Home » Insights » What in your own life has taught you the most about leadership?

What in your own life has taught you the most about leadership?

25th book

To celebrate the Møller Institute’s 25th Anniversary, we have chosen to celebrate by learning from 25 leaders of the past, the present and the future.

We have chosen from our network of friends, colleagues and alumni and they present, in their own words, the experiences that have influenced their leadership, sharing with us their personal insights and wisdom.

Sally Angel

Alumna of Churchill College and now Producer and Creative Director at Field Day Productions. Previously she has held a number of senior management posts at the BBC, including Commercial Channels Manager, Channel Development Executive and Commissioning Editor.

Most of what I’ve learned about good leadership has been through working closely at the BBC with Roly Keating, now CEO of the British Library.

Roly taught me the importance of adapting to change, listening to others as well as myself, being prepared to fail – and, wherever possible, doing the right thing. Now every time I begin a new film or project I learn something new about leadership and am reminded how different requirements are needed at different stages in a production.

For me, leadership is a creative and collaborative process. Whether I am trying to persuade someone to buy into a vision of something that doesn’t yet exist, or am faced with the blank page that needs filling, the shot that needs framing or the cut that needs editing, I am aware that every moment calls for engagement and remembering purpose as well as passion.

Alderman Charles Bowman

The 690th Lord Mayor of London and Partner of PwC

I will always remember the advice of one mentor, given to me before I took on a particular leadership role in PwC. I felt daunted by the role and getting it right. They told me that good leadership is characterised by ‘getting it right’ 80% of the time. Best leadership is demonstrated through how you deal with the 20% – acknowledging those mistakes transparently, apologising as appropriate and learning from the mistakes made.

Professor Lord Broers

Lord Broers was the Master of Churchill College at the time of the founding and opening of the Møller Institute on 2nd October 1992. Following this, Lord Broers became Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

Trying to lead change is always extremely difficult; there is inevitably a level of resistance. I was the first full-time Vice-Chancellor of the University recruited from scratch and a significant number of members of the Regent House, the resident Cambridge academics, had voted against the idea of a permanent VC, understandably unwilling to invest what they perceived as so much power in one role.

In the end though, we managed to suggest changes that increased the role of our world leading academics in the administration of the University and therefore its international competitiveness and these changes were accepted by the Regent House. There was also an encouraging growth in the University’s interactions with industry and a huge increase in the national importance of the Cambridge cluster of successful small companies.

The key to successful leadership, here as anywhere, is to explain your vision, have it agreed, then find the right people to implement it.

It is also critical to acknowledge that progress never comes without risk – and that no decision is worth the delay required to eliminate it. You never will. Act, then deal with what occurs.

Jianping Chen

Director General, Shanghai Hospital Development Centre. 

In 2006, SHDC launched a policy of annual performance evaluation for presidents of Shanghai municipal hospitals (large tertiary public hospitals) in China. We developed a series of indicators in the evaluation system to reflect both the social responsibility and operational performance of healthcare services. 27 hospitals’ performances are evaluated annually on the same platform, and the results used for reference on the presidents’ rewards, promotions and sanctions.

This policy has led to municipal hospital chiefs being motivated to overcome the restrictions on their operation and management, while doing their utmost to run their hospitals according to the fundamental tenet and direction which the government sets for public hospital operation.

Cynthia Cherrey

President and CEO International Leadership Association

Imagine bringing back a billion-dollar organisation with just 12 people. Survival, recovery, and renewal – this is the best description of the experience at Tulane University where I served as a vice president when the Gulf states were hit by HurricaneKatrina in 2005.

Katrina was a crisis that played out on a local and global level. It was a transformative experience and taught me many leadership lessons such as the importance of traditional ‘control and command’ leadership working alongside shared and collaborative leadership. It taught me that, with a compelling shared purpose, extraordinary results can be achieved.

More importantly, it reinforced my belief in the goodness of humanity, with leadership emerging in surprising circumstances and unusual places to help one another to survive and thrive once again.

