Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Des Benjamin, a CMI Companion and chief executive of Simplyhealth, on why young leaders should follow their dreams.

by Des Benjamin
Last Updated: 23 Aug 2011

Real leaders dream about something better. They are vulnerable to failure and criticism. They need both courage and integrity of purpose to fulfil their dreams. Today's aspiring leaders need to understand what makes good leaders stand apart and how they can turn their dreams into reality.

As things stand, there are some good leaders but there are many more poor ones. What separates them, in my opinion, is the understanding that there is only one thing you can lead and that is people. Good leaders understand the things that matter to human beings. Poor leaders don't - they just tell you they are a 'people person'.

If someone had spoken to me about wanting to become a leader or a manager when I was younger I don't think I would have known what they were talking about. I suppose I might have thought about El Cid or General Custer. But how it might apply to me? I hadn't a clue.

There is less naivety today among the pop icon and footballer generation. They have more self-belief than I did; they are less servile and show a much more confident attitude.

I see much to encourage me, as our young aspiring leaders today are clearly as creative, inquisitive and intelligent as any generation before them and, just maybe, they have a sort of wisdom too for the enormous task of meeting a difficult future head on.

Sometimes the views of the next generation can come across as cynical or may be seen as lacking in deference or respect - and indeed manners and courtesy need continuous refreshment. However, I think that our younger colleagues are often rightly expressing their frustration with our blind adherence to economic models and systems that are clearly flawed to such a degree that they cause global warming, fail to alleviate poverty, demonstrate continuous hypocrisy and self-interest and diminish our human spirit though gluttonous and unsatisfying consumption.

The real challenge faced by young leaders of tomorrow is to lead us to a better place and, as the next generation in charge, not to shirk from the immense task of improving things.

Young and aspiring leaders and managers are a fortunate generation in so many ways. They are much more in touch with their humanity and emotions and so much more aware of the environment they inhabit. They live in a world that is more accepting of differences in race, creed and colour than has ever been the case and this frees up their energies to deal with far more pressing issues than we faced.

Reflecting on the situation faced by today's younger generation leads me to ask myself what I would do if I were a young aspiring leader today.

It would be critical, I believe, to prepare myself. I would want to find out what I really believed in, what I could get passionate about and what I could commit my valuable life to. I would not want to have any regrets about how I spent my short years on this planet.

I would spend a lot of time listening and learning from others. I would take those lessons and I would try to understand how they felt to me and the things I valued in life. I would also think hard about those aspects that felt wrong to me and try to work out why.

All this time I would be trying to centre myself, working out what matters to me and what I believe in so that when I make my effort for my dream, it is full on and I can really commit to it.

Whether or not you eventually take on a formal leadership position, understanding who you are is incredibly useful in all walks of life, from bringing up children to making friends, from developing your career path to giving something back to society. It is also a lifelong journey with much that brings you pleasure and fulfilment at the deepest emotional level.

This sense of who you are is so important because leadership is, at heart, about leading people. I think of a leader simply as someone who takes the lead, which means a person someone else is inclined to follow willingly. You do not have to lead many to be a leader, you can be a leader for a very short moment in time. Good leaders must also know how and when to follow, otherwise they will never lead well.

Approaching leadership with a clear sense of self will give you the strength to work with others respectfully but also the confidence to challenge another's opinion or authority because you know what you stand for, and what your principles and beliefs are.

Leadership is often difficult because it involves ambiguity or the unknown. This calls for judgment and wisdom rather than facts. When you understand what you believe in, you are able to make decisions which are determined by a clear and consistent sense of purpose, with that same dream in mind. This has been a fantastic aid to me in making important decisions in my career. It enables others, including those following you, to understand why your decisions are as they are and helps them predict what might come next.

So, young leaders and managers, start dreaming. Let's see what you can do. There is no hiding place when you lead, but then that's the joy of it.


Des Benjamin has been chief executive of Simplyhealth since 2000, having spent most of his career in the financial services industry, working at among others Citibank, Frizzell Bank and GE Capital. He is a member of the Mutuo board.

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