Issue 6

IN MY VIEW...

By John Morrison, former BBC Scotland Chief Political Correspondent and Owner, Morrison Media

As I sit in front of my screen to write this blog, a quick glance at the BBC news pages reminds me that a family in Pretoria is preparing for the likelihood of losing a loved one.  

In recent months they have dealt with a situation that comes to most of us at some stage in our lives.  Frail elderly, recurring critical illness, hospital visits, the ordeal of repeating the same condition report to concerned friends and the fear of having to deal with numbing pain of loss.  

This is a human process that will be played out many, many times each day around the globe. But if this 94 year old man in a hospital ward in Pretoria slips away the whole world will notice.

Mandela was born with many of the qualities of leadership – acute intelligence, drive and charisma. He also worked extremely hard to develop the other essential qualities that would shape the future of his nation.

Nelson Mandela is a towering international figure, a truly global icon who inspires people and political movements, often in countries and communities that he has never visited.   While he was still active in politics, he achieved a leadership status of almost mythical proportions. This is rare.

Nelson Mandela was born with many of the qualities of leadership – acute intelligence, drive and charisma.   He also worked extremely hard to develop the other essential qualities that would shape the future of his nation.

The story is told that as a young boy he used to watch his guardian supervising the elders of his tribe in decision-making.  This man listened in silence as everyone else expressed an opinion.  After everyone had spoken, his guardian guided the group to reach a consensus. Later, Mandela used this experience to mould his leadership style.

Mandela also told the story of learning leadership from his experience as young cattle herder: "When you want to get a herd to move in a certain direction," he said, "you stand at the back with a stick. Then a few of the more energetic cattle move to the front and the rest of the cattle follow. You are really guiding them from behind." He paused before saying with a smile, "That is how a leader should do his work."

Leaders draw inspiration from many different sources. They see the same things as all the rest of us, but their powers of observation and self-belief lead them to act differently. Sometimes they will lead from the back by cajoling and encouraging but they will also lead from the front when the occasion demands it.     

Leaders draw inspiration from many different sources. They see the same things as all the rest of us, but their powers of observation and self-belief lead them to act differently.

Since I first became aware of a man called Alex Ferguson he gave the impression of being hewn from rock.  Conditioned in the working class streets of Govan, he left school with no formal qualifications but at Manchester United he became the leader of a global brand and his views on management are sought by no less than the Harvard School of Business.

Sir Alex recently told the Guardian that as a young manager he studied and learned from leaders in other walks of life:  "I had never been to a classical concert in my life. But I am watching this and thinking about the co-ordination and the teamwork – one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra – how they are a perfect team." You can only imagine what his team of international millionaires made of their manager’s story that day.   

After winning 38 trophies and bowing out at the top it is very easy to forget that Sir Alex Ferguson was very close to being sacked at Manchester United. He gambled on his team selection, won the FA Cup and went on to become the greatest manager the game has seen.  

This is another huge quality in leaders – the ability to bounce back. Nelson Mandela was convicted of terrorism and spent years in prison but he came back to change his country for ever. Bill Clinton, another inspirational leader of recent times and an occasional visitor to Scotland, had many low points in his career, both personally and politically.  

He now explains that at his lowest point during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when it threatened to destroy everything he had fought for, he still kept going by waking up every morning and asking himself the same question:  “How can I make a difference?”   

It isn’t the failing that matters so much as the willingness to get up and try again while learning from adversity

Leaders are not always global figures. In the village of Lochinver in the north of Scotland, family and friends are mourning the death of Alan MacRae.  When Alan led the campaign to take control of the Assynt estate away from private landlords and into community ownership he became an inspiration for land reformers across the Highlands and Islands.  

Of course, many other people were involved in making sure that the buy out of Assynt went through, but Alan MacRae, a crofter largely unknown outside his own small community, was its figure head. He became an inspiration for communities across the Highlands and Islands because he had a dream and he realised it.  

As well as native cunning and charm, Alan MacRae had another critically important leadership talent. He could tell a story.  Whether it was the national and international media who wandered up the path to his croft house, or the undecided villagers who could not quite understand how ordinary people could run their own estate, Alan had an innate ability to communicate his dream. He took people with him.

Different people will point to different qualities in leaders:  intelligence, vision, observation, lateral thinking, critical analysis, awareness of threat and opportunity, ability to renew and direct change management, resilience, compassion and understanding.

Leaders are also human. They will have flaws just like the rest of us, often in direct proportion to their positive qualities, but their ability to lead and inspire sets them apart. This is what brings success.

At a time of great economic uncertainty, leadership in public and private sectors is something that we should all value and celebrate. We need public figures and business leaders willing to step up and fulfil their roles and while it is important to hold people like these to account, it is also important to value the contribution that good leadership makes. To that end we should also take at least one leaf from the pages of the US book where failure is often regarded as just one necessary hurdle to be overcome on the path to later success. It isn’t the failing that matters so much as the willingness to get up and try again while learning from adversity – particularly if we are going to get growth and confidence back into our economy.

We might not like them, we might not agree with them but we do need them to inspire us and lead us to better things.

By John Morrison, former BBC Scotland Chief Political Correspondent and Owner, Morrison Media

Issue 6

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