Picture from mollers 25th ann book

Angharad Devereux

Angharad was a participant on the inaugural Churchill Students – Future Leaders programme which saw undergraduates from Churchill College learn leadership skills to help them in their studies and future careers.

Gillian Secrett of the Møller Institute has been a very inspiring leader figure to me. She fought for the funding for our Churchill Students Future Leaders programme and evidently genuinely cared deeply about giving us this opportunity. This enthusiasm made us really invest in the programme and gain so much from it. The programme was a highlight of my time in Cambridge and I know it will help me achieve my goals in later life. Gillian’s character left a big impression on me. She was extremely caring and pleasant but also assertive, earning enormous respect from her colleagues and those of us on the programme. She showed me that it is possible to be this kind of leader; that empathy and compassion do not have to be lost in order to be successful.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Expedition Leader

My army training with the Special Forces and with my father’s tank regiment taught me most about leadership. The lessons learned make up the title and much of the content of another of my books, and would fill this space many times over, so I will pick just one that has to do with personal credibility. One way of putting it might be “Aim high but start with caution,” but this version is rather more resonant: “Try chewing a few prawns before you announce to the world that you intend to devour an entire lobster”.

Xiaotian Fu

Xiaotian studied at Churchill College and is now the host of Talk with World Leaders, aired on Phoenix Satellite Television Company.

Experience has taught me that in order to lead, one must prove oneself able to do the job. I host a programme called Talk with World Leaders, interviewing prime ministers, presidents and statesmen and stateswomen when they visit China or by invitation to their countries. This is one of the oldest programmes on the channel so all the team members including the producer, planner and editors are all senior staff used to working with my predecessor, an extremely well-renowned host in his late sixties. When I first took over I realised there were some things in this programme I would like to change. It was difficult. As the youngest member in the team and a female working in international politics, my opinions were not listened to. So I started to offer my help to all the team members: instead of trying to persuade them with my ideas, I was doing all the jobs for them, both background research and post production! Having seen the programme almost entirely made by myself, my point was finally proven and of course they followed my ideas in the end.

Ambassador Claus Grube

Danish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, 2013-2017, and previously Danish Ambassador to the European Union in Brussels.

I have always tried not to repeat the mistakes I saw my previous senior managers make. One had the idea that you should know everything and be ready to answer questions relating to your job responsibilities any time of day or night. I considered that a waste of time. So the day I took up my first senior management position I told my PA to get a number of plastic bags and throw away all papers and documents in my office. Horrified, she asked why and I said – “if there is something important in there, somebody will tell us. If not, who cares?”

Actually, nothing happened. That is how I developed my “need not to know” principle, enabling me to easily manage the increasing amounts of information.

Picture of Ambassador Claus Grube with (L to R) Sir Roger Gifford, Jude Kelly and Gillian Secrett at their bestowal to the Order of the Dannebrog

Andrew Hill

Management Editor at the Financial Times whose article The New Leadership focused on the Churchill Leadership Fellows programme and highlighted what the next generation expect of leaders.

Most of my career has been spent observing other leaders, but I have also learned a lot about leadership by volunteering – as a school governor, trustee or just as an advisor to non-profit organisations. What has always struck me is how charities, associations, teams, and choirs operate on goodwill. They can’t pay people to turn up, so leaders of those groups have to find ways to  tap into the intrinsic motivation of volunteers.

Yet when those same people return to their leadership positions in for-profit companies, they revert to the blunt tools of pay and hierarchy, and tend to ignore the benefits they could achieve by encouraging the goodwill of others.

I’m not suggesting anybody should have to work for no pay, or inadequate pay. But leaders should ask themselves: what would I do to persuade my team to come to work if I could no longer pay them? And why am I not already doing it?

Patrick Hoffmann

Founder and Chairman of Cambridge Development Initiative, social entrepreneur building a new foundation for the global insurer Generali; as a Churchill Leadership Fellow, Patrick benefited from coaching by the Møller Institute and Learn to Lead.

