This up-dated article on leadership and success was first published five years ago. Here is what Sir Bob said at the time the request for the article was made: “I would normally write a polite declining response to your request for an interview in your magazine. However, having seen your question list and its reference to ‘leadership’ I am delighted to accept so as to spread the gospel on what nonsense is implied in that much vaunted proposition.”
How would you describe your leadership style?
I could not describe my “leadership style” as it is non-existent.
I own a circa $1.5 billion commercial property investment company with 25 management staff in Wellington, Auckland and Sydney. I do not lead them. We work as a team. Sometimes if they feel strongly enough against my view on say an acquisition, then it will go by the wayside.
I would concede to being a very good teacher, which given my almost 50 years of experience I should be, but I’m certainly not a leader. Allowing key staff a high degree of personal decision-making produces the best outcome, despite occasional mistakes (including by me). I would never employ anyone who needed to be led.
What is your definition of success?
My definition of success is the same as everyone’s, namely contentment. That in turn comes from having something interesting to do, of making a positive difference and of having lots of friends and therefore lots of laughter.
What are the three best books you’ve read?
There are no 3 best books for me, hardly surprising given that my two libraries in Wellington and Sydney total over 20,000 books. Thus it’s like looking at a lawn and asking me which blade of grass I prefer.
My favourite novelist is Evelyn Waugh. His books are still hot-sellers although they date back to 1929. His cynicism about the human condition was forgivable given the wonderful unmatched humour, sense of the ridiculous, wisdom about human behaviour and brilliant wordsmith economy, none of which attributes are characteristic of contemporary fiction with its verbosity and gloom.
How do you generate your most creative thoughts?
I’ve always been a good “ideas man”. I can’t talk for others but my experience is that good ideas flow from three things.
First and most important is thinking time. On my observation most people are afraid of that, thus a radio going constantly, mindless hours in front of the television regardless of what’s on and the endless quest for companionship. Now with the cell-phone one observes it all the time. I watch people in the Koru Club staring at the bloody things, thinking up who else to pester. As they all inexplicably shout into them I’m aware of the pointlessness of the calls. What a waste of reading or thinking time!
Second, one must be a reader. I read three daily newspapers, about five weekly magazines and on average, around 110 books annually. Apart from giving one a great knowledge frame of reference, such reading does, at least in my mind, spawn ideas.
Finally, having arrived at an idea it’s important to toss it around over drinks with friends and colleagues. They usually have something worthwhile to add or will polish the idea.
By quietly thinking rather than having one’s thought processes impeded by radios going etc, one will see things clearly.
For example, the majority of people would like to be rich. Yet the majority are not.
Thinking clearly enables you to deduce, vis a vis acquiring wealth, that you must behave differently than the majority. Realising that is an essential and logical first step, albeit missed by most people trying to get rich, yet still following the same path as everyone else.
Michael Hill springs to mind. Jewellers like most retailers, don’t get rich. His idea of a heavily promoted chain of jewellers, hitherto un-thought of, jewellers being perceived like say dentists, as individualistic, was hardly earth-shattering but worked. It worked because a chain gave opportunity for major advertising campaigns which were beyond individual retailers. Hill is plainly not a genius but he saw a gap in the market and I’ll bet he didn’t think it up with a radio going or while bawling into a cell-phone.
So too with my own field of commercial property. My company has prospered in the recession while others have gone to the wall because we’ve followed a modus operandi developed by lots of thinking time and analysis.
It’s why I don’t employ commercial MBA types, unless of course we were looking for a messenger.
My people have academic backgrounds. My General Manager has three history degrees and was a Commonwealth scholar. They’re all thinkers and readers.
What motivates you and how do you stay motivated?
What motivates me is a difficult question. Probably most of all a fear of boredom which I don’t experience thanks largely to reading. That in turn develops a high sense of curiosity. I find literally everything enormously interesting and my will to live, which only women periodically weaken, is driven by a high sense of curiosity as to what will happen next. I almost lust over the arrival of the morning newspaper to see what’s occurred overnight in the hundreds of different ongoing human sagas everywhere. It’s why I’ve been to over 150 countries. I want to see everything.
How do you get things done? Are there any routines, habits or personal rules that you’ve used to help you get to success?
“Getting things done” is critical and often a hallmark of successful people. There are two well known adages in this respect, which I’ve certainly found to be correct. First; do it now, and second; if you want something done then give it to a busy person.
What three attributes were most important for getting you where you are today and what attributes would you like to be renowned for?
