his world in his day.

There are several other people I’ve worked with who I use for inspiration from time to time, too, people in various stages of careers that I believe will be extraordinary if they aren’t already – Chad Dickerson, John Battelle, Emily Bell, to name a few.

Of course, reducing the contributions of these or any other individual to a word or some forgettable listicle-style chunks of knowledge is antithetical to the type of leadership they’ve all offered. Simplicity and clarity should never be confused with vapidity.

But the short version of the key observations here is worth amplifying:

  • Being committed to your team makes them happy and committed to you.
  • Distributing authority and enabling your best people to do what they do expands your influence as they expand theirs.
  • Grounding your vision with a philosophy that others can apply in their day-to-day jobs creates a network of support required for executing the more risky things a leader wants to achieve.

Now that the tech and media worlds have begun maturing in the era of Life After Jobs it’s worth understanding the styles employed by some of the people who lead from behind the scenes instead of from the stage.

In that respect, you won’t find many role models better than either Pat or Alan.