When I started my own NGO, I thought that my most important resource was time: I was ready to buy time wherever I could, cutting down my sleep to two hours and squeezing out an extra ounce of energy from every form of caffeine I could get my hands on. This actually worked well enough and I landed major successes. And so disaster struck out of the blue, when two members of my start-up team quit from one day to the next. They were totally worn down, citing concerns and frustrations which they were sure I would not understand or even listen to.

The lesson is obvious and it is one of the oldest in the book: for a leader, the greatest resources are their people. I realised then that, however much I pushed myself, I could never achieve real impact by going it alone.

Professor Archie Howie

Former Head of the pioneering and world renowned Cavendish Laboratory, 1989-1997, and one of the Founding Fellows of Churchill College.

My Cavendish research career had a flying start under Peter Hirsch, an inspirational research team leader. Copying his style, I have had some success in winning recognition for gifted junior colleagues through promotion and prizes but showed less natural ability in encouraging those who struggled. Fortunately Mick Brown, my colleague for many years in the Microstructural Physics research group, had complementary talents.

Cavendish Professors no longer accept the burden of being Head of the Cavendish and in the final decade before retirement I assumed this duty. My main unexpected challenge was to maintain central laboratory services for teaching, administration and blue sky research when annual funding of nearly £1million was abruptly transferred to the Research Councils. Though more exposed than any other University department, the Cavendish led the way in balancing the books while keeping up staff morale. Scottish frugality may have played too great a role here – I should have spent more of our money in pump priming!

Paul Hughes

General Manager, BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, since 1999.

Shortly after joining the BBC Symphony Orchestra I devised an away day for the entire company of musicians and management to review and discuss the issues facing us and consider ways of addressing them. The day was carefully planned, went very well and drew from the company a range of challenges to be examined further. The follow-up a month later was not at all successful – when the musicians, used to having every aspect of their professional life dictated and managed assumed that, having identified the challenges, it was up to ‘the management’ to sort them out.

It was a salutary lesson in expectation management and the implications of introducing quasi-democratic processes into a managed organisation. In the eighteen years since, the culture and communication have improved dramatically resulting in a bedrock of trust that has sustained us through some difficult times. I put it down to that first uneasy experience.

Simon Levine

Managing Partner and co-Global CEO, DLA Piper LLP.

My father left school at 14 during the Second World War, started his working life on the docks, and built his own small business over 50 years. His values were honest, consistent and true, and he knew how to stick by his friends and his family. He was not distracted by people with bigger houses or bigger cars – he had an aim to build his business and provide for his family, and he stuck to it even in adverse circumstances.

He taught me everything I know about hard work, honesty, values, a sense of obligation and the will to succeed. His hero was Winston Churchill, so he knew what a great leader looked like, and in his own way my father was one too.

Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton

Former SAS officer and Principal Private Secretary to TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales.

My leadership role model – and he would be appalled to hear me call him that – was another SAS man, in fact the boss of the regiment. He was deeply unconventional, cleverer than the rest of us, but able to engage with each of us in a natural and unforced way as an equal, regardless of our rank. What marked him out most was his total confidence in us to get on and do the job he had asked us to do.

I was once deployed overseas on a challenging long term operation. He had given me my objectives and considerable latitude in how I achieved them. I had been out of contact for a couple of weeks – you could do that in those days – when unusually I received a message asking me to get in touch with him. My activities had apparently raised eyebrows in the MoD and Whitehall. He told me to carry on exactly as I was doing, but just to keep him abreast of things so he could fly top-cover over me; in other words, take the flak.

In some fatalistic way I almost believe he was born to do the job he did, and we really loved him for it.

Picture of Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton with prince harry

Robert Marshall

Group Chief Executive of Marshall Group who is working with the Møller Institute to deliver a state of the art leadership development programme to accelerate the careers of the company’s future leaders.

