A Lesson In Leadership: Never Go Easy

So it turns out that travel really does broaden the mind. I’ve just returned from a business trip to South East Asia and a chance encounter in a hotel bar with a young teacher who unwittingly gave me a lesson in how to be a better consultant.

I have no qualms about being a paid-up member of the Awkward Squad. Easy options, familiar choices, the path of least resistance – part of my progression from journalist to media consultant has seen me abandon the well-trodden for the road less travelled. It’s forced me to learn fast, use my failures intelligently instead of wallowing in them and brought back some much-needed creative spontaneity to the way I work. Awkward but rewarding for both me and, hopefully, the client.

But, like everyone, I still want to choose the easy way if I can get away with it. It’s human instinct to conserve energy – physical, mental and emotional – instead of deliberately putting ourselves into tricky situations that compel us to try harder.

Most of the CEOs and executives I work with constantly stress the need to be daring and push themselves further, yet very often they still opt for the conservative option. It’s easier that way. The truly enlightened and daring are a joy to work with because, though you know instinctively that success is highly likely, you’re never quite sure how you’re going to get there.

Anyway, Hannah and I were staying in the same Singapore hotel where she was holding creative writing workshops. In real life, the softly-spoken English teacher works not in relative luxury but in an inner-city school, battling the weariness of teenagers as they encounter literature that they can’t fathom or which they’re convinced has – and will have – no meaning or use in their lives. Sort of like some of the executives I work with, who can’t see how content can make them and their brands more successful. And no doubt just as temperamental.

Part of the reason for Hannah’s trip is to give her time to think in readiness for the new school year when she starts at a different secondary. She’s left behind her improving state school in North London and is about to start at an even tougher proposition down the road, one which Ofsted has labelled as underperforming.

Truly out of the frying pan…

‘I can’t wait, it’s so exciting’ she smiled. ‘It’ll be a challenge and it won’t be easy but teaching isn’t meant to be easy. There will be kids at this school whose lives I will hopefully be able to change, in some small way. And my teaching life will change too. I’m sure for the better. I hope I’ll be a better teacher. Not taking the easy option seems the right thing to do.’

And yet too many of us convince ourselves that the right thing is, in fact, the easy option. Not speaking up about flawed corporate policies, repeating the actions of last year because things are just tickety-boo right now, delaying decisions for fear of the consequences, eschewing new opportunities because of the imponderables, taking the money and running.

Just at a time when I was calcifying because of longed-for career certainty, my life was turned upside down by a sudden and brutal redundancy. Five years on, I can honestly recall the moment that the easy option landed on my lap – a highly-paid job back in the fold, doing the same thing but with a different boss.

Instead, I tried to cultivate a different path. More treacherous but, thankfully, more fulfilling. And, crucially, one that I have and continue to learn from. The key, I now realise, is to keep making sure that I don’t get too comfortable and continue to look for that less-safe path when the occasion demands.

The sort of path that truly inspiring CEOs take. And, thankfully, our children’s most inspiring teachers.

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