What spending four days on an abandoned island taught me about flexible leadership

Salesforce's UK head Paul Smith says it's important to pivot your style.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 19 Jul 2019

It’s easy to think that leadership simply involves telling people what to do, says Paul Smith, EVP and UK GM of Salesforce. But spend an hour inside any business and it's clear that different situations require a leader to don different hats, especially when the business is growing. 

Knowing when it’s necessary to pivot between leadership styles has been invaluable for Smith, who says it’s a skill he has deploy regularly as the head of a business with 2,000 employees and over 150,000 customers. 

But he says it takes practice, and was a lesson he learnt in a rather extreme way.


 "A couple of years ago I volunteered for an offsite charity fundraiser. We were sent to a remote Scottish island without any equipment and had to survive for four days. 

"It ended up being me - an EVP running one of Salesforce's Europe-wide businesses, in charge of a team of 600 - and a group of new grads and people in their first roles. 

"It would have been very easy for me to step into a directive leadership style, and say ‘this is how we’re going to build camp, this is our strategy and this is how we’re going to survive’ - and we probably would have been more comfortable if I’d done that. 

"But I consciously took a step back and took on more of a coaching role, guiding people and helping when asked, otherwise these junior people wouldn’t have learned anything or come together as a team. 

"Taking a step back was actually a lot more profound because everyone ended up getting a lot more out of the event. 

"There’s a lot of type A leaders, and if more people can consciously take on that role of being coach rather than leading from the front, a lot more people listen and learn as a result. That was a fantastic reminder during my career and I use that analogy a lot." 


Image credits: Peter Berglund/ Getty images

 

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