I was motivated primarily by a horror at being answerable to others which of course led to self-employment. It explains my libertarian outlook, my disinterest in team sports and corresponding love of boxing, tennis, fly-fishing, golf and I should add, cricket, which is a game played by individuals. It’s why I told the army where to go when I was called up for compulsory military training on turning 18. Similarly, I refused to do it at school as I would not abide being grouped in orderly line-ups and shouted at. I could go on but you get the picture.
Other than that, the successes I’ve enjoyed have come from curiosity which leads to imagination, which leads to “putting your hand up” participation, which invariably leads on to other things. Despite my life-long 6-8 hours of daily reading I’ve never been a hermit.
Finally, I’ve never hesitated to have a go if something seems logical. Cartoonist Tom Scott claims I’m the most fearless bugger he’s met. This puzzles me. Following a logical course of action doesn’t seem to me to require courage yet I’m always surprised by people’s hesitation to have a go. Of course it’s wise to look before you leap but having looked, then for God’s sake leap.
Having said that, I think the modern generation is much more willing to have a go than in previous years. They’re more adventurous, individualistic and eager to be self-employed. That augers for a better world.
When have you hit rock bottom?
When things are not going my way as continues to happen, I know and apply an always successful technique. That is to sit, for days if necessary, and think about the problem rationally.
Decide clearly the objective and the series of steps necessary to overcome the hurdles; then start.
If there’s a hiccup along the way, go back to the solitary, undisturbed contemplation to work out the answer. It’s always worked although so far I’ve yet to have to try it with cancer.
What’s getting your arse out of bed at the moment?
I would happily never get out of bed but lie there forever reading, however, aside from that being unhealthy I do run a large organisation and am actively playing regular tennis and golf. Also, I’m always writing articles and books (22 to date).
What is the most important piece of advice you’d give an aspiring leader?
The most important piece of advice I would give an aspiring leader is to do the decent thing and cut your throat.
Leadership is held up as a virtuous concept. It most certainly is not. The existence of a leader implies by definition the existence of followers. We are constantly told we need good leaders. It is so very wrong.
By any standard, one of the world’s most successful countries, if not the most successful, is Switzerland. It’s a small country of largely inhospitable mountains with no natural advantages and a tough climate. But it’s one of the richest with hugely respected commercial enterprises in things as diverse as watch-making, tourism, cheese, banking, machinery, chocolate etc. It produces great sportspeople such as Federer (it even had the Americas Cup for God’s sake). I was not surprised when the Swiss beat the tournament favourite Spain in the 1st round of the World football cup. Switzerland is a “winning nation”.
Let me tell you what’s unique about Switzerland. That is that they rightly abhor the concept of leaders. Their political structures prohibit career politicians, the curse of modern society. It’s all hands-on, people participation. Who’s ever heard of the Swiss Prime Minister?
“Great” leaders led to over 100 million deaths in the 20th century, e.g. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Mussolini etc.
Churchill is described as a great wartime leader. It is an absurd claim. According to his daily prime minder, Lord Halifax, in his biography, Churchill was blind drunk nearly every day of the war.
He was merely a symbol and he himself acknowledged that after the war when he dismissed the “great leader” claim as nonsense. He was simply at the head of the winning side.
The Dalai Lama swans around the world in 1st class cabins and $3000 per night hotel suites and is feted universally as a great leader. So far all he’s ever led is mindless wet westerners up the garden path who have lost all leave of their senses. What is his objective? To restore Tibet to a feudal theocracy with himself at the top as a “living God”. For this he’s acclaimed!
Mandela was similarly praised. Let’s be analytic. Jailed for life as a young man for plotting murder he eventually was released in his dotage and handed the Presidency on a plate. He served a single innocuous term. None of this amounts to accomplishment or leadership. It is simply romantic symbolism.
So too with troubled Maoridom. “Where are the Maori leaders?” is the cry. Well, we found out. Lying in hotel rooms masturbating over porn films at the taxpayers’ expense and so on with such antics repeatedly.
Maoris don’t need leaders if they’re to rise above the morass. Their answer lies with each of them as individuals.
Tell the people of Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea et al that they’re lucky to have “great leaders”. God knows, heaps of fellow-travellers do, ignoring the terrible consequences for their citizen victims.
Was Kemal Ataturk a great leader? No. In installing a secular state which has served Turkey well, he was simply the mouthpiece of a sizeable body of opinion. If it wasn’t him it would have been someone else who would now collect the accolades.
I could go on and on but you get my point.
To summarise: the promotion of leadership is a terribly misplaced concept which brings nothing but grief and flies in the face of human dignity with its implication that people need to be led.