Earlier this week I was honoured to be part of the panel at the Future For Heroes Leadership Forum, which supports a wonderful charitable organisation that helps service leavers and veterans as they transition to civilian life.
I was joined by some truly inspirational peers – General Sir Nick Parker, former Commander in Chief for the British Army Land Forces, and Anton Oliver, retired rugby union player who captained the All Blacks – the most successful rugby team of all time! The event was hosted by Roger Davis, chairman of Future For Heroes, who’s also a Non-Executive Director on Bupa’s Board.
We, the panel, shared our thoughts on leadership, drawing on our particular fields, while taking great questions from the audience. The audience included people from the financial and corporate world, as well as former senior military personnel.
When I think of leadership, I am reminded of the Chinese philosopher Fushan Yuan, who said: “There are three essentials to leadership: humanity, clarity and courage.”
Humanity is critical, particularly within Bupa. Our purpose is helping people live longer, healthier, happier lives. As a service business with over 78,000 employees around the world across insurance, clinics, hospitals, dental clinics, care homes, retirement villages and more, everything we do is for our customers – delivered through our people. We need to be an organisation where people can be themselves, and are encouraged to act with empathy towards each other and towards our customers.
I am proud to lead an organisation which has an open and diverse culture, where our people feel empowered to be at their best in and out of work, to grow themselves and develop their careers, so they can ultimately deliver a great, empathetic experience for our customers.
Meanwhile, clarity is crucial to successful leadership. We operate in a world with a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, and your findings can often be incomplete and/or biased. The role of the leader is to be clear on the objectives, and on what good looks like. This helps to share the uncertainty in a way that ensures it doesn’t become a burden, but something you can tackle together with your team. Leading with clarity was something Sir Nick explained eloquently, based on his field of battle experience.
Leaders must demonstrate courage, and encourage their teams to do so too. Better decisions are made when people can be honest with each other about how things are working. The leader can create – or destroy – an atmosphere in which people can freely voice their concerns. Being the leader means having the courage to make decisions, even when it’s unclear or uncertain. Then if things change, it’s about being courageous enough to recognise that and modify the decision.
Learning from failures
Perhaps the most interesting discovery of the evening was that each of us on the panel admitted we have had to embrace failure. Everybody fails sometimes, and that is not a bad thing. Any challenge, even failure, is an opportunity to learn. The dividing line between failure and success is often very thin whatever the field – whether it is in business, in the armed forces, in sport, or something else. So being open to learning from things that go wrong is critical.
To round off the evening, we were each asked what advice I would give to my 25-year-old self. It would be to try things and test yourself. I’ve done this throughout my career to date. For me, the worst thing that can happen is that I look back and think I could have had a go – but didn’t. Yes of course, sometimes you fall over and bang your chin. But hey, you are still alive. You can pick yourself up and go again!
One thing Anton said that I really liked was that leadership starts with you. Before you lead others, you need to lead yourself. Look after your health. I think that means: manage your time, so you have time to reflect; look back on your experiences to see what could have been better; and look after the key relationships in your life.