Why kind leadership wins

From running Britain's largest advertising agency to working with the likes of screenwriter Richard Curtis and ex-Sainsbury's boss Justin King, Dame Cilla Snowball reveals what she's learned about leadership.

by Dame Cilla Snowball
Last Updated: 18 Mar 2019

My career has been working at, then leading, advertising giant AMV BBDO, chairing numerous government councils, charity committees, countless teams, clubs and causes, all while being a proud (and I hope half decent) parent to three kids.

I've been lucky. I’ve worked for a good company with good leaders. Choosing where to work is one of the most important career decisions we’ll all make. Choose well and you flourish. Choose badly and you stop learning and developing.

Having a mad name has also been an advantage. One client actually laughed in my face at it, whispering loudly to his colleague that he didn’t think anyone in business could be taken seriously with a name like Cilla Snowball. He will have laughed even harder when "Dame" was added. 

I’m also lucky because over the years I've worked with some of the country’s most inspiring leaders – from Richard Curtis of Comic Relief, Jamie Oliver and Dame Carolyn McCall of ITV to Fiona Dawson of Mars and former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King. Like all of us, I’ve been able to see good and bad leaders in action. Trust me, the lessons learned from bad leaders are just as useful as the ones learned from good ones.

When I stepped down from AMV BBDO last year, Janet Riccio, dean of Omnicom University, sent me a quote on leadership from David Foster Wallace: "A real leader is someone who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual selfishness and laziness and weakness and fear, And get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own." That sums up leadership beautifully. A good leader inspires us to do better things. And a good leader is kind. No matter how educated, talented, rich or cool you believe you are, how you treat people ultimately tells all. Your EQ is as important as your IQ when you are a leader.

So leadership is shifting – from being out in front to creating a context for others. When I met Kate Richardson-Walsh, captain of the Olympic Gold medal-winning Ladies Hockey Team, she told me about her leadership strategy that got them to the gold medal. Revealingly, there was nothing about her in it at all. She just set the tone around three central principles – be alive, be winners and be one team.

One of my friends, Dorothy, is a chaplain at Great Ormond Street Hospital. She has a big job and has to deal with very tough stuff, often in acute emergency. In her role, she has to show she cares quickly. And that rests on her knowing what makes a family tick. Only when she knows that can she do her best work. She has a really good question to get that info quickly from complete strangers. She simply asks: "What’s your story?" and then listens hard. Think about it. Do you really know what makes your people tick? Have you ever asked? Do you know their story, their ambition, their fears? That is absolutely at the core of kind leadership.

I love a list (my old boss used to call me "Miss List") so here's my summary of what makes a great leader, having watched loads of them in action over the course of my career.

1. They love customers and colleagues and can’t get through a sentence without mentioning them.
2. They are game changers. They don’t fear ambiguity or problems. They can make tough decisions. They grasp nettles.
3. Getting results is a matter of personal pride not commercial imperative. They have, in Jim Collins’ words, "personal humility and professional will."
4. They love people and build rock solid relationships. Business is about relationships. They are relentless encouragers. They get results in an environment of light not heat. They are always optimistic. They don’t do everything themselves. They surround themselves with talented individuals they trust to offer solutions. They set the vision and determine what needs to be achieved but they trust the people around them to make it happen.
5. They take on big workloads but don’t crumble under pressure. They have courage. They are not afraid to admit their mistakes.
6. They have values and values-driven side hussles (projects outside work alongside their day jobs). 
7. They are clear, consistent and confident on goals and decisive in implementation.
8. They listen. They ask questions. They want to know what you think.
9. They tell the truth
10. They are kind. Kindness should never be misinterpreted for weakness; kind leaders have a steadfast belief that the good guys will win. Kindness in leadership has great power.

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