My first real leadership responsibility involved the complex integration of aircraft systems for a overseas airforce. By luck more than judgment, the team just worked and we were able to deliver by far the most challenging job the Company had ever done, beyond expectations. The outstanding team spirit (and a lot of the sheer fun of it!) came from a sense of productive rebellion, as the Company’s processes were unfit for the complexity of the task. We made our own rules with the Company machinery always on ‘catch-up’ to try to keep us within regulatory requirements.

When I left to take the reins at another part of the company, the wider organisation closed in on ‘my’ team and the capability that we had created, and pretty soon all the elements that had made it unique were effectively lost. So, in retrospect, although the leadership of the team was a great success, the impact of my leadership of that team on the wider organisation was not as effective.

This has been one of my most formative experiences, teaching me that effective leadership makes sure its effect goes throughout the organisation, not just in one’s own sphere of responsibility.

Toby McCartney

Co-founder and CEO of MacRebur, and winner of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Media Business VOOM 2016 finale.

I was told by my schoolteachers that my future wasn’t looking good, and that I would always fail at everything I do. Before having my own businesses and being inspired by others in business, I lived my life believing that my teachers were right.

My entrepreneur’s mindset has proven to me that there is no failure, only feedback. I take the feedback from things that don’t work out, and rather than fail, I now find new ways to succeed at the things I really want in life.

We only have the right to inspire others and should never put people down like my teachers did to me.

Krish Raval

Director at Learn to Lead and the Senior Faith Leadership Programme and Møller Associate teaching on young leader development programmes.

Dr Chinmay Pandya taught me that leadership involves embracing setbacks, and that adversity at one stage of life can be a boon in another.

At home near the Himalayas, Chinmay’s preeminent grandfather insisted he enrol at an ashram-based school where his classmates came from the masses, in preference to the English-based private education reserved for the elites. In spite of this, Chinmay went on to earn an Indian medical degree and consolidated it with advanced qualifications in the UK – where he had to overcome prejudice, inefficiency and multiple rejections. By choosing to regard each setback as a learning opportunity and face challenges head on, he eventually gained membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and rose to a specialist position in treating Alzheimers Disease.

He gave up a glittering career in the British NHS and a lucrative private practice to take the reins of Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya, an Indian University that takes high potential young people from a range of backgrounds, offers many of them full bursaries and trains them up to PhD level. Now a public figure in India, he also runs extensive disaster relief operations across the region, offers advice to governments and
corporations and is a mentor to decision-makers world-wide.

Admiral Sir Trevor Soar

Former Commander-in-Chief Fleet of the Royal Navy.

One of my toughest leadership challenges was as Captain of the aircraft carrier Invincible. The ship was undergoing a multi-million pound ‘deep refit’ and I was leading the process of taking it and the crew from dry dock to sea as the fleet flagship operating 24 aircraft including Harrier jets in just six months. As Flagship, it had to be ready to take an Admiral and his battle staff to sea to conduct operations in situ – effectively a modern HMS Victory. It had to be competent to deliver air power anywhere in the world 24/7 and command other ships, including those of other nations.

We started with a ship in dry dock and 1200 crew, half junior sailors who had never been to sea. I had to take this complex mix of steel and people from theory to function. People had to be inspired not only to do their very best but to want to do so, all of the time.

The key to it all turned out to be the core leadership principles I now teach: TRUE Leadership is Timely decision making and strategy, Recognition and empowerment, Unity of purpose and Example setting. Every person needs to function as a cog in the mechanism of a clock – which happens when each person clearly understands and can picture their role in the whole.

Professor Georgia Sorenson

Professor Georgia Sorenson is the Møller Institute’s Leadership Scholar, co-founder of the International Leadership Association and founder of the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership which is now housed at the Møller Institute. 

Burns was a significant mentor, colleague and friend of more than 20 years. Early on I learned from him to keep my commitments and not change them if “something better came along.” One time we were driving to a speaking engagement in Virginia when First Lady Hillary Clinton’s office called to invite him to tea at the White House to “talk leadership.” Burns had admired Clinton and in fact we wrote a book about her central role as part of a leadership troika in the White House. But he had to decline because of an appointment with a graduate student, one I knew could be easily changed. I knew enough not to try to persuade him – he once turned down an invitation from a CEO because it was “blueberry season” in
Massachusetts – like students, sacrosanct in his world.

As I grow older, I don’t make as many mistakes about what is important to me. To do so means really knowing yourself and what values are most important. I also know that when I make a commitment I keep it. I have Jim to thank for this wisdom.

Hazel Thornton

Marine Programme Officer at the United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and Churchill Leadership Fellow.

My leadership style has evolved throughout my career in marine conservation, adapting to the situations that I have been exposed to. In my previous role leading research scientists on remote islands in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, I have been required to understand team dynamics and motivating factors to develop strong team morale in challenging situations. Whilst training to be a Dive Master I was required to provide support and guidance for learners of different levels of experience, confidence and ability.

More recently I have represented my organisation at international conferences and meetings. This requires me to clearly communicate initiatives and research to encourage sustainable use of marine and coastal resources at the local, national and global scale. Feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’ have been with me throughout my development but it is how I overcome these challenges – and my experiences of success and failure – which have made me the leader I am today.

Stuart Tootal

Former commander of British Army’s 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (3 PARA), in Afghanistan. Now a leadership consultant who contributes to Møller Institute programmes and a corporate Managing Director.

Leading the first UK combat unit into Southern Afghanistan was the crucible of all my leadership testing. Resourced to conduct a peace mission, 3 PARA ended up participating in a level of combat not seen by the British Army since the Korea War. Within eighteen months, 24,000 troops had been sent to hold an area 3 PARA held with only 1,200 paratroopers.

A mission command style of leadership was essential. Junior leaders needed to feel empowered to take their own high risk decisions in order to seize fleeting windows of opportunity, while remaining within overall organisational intent. It required: absolute clarity of intent, an understood decision making methodology, accountability, learning from mistakes, integrity, example, knowing and being known by your people and compassion. Get these right and regardless of the nature of the challenge or environment (combat or commercial), your people will always deliver for you, however difficult things get.

Picture of Stuart Tootal

Des Woods

Møller Associate who works extensively with the Møller Institute to deliver programmes for international business leaders.

In my early career I worked in fashion retailing, a sector that is by its nature very people-intensive and, like all business, needs to be efficiently run. I had developed a habit of travelling to the best-performing branches with a gift for our shop staff to convey my thanks. As the business grew rapidly I replaced this with a ‘system’ of having flowers delivered to the branch by courier. It was very efficient, but a complete disaster. It’s not the gift that matters; it’s the human attention. Efficiency isn’t the same as effectiveness.

Sir Clive Woodward

England Rugby World Cup winning coach and Patron of the Churchill Leadership Fellows programme.

Losing. Going through the pain. You find out so much more about yourself and your team when things are not going well. Winning doesn’t happen in a straight line, there are always ups and downs, but as long as the general trend is upwards, setbacks can be good as long as you always learn from them.

Beside that, running a small business is the ideal preparation for anything. I’ve worked in large corporations and high-profile roles but being directly responsible for the livelihoods of ten people is the ideal grounding for whatever comes next. You have to make your own luck – so you throw everything at it, leave no stone unturned, no ‘If onlys’. I took the exact same skill set into the England job.

Ambassador Andrew Young

Lifelong civil rights activist, former US ambassador to the United Nations and former Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia.

I learned from the Quakers, Tolstoy, and the Bible that leadership, inspiration and vision always come from a ‘still small voice’ within you. The New Testament’s assertion that ‘the Kingdom of God is within’ made no sense to me until I listened to my soul and realised that I was part of a spiritual universe where physical manifestations are the less lasting part of the equation.

Martin Luther King put words on it when he said, “You cannot be free or you cannot be yourself until you overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death.” He said that you have to realise that the materialist side of your existence is very, very temporary and you have to be free to move back and forth between flesh and spirit. If your decisions are made spiritually, they perhaps are more in conformity with whatever universal spirit exists in our midst.