“You can have a great education and sound posh, but not have a clue about leadership.”
We sat down for a conversation with an ex-army officer, specialist leadership coach, and facilitator for senior leaders in higher and secondary education. Neil Jurd OBE is also the author of The Leadership Book and has set up the charity Michelle Jurd Trust, which supports initiatives that encourage young people to benefit from outdoor adventures. We spoke to Neil about common characteristics of a great leader, how any personality type can lead and how to manage a team with qualities of trust and empathy.
How did you end up becoming a leadership coach? What was your journey like?
I was an army officer for the first half of my career. I led soldiers on operations all over the place and was a Gurkha squadron commander. I also taught leadership at Sandhurst for two years.
I served in Bosnia, Iraq, and Yemen, so I had quite a lot of operational service experience. I’ve always had a real interest in leadership and I’ve always read a lot. I left the army in 2009 and worked as Head of Logistics at British Sugar, but unexpectedly in an accident, lost my wife. My children were very young at the time, so I gave up full-time work because it wasn’t possible to bring up young children with a busy job.
But that gave me some space and the chance to move into doing something that I loved, which was talking about leadership, writing about leadership, and helping people develop their leadership. And I worked as a course director at the leadership trust for many years. Then, over the last four or five years, I’ve set up my own business.
How did you end up joining the army?
I always wanted to join the army. To be honest, there wasn’t anything else that I wanted to do. I love the idea of travel and adventure, and I believed all of the army adverts that were on television back then.
I never really had anything else that I wanted to do, which is strange, because having now been out of the army for 12 or 13 years, I absolutely love the stuff I do now. I love working in leadership.
Why is teaching people leadership skills important?
It changes people and normally what people learn is that leadership is much simpler than they imagined. I think there’s a perception that leadership is something academic, or that it requires a particular sort of person to lead, and that person is almost a cliché. It’s that assertive, dominant person who’s never wrong, and that’s just not true.
Most of leadership is just about being yourself. Just being comfortable being yourself and using that to connect with people. But then it’s all got to be tied up with this thread of ‘purpose’.
You’ve got to know what it is you’re trying to achieve. But then most of it is about just being you. And I think that surprises people. In fact, I know it does.
Are there common characteristics that managers, execs and other business leaders have which end up being detrimental?
When leaders have got a political approach to work, when they see it as a competition in which they are serving their own purpose – I think that’s really dangerous. I think people who think that leaders have to be right all the time, people who think that leaders have to control everything, aren’t right.
You get leaders who say things like “keep me in the loop” and that’s lethal. If you’re a leader, when you say “keep me in the loop”, you’ll be kept in every loop. Then you’ll end up totally bogged down in every issue that’s going on in your organisation.
You need to learn to trust people and give them as much freedom as you can. That old-fashioned stereotype of the leader who’s always right, the leader who needs to know everything, that leader slows decision making down, which stops people growing.
What would you say is the most important characteristic of a great leader if you had to pick one?
The word that comes into my mind is ‘kind’. If you’re kind, its likely that you’re trying to do something good in the world and you’ll be somebody that people want to connect with, and perhaps work a little bit harder for. That probably wouldn’t be the thing that you would have expected to hear because you very rarely hear about kindness in leadership.
What are ways a business leader can cultivate positive qualities like trust, camaraderie and positive teamwork?
Genuinely get to know people and talk to them as openly and honestly as you can. People often communicate at quite a low level. To really connect with people, you’ve got to break down the barriers, you’ve got to ask them how they are, and then really listen to the answer. Good leaders have got to be okay to talk about fear or excitement, or worry, or whatever is really going on with their team.
A very good use of a leader’s time is to just go and speak with people, not go and speak to people, but to just go and hang around with them. I think probably working on trust is one of the most important things you can do.
The other is working on purpose, taking the time to properly involve other people as well and being clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Because that’s where it goes wrong, when there are differences of opinion in what you’re trying to achieve, and people are slightly pulling against each other. Really thinking about absolute clarity of purpose, and bringing other people in so they understand it, that’s a good use of time.
What advice would you give to a business leader who wants to be approachable but keep respect?
You probably need fewer boundaries than most people imagine. I believe that people want to do well, and that people go to work to do well. Generally, people like creating and being innovative and being free to do positive stuff. Often, the best thing a leader can do is get people interested and excited and get out of the way.
Discipline is only needed where people aren’t excited about the purpose. The leader is