Recently I was asked to facilitate leadership workshops for senior teams in two of London’s largest advertising agencies. These are agencies with a long legacy, an outstanding reputation and massive global reach. To say the pressure on their future leaders is intense is an understatement!

The focus for each workshop was the same: How can each individual sharpen and toughen up their leadership voice as they start to assume more responsibility within their organisation? And, most importantly, how can each leader become more inspiring, visionary and strong in a fast-paced, ever-shifting landscape with as many differing personalities as there are conflicting agendas?

These are difficult questions: and there are no easy answers. However, closely facilitating a challenging conversation around these themes is both important and necessary.

Each workshop begins with a frank discussion about what currently works, and also what stands in the way of our leadership success. We shine a light on our personal blind-spots and give and receive constructive feedback to accelerate our growth. The process is often electric as people slough off facades, dare to speak directly and raise points of urgency. For many it can be the first real workplace conversation for some time, and this fosters a strong sense of togetherness, openness and egalitarianism that is often missing.

At heart, though, the work is about developing team edge. We learn to play shoulder to shoulder with greater skill, acumen and competitive advantage so that we win more battles than we lose on the corporate battlefield.

1. BIAS.
We all have it. It is the personal filter through which we view our complicated world and is based on our upbringing, experiences and interpretations that don’t often withstand rational analysis. However, if we fail to challenge our strongly held assumptions, we create the very divisions we abhor. And, sadly, the result is a polarised “them and us” attitude that fuels militancy of opinion and passive aggression in the workplace. If left unchecked, our environment becomes toxic with little room for openness, exploration and discovery — all of which are essential attributes for both personal leadership and corporate growth.

The Solution?

Question your assumptions, particularly your most strongly held beliefs. When we stop blaming other people’s behaviour for our lack of power, we have to take the necessary responsibility to change. And, in doing so, we move from a powerless victim state to a stronger sovereign state. This doesn’t deny injustice in the workplace, but instead means asking yourself the more powerful question: What are you going to do about it?.

When we channel our anger constructively, we assert clearer boundaries, strengthen our resolve and rally others behind the values of integrity and respect. Leaders operating from this position can more powerfully navigate the tough business conversations that bring progress.

Few do it, or are even able to when pushed, and many instead prefer to speak over others to win peer recognition. Silence can feel like death or is so incredibly uncomfortable that such people will keep looking for opportunities to voice their fixed opinions. Discussions feel one-sided and closed because if leaders lack strength and can’t effectively govern the space between people, the balance tips unfairly towards the more dominant and denies airtime to the more timid and sensitive. And, ultimately we lose contact with large swathes of people who could contribute positively.

The Solution?

Develop rabbit ears, paying close attention to the non-verbal communication of your teams. If the power is out of balance, be assertive and ensure that interpersonal boundaries are respected. The benefits of this type of leadership are huge! As the more reticent learn to speak up and the dominant learn to listen (rather than wait for their turn to speak), we all realise that, despite the discomfort of breaking habits, we can now pay attention to what is actually going on. And, with this improved awareness, we acquire valuable information that would otherwise be missed, information that is often fundamental to a team’s success.

This is the ability to read emotions, both in one’s self and in others, and then to use this data to effectively steer the whole team towards a shared goal. This level of emotional sensitivity is woefully lacking in most workplaces. Instead, what we often get are leaders struggling to be honest with themselves, let alone their teams, and it’s little wonder that unspoken resentments constantly brew below the surface. Goals are often missed and morale sinks as staff turnover inevitably accelerates.

The Solution?

Develop your sensitivity by paying attention to what you feel. Then, use your own feelings as data to powerfully intuit and detect what’s really happening under the surface. You can then use this information to bring out the best in everyone. Emotional intelligence isn’t about pouring out our emotions in a bid to be “authentic” and real: it’s about being emotionally attuned and reading the temperature in the room. And, most importantly, it’s about developing the wisdom to know when to strike and when to refrain, given the constraints of the commercial world.

The larger the firm, the more complex it becomes to navigate everyone’s diverse opinions, emotions and behaviour. What results is often a rigid political correctness in a misguided attempt to create group cohesion amidst the chaos. Yet, political correctness is an anathema to creativity, innovation and edge. When we can’t share our unique ideas for fear of recrimination from the more militant voices in the room, we lose our spontaneity and ability to engage in critical discourse. We can put out as many colourful bean bags as we like and keep scrawling our motivational quotes on whiteboards, yet without honesty and openness, corporations become sterile, tense and humourless places. A leader that buys into this ethos lacks any real power as most of their precious energy is wasted on pleasing the masses.

The Solution?

Develop a healthy dose of assertiveness, and get some backbone to say what you think and challenge group think. When said with respect, we ought to be able to express our unique viewpoints — especially if they go against the grain. No one person or group holds a monopoly on truth; this is about open discourse and critical thinking. Standing up to political correctness is absolutely imperative in encouraging your teams to show up fully, contribute different ideas and actually get excited! A strong leader will facilitate a space where all ideas are encouraged and openly critiqued without resorting to shame. This is true diversity.

Many leaders weaken their presence by over-apologising or subtly dismissing what they have to say. The problem with excessive apology is that we signal our sense of unworthiness to others and actively give them permission to devalue our needs. There’s a clear payoff; we get to stay small and gain only pity and sympathy, rather than risking disapproval for stepping up. On some level we think we don’t deserve equal respect. But we are wrong.

The Solution?

Take your worth seriously. Know that you deserve respect and space. And notice that whenever you dismiss your worth through yet another apology, the only person putting you down is you. The idea that we must somehow grovel for respect is abhorrent and puts us in a vulnerable position where we become open to exploitation. So, pay attention to this habit and redirect your finite energy into strengthening your voice rather than devaluing it. The less we apologise for ourselves, the more direct we become with our teams and the more respect we gain.

The flip side of passivity is aggression. There are those who use coercion, threat and hostility in an attempt to gain dominance and authority. Such people misguidedly believe they get better results by beating others with a proverbial stick. However, all this behaviour really achieves is the destruction of creativity, morale and respect. The more subservient among us, especially those keen to win approval, will keep running on the hamster wheel to keep their managers happy — but at what cost? Anxiety, burn out and secret dissent.

The Solution?

Become a positive role model in the workplace. Lead through powerful example by encouraging, rather than crushing, the potential in others. Never resort to blame, shame or attack just because someone is not acting how you think they should. There is zero strength in that approach. Instead, model confidence, respect and sensitivity so that you inspire your teams to step up rather than wallow in weakness. Because, when we care for our teams, we bring out the best in everyone. This doesn’t mean we cant challenge others, question consensus and say what needs to be said. Instead, it means we always use kindness when we say it.


Developing our leadership voice is challenging work. It demands that we look within, root out our own barriers to communication and get really honest with ourselves. It means we individuate from the pack and relinquish our need for constant approval. And, most importantly, it means we focus on what really matters: people. If, above all else, you care about the grandest of pursuits — the development of our fellow humans — you’ll become a fine leader indeed.