Leading Beyond Authorityby Julia Middleton
Stories from people who have done it
One of the best ways to learn about this skill is to ask people who have excelled in this field when did they started moving across the circles, and why.
President of UNICEF (UK) and Advisor to the Department of Education; prior to that, a film-maker.
Hubris was the first reason. I had just won the Palme D’Or in Cannes and there was nowhere else to go. I knew I could not become one of those people who looks back sometime in the future and says ‘I could have done more.’
There were then two factors that moved me on to the outer circle. One was to do with timing. I was asked at the right time. If Labour had won the ’92 election, it would have been wrong. But, in ’97, the timing was right. I was ready to try new things. The other was that I heard myself say ‘Yes’ on the phone one night when I was asked. It was about as planned as that!
Thinking back though, I don’t think I would have gone into the outer circles if I had not been confident that I was wanted for all my skills and abilities. It was not just about the success or knowledge I had acquired in my core circle – my ability to make movies. I wanted to really move out and not get sucked back into the film industry. Whichever circle I am in, I always prefer the cafe style. I love the small teams and the discussions. All I really need is a pen, some paper, and a phone.
Chief Executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce and former Chair of Esh Group; prior to that, he was at Barclays Bank and, before that, a Captain in the Army.
I am not sure that I have ever stayed within any boundaries. I was always that child who was fascinated with everyone and wanted to learn everything I could, whether it was from the school bus driver or the Secretary of State for Industry, who came to give a lecture at our school. I wanted to know everything I could. It was the way I was brought up.
When I joined the Army, it was the same. In Northern Ireland, I would seek out all sorts of unlikely people to meet and talk to, particularly if they had a completely different point of view: members of IRA families, political leaders, even members of the Garda. I am interested in every point of view – and I know how easy it is to cloud one’s judgment by having too strong an opinion of one’s own. I remember, in a counter-terrorist situation, my police colleagues encountered a traffic management problem which they could not solve. I asked our driver, who had been listening in silence, what he thought. He had the answer straight away, but was amazed that I had asked him for his opinion. The police were even more stunned.
I never missed an opportunity, not just to go out of my circle, but also to go places within my circle that others did not go. For example, as an officer, I went out on patrol in Northern Ireland as a rifleman (most of the others had no idea who I was). I was not alone in such activity – it was the norm in my regiment. Deliberate attempts to engage with a wider circle were not frowned upon, as they are in some regiments and in the US army, which encourages you to stay within the confines of the base. We would have gone mental if we had just done that.
Banking was the perfect next opportunity for me. It required me to meet business people of every shape and size, take an active interest in their affairs and, as I quickly found, introduce people to each other and widen their circles in so doing. My desire to challenge and see things from other points of view gave me several opportunities to challenge accepted practices in Barclays. Eventually, I was asked to restructure the way in which we did banking in Newcastle and this was then adopted throughout the country. It meant engaging with influencers who had been previously ignored. In my final role at Barclays – in marketing – I was always outside the core circle. Then again, marketers should be out there all the time anyway. I have often done things merely because they were fun.
The day job has not always offered sufficient stimulus. A medium-sized construction company is a fairly conservative place. The fact that we were widely recognised for our work in the community is testament to what can be achieved by pushing the boundaries out. We twinned with a failing local school and played a part in its transformation. We successfully employed ex-offenders and ex-addicts, and played our part in rehabilitation. None of these directly related to the day job, but all were about benefitting the community.
Chief Executive of Yorkshire Design.
I left my core circle because I got so angry. Because I love Leeds and I don’t think there are enough voices in the city who ask difficult questions of those in power. So I started asking them. Speaking up at events, writing letters to the editor about all kinds of issues. I did that for a while, but then I realised that the local newspaper was using me – they would regularly phone me for comments. I was always quoted, and as negatively as possible. So I went back into purdah, into my own circle for a while.
Then a group of us realised that we were leaving the difficult questions to be asked by all the bodies that in theory should be doing it, but can’t. Because they have got sucked into the system, they have become neutered and they can’t criticise because they have become part of things. Surely, we asked ourselves, there must be some way to be collective without being political? So we started the FU Club. When you apply for planning permission in the city, you get a letter back with a reference code that always starts with the letters ‘FU’ followed by some numbers. We think that’s how our local government feels about citizens in Leeds.
Chair of First Milk Limited and Templeton College, Oxford, and former Chair of Unilever in the UK.
I came to the outer circles quite late in my career – and, at first, very much as an ambassador for the company. In the late 1990s, genetically modified organisms were entering the soya market and my company initially decided to accept this modified crop. Technically, it behaved no differently than unmodified soya. However, some interest groups, Greenpeace and the Soil Association in particular, objected strongly. There was no advantage to consumers in GMO soya but, for one of our products with significant organic and vegetarian consumers, GMO soya was highly suspect. Sales fell. Appointed as UK Chairman that year, I initially led with a rational approach, aiming to convince consumers it was no less safe than non-modified soya and articulating a future where GMO products would actually improve quality and even enhance health (for example, in tomatoes). We partnered with other companies in this, and defended the food industry in general and the company’s reputation in particular. It didn’t work.
The company was being attacked in the media (‘Frankenstein foods’) and the retailers started to change their position from GMO support to rejection or choice. I moved to the organisational circle, working with outsiders: involving the government, briefing the media and starting a dialogue with Greenpeace, the Soil Association and other NGOs. But it was too late. Rehearsing answers for the TV with an ex-Sun reporter, I struggled. The pro-GMO case was difficult to make.
So we thought again. We held focus groups externally and reviewed our position internally. I talked to friends. They were largely unsympathetic to genetic modification. Focus groups supported it for life saving and even life-enhancing purposes, but not for food. The company in the UK reverted to non-GM crops. We failed to see the warning signs until it was too late. Had I realised three years earlier, I would have tested the societal circle first. Had it been more positive at this stage, I would have set out to take the media and the NGOs with us. Finally, I would have ensured that we organised ourselves better internally and led the change.
It was an excellent learning process for a leader! I then became more and more interested in the outer circles. I have since taken roles that have continued to push my thinking outwards.
Chair of the Constitutional Assembly of South Africa.
When I started on the task of sorting out the mine workers, I consciously chose to leave the authority I had because I took the view that others before me had failed by trying to operate it this way and that I would be better off taking on the task with no authority at all.
In the 1970s, the trade union movement began to surge. In those days there was an unquestioned principle that you never went to the bosses. I broke it – and went to ask permission to organise the workers. Asking the bosses for permission was like going to Alcatraz and asking for permission to organise a prison break-out. I knew I was taking a big risk. Many before me had tried to organise the mine workers; there had been many such attempts between 1946 and 1982. I knew I had to do something new.
Why would I take a long detour (which is what it was) and break a fundamental principle about working with the bosses? I attracted a lot of criticism from the trade unions and the ANC. It was a painful and lonely path to take. But I knew that the authority I appeared to have was the wrong one. The miners were living in an almost military environment –they were like hostages. I knew that I needed to move outside the rules, outside the traditional way of organising the workers, and outside the authority that I had been given. So I went to the Chamber of Mines and asked for permission to operate in the mines: for offices and resources and food for my officials. The timing was right because a report had just come out saying that black miners needed to organise into legalised trade unions.
Once we got going properly, the workers stopped feeling so brow beaten – and stopped behaving like hostages. It was like lancing a boil: there was an out-flowing of this quest for freedom – and we became the fastest growing union in the world, with 360,000 members eventually.
So I eventually moved back into authority – but a different one. To get there, I had to make a detour and operate way beyond my authority first. If I had not taken that detour and moved way outside my authority, it would have not been possible to organise the mine workers so quickly. Of course, the strikes they then backed played a crucial part in making the country ungovernable and causing the breakdown of the apartheid government. The detour was all part of achieving our original objective.