School didn’t work very well for me. I didn’t just want to be told things and then tested on whether I could remember them. I wanted to understand. I would challenge my teachers with an endless barrage of questions on every topic. This was the first year of comprehensive schooling, so class sizes were huge and teachers frazzled. Needless to say, I was given early careers guidance and left school just before my 15th birthday. Some join the circus, some loiter in bus shelters or parks. I went on tour. I joined a rock band and went on the road. I’d been a bedroom guitar noodler for a while even by then, so the transition wasn’t too difficult – I discovered I had no fear of being on stage, no matter how large or hostile the crowd. It was where I was meant to be. I also discovered I could learn a song in seconds just by listening to it. Still can actually. That gave me an edge and I became a session guy. A ‘touring pro’.
I would be asked to sit in with loads of different bands, usually because their ‘real’ guitar player was in rehab, off his head on class A substances or sometimes couldn’t be found at all. I played with all sorts in every genre of music: Reggae with Desmond Dekker, Pop with Leo Sayer, Metal with UFO, Jazz-Rock with Isis, folk with Bryn Haworth, Top of the pops with Gallagher & Lyle, a very early Glastonbury festival with some bloke that used to be in the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, The Old Grey Whistle Test with someone or other (it’s all a bit of a blur, for many reasons…), even the late, great Mr Bowie (though I never actually spoke to him at the time…). There are probably many others too, but I was never one for taking notes or keeping mementos.
I was a teenager being paid ridiculous amounts of money for doing something I’d have paid them to let me do. I had no dependants, no bills to pay and no fixed abode. I was often surrounded by an entourage of attractive women and never stayed anywhere for more than 24 hours. It was a dream life for any young man.
But I wasn’t any young man and in truth I hated most of it. I needed friends, a cause to fight for and to be part of a team, but in the eyes of the bands, I was never more than a temp.
Several years of relentless touring (and a lot of other sorts of wear & tear) eventually took it’s toll on my joints and I developed what would now be called RSI. I had to take 6 months off to recuperate and see if things improved. After so much excitement and variety, I was soon very bored. A friend had a wine business and needed some cash. I had lots of that, so I leant him some. “You should be the managing director” he said. “Ok, how hard can it be?” said I.
And then I found out. I did everything wrong and made just about every mistake that an arrogant, wet-behind-the-ears, autocratic kid could make, while role-playing the part of ‘Big Boss’. I’d never had a real job and so I did what ‘bosses’ did on TV. I shouted, I threatened, I punished, I retained authority, I criticised everything – even though I had no idea what should be done to make any of it better.
Within months, my friend and I had a conversation and I was back on the street.
I then did the smartest thing possible under the circumstances and quite by chance. I decided to try and understand what just happened. I spent weeks in the library (no Google in those days. No Internet. No computers or even Smartphones in fact) reading loads of papers, articles and books about management and leadership. Then I talked my way into a manager’s job with a big firm in London. I set out to implement everything I’d been reading about and discovered TQM.
It lit a fire within me that still burns.
I read an article then a book by Dr W Edwards Deming that explained his 14 points and saw, very clearly and to my shame, what an idiot I’d been before and why it had failed so spectacularly.
I decided that not only would I never be that ‘boss’ guy ever again, but that I’d try and influence other ‘bosses’ to stop doing it too. I’ve been doing that ever since.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing. There are still so many ‘managers’ who just refuse to be leaders and so many who retain authority because they like the power. We still promote too many accountants to CEO and we still far too often favour ‘alpha male’ types for senior roles.
But little by little, it is changing.
The shortage of talent is pushing organizations into becoming better places to work, to live and to be.
Movements in areas such as Engagement, Innovation, Sustainability and Wellbeing are forcing organizations to measure and improve aspects of their operation that would have been invisible to the board until quite recently.
I am still passionate about leadership. More than ever, probably. I speak about it whenever I get the chance, I write about it all the time and I mentor hundreds of senior leaders every year to spread the word and build the momentum.
OK, it doesn’t attract as many fans, nor does it pay anything like as well. But it feels like I’m doing something that matters.
And I’ll never stop.
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