“Imagine that the Clash had stayed around to be influenced by 3rd Bass, the Young Disciples and Marshall Jefferson. Or Soul II Soul had been inspired as much by Public Image Limited’s ‘Metal Box’ as Public Enemy or that the soundtrack to Taxi Driver was influenced by Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. Imagine that De La Soul had been English punks, brought up on X-Ray Spex, the Specials, and Lee Perry. What if there was a band at the centre of the triangle whose corner stones were Issac Hayes, the Slits and Marley Marl? Result in all cases: Massive Attack.” This was written in 1991 by Jim Shelly as part of a review of Massive Attacks first album Blue Lines, I recently came across it in ‘Out Of The Comfort Zone’ by Melissa Chemam and it got me thinking, when we look backwards at our influences what can we learn by trying to understand how they happened and why.

Who shaped us, what experiences made us the people, the leaders, the peers that we are. I’ve been around a bit, some would say a little flighty, I always said that being in a CIO role was a three-year passion, if you still wanted to be there after three years you needed to re-invent what it was you fell in love with to give you a new outlook on the job. That’s not an excuse for being flighty, just my way of holding a principle of change to heart and being clear the skills I can bring to a successful change being delivered.

How much of your heart do you wear on your shirt sleeves when it comes to influences, from stage and from the written word I have tried hard to credit the key influences on me and who I am as a digital leader; Jonathan Bunn, Phil Randles (RIP)Carrie Armitage, Gwyn Thomas, Mark Davies, Jonathan Sheffield, Tony O’Brien, Linda Pollard, Richard Bradley are all leaders I have worked with in my past that I have taken huge positive learning from every day ‘in the office’.

You’re the book that I have opened, And now I’ve got to know much more – Massive Attack

Its not just people though is it? The situation you find yourself in, the projects you work on and the environment you work within all have influence on you. Currently I am working closely with four organisations within and outside of my day job, they are all so different and bring to me such a width of inspiration seven days a week.

Organisational structures influence culture which in turn empowers (or cuts off at the knees) good to great leadership. Seeing relatively new organisations create both culture and structure offers a new type of inspiration. Let me give you a quick precis of the four organisations I am working with and my own perceptions of their organisational structures and why they are successful because of them:

Silver Buck – A relatively new organisation, immature in some ways and yet the leaders of the organisation are building a team that isn’t afraid to seek guidance, expertise and share freely, signs of a new type of maturity. The leadership team in my mind are three of the most knowledgeable and well-connected subject matter experts in their business; PR, Communications and Marketing in the digital health space. What is so cool about the team though is the way they have embraced and sought the help of their networks, creating a formidable advisory board who are will willing to help them take Silver Buck from a very bright idea to a success. What is so inspirational about this though is to see experts not full of ego and so able to reach into the network they have for collaboration and help.

Nimbus 90 – One of so many advisory type organisations doing events and truly trying to differentiate themselves in what is becoming a crowded market place. What is different about their culture I would observe is its openness across the width of the team, an organisation that has to be agile in construct in the current climate and has been able to empower the team to help it create a new market place as a virtual events function and advisory service, their Breakfast Club initiative has been hugely successful and if you were to see the level of commitment across the entire team behind that you would be so surprised and really heart warmed, everyone is listened to, everyone has a part to play and all virtually without real experience of working in that way before the crisis.

Doctor Care Anywhere – A group close to my heart because they have created a leadership culture I have always wanted to experience and be part of, wanted to emulate and want to consider putting in place as a leader in the future. DCA are on the verge of success and largely because they have built a leadership of high-trust, they are a team that has been brought together to build for success, a leadership team not built on job titles and responsibilities as individuals but one built as a whole, a supportive structure that has agreed it will work together and ensure that tasks and functions are done and supported rather than getting out the Visio organisation chart too much! So refreshing and so geared up to ‘just’ do, the set up ensures the whole team are bought into the organisational goal from the alarm call every day.

Pando Health Care – I have known the team here since they were literally a few people with a good idea and a massive amount of drive to achieve. Clinical expertise that understand the problems they are trying to resolve at every level and therefore they can deliver a focused leadership that never waivers from resolving the problem in hand. For me another key skill of the Pando leadership team that permeates all the way through the organisation is an ingrained empathy for their ‘customers’ and an unending belief in the benefit their solution set can bring, all of which end up being hugely inspirational for the people they serve.

So these four examples give us something that I would define as good, maybe even great in a leadership team and culture; an ego-less willingness to learn and share, an openness and inclusivity that brings the best of everyone, a goal oriented shared vision and a razor sharp focus on the problem in hand topped off with ‘weapons grade’ empathy. If I could make that happen for me every day as a leader then I would be world beating every single day, but achieving this every day, well I would suggest even the best of the best can’t do that.

So how do we manage when we don’t have the best we strive for available to us right now!

“Ten minutes into the Exorcist you may say, ‘This is boring.’ An hour later you could decide that it was the best thing you have ever seen, and it was no different with people.” The villain at three in the afternoon might be the hero by sunset.” Said the lead character in Calypso by David Sedaris referring to some of his families attitude and judgement of people. Sedaris goes on to say that the impression people give, the impression his family give is that “It was all just storytelling.”

Since first hearing Ed Gabrys speak of storytelling in sunny Barcelona four years ago at the Gartner Expo I have been a huge fan of this concept, its why I write here and offer to write for others too, it sits at the heart of my own presentation style and ultimately has to be one of the key items in my own leadership kit bag, get the story right, build engagement and you can take people on the journey with you. The story telling of where you want to go to builds engagement which I think is necessary for any functioning leader, I was once told that I was too ‘friendly’ and that if you built a team around leadership you would never have the gravitas to truly lead, at the time I simply said I would learn, I have tried but always have come back to the belief that when I have a team I want one that believes in me and my story not an iron rod of gravitas that I could wave at them. So after more than 15 years of striving to understand how to change this part of me I am now committed to accepting that this is a good part of my leadership style that I am going to keep.

Another musical reference point for you, in the current Beastie Boys documentary Ad-Rock and Mike D reflect on the moment Paul’s Boutique came out. After pouring their heart and souls into the album, pushing the boundaries of what they could do and what they thought the world would love to hear they were hugely surprised to hear… ‘crickets’. They describe that awful moment of silence, that moment where nobody heard the master piece. They devote a chapter of the documentary to what it felt like to release what they thought was going to be a new frontier in Hip-Hop music to almost no response at all. It is a fascinating moment the album is now held as legend in musical history, Paul’s Boutique is pretty much regarded as the Pet Sounds, the Rubber Soul, the A Love Supreme of the Hip-Hop world! And yet, on day one it was pretty much laughed at. Their reaction though to this (after being a bit aghast for a few days) is another example I think of a definition of good, to keep on keeping on!

As a leader you have built your story, you have built your parameters of what is good and set your stall out to be clear what you believe in, you have made sure the team believe in your vision, your story of the future, but disaster can still strike, its what happens next that matters. As you read this now pause; in your head list the three disaster career moments;

• Not going live on the promised day at the first GP practice in Bolton with the Summary Care Record under the  NPfIT.
• Overreacting the morning I discovered a colleague had deleted the eSMTP to X.400 look up list for every electronic data exchange account two months before the end of the project.
• The chilling moment when Wanna Cry became real in Ireland.

Now list what you did and what happened next, I am not suggesting that every one of them turned into a Paul’s Boutique moment, but, we learnt, we changed and we gained a new story, and quickly. For me the Summary Care Record went live a couple of days later and better for the delay; we tested the disaster recovery process for EDI in the NHS and I learnt to not overreact and with Ireland it probably raised the profile of digital healthcare higher than any other single event ever could, and the country remained safe. We learnt and evolved and the ‘disaster’ became simply something that happened and taught us.

Mistakes happen, its what we learn from them that is important, its how we apply the lesson to what we do next that makes the journey worthwhile. A growth mindset is now a mandatory part of how we continue to grow and evolve.

Great works are performed, not only by strength, but by perseverance. – Samuel Johnson

So there you go, my definition through the power of three, what is my definition of great leadership and what I think makes up the immediate skill set of a digital leader.




Post Script – In writing this I cam across the fact that the Beastie Boys actually invented the phrase Axe the Fax in the song Alive, not LTHT on a wet and windy morning of madness, so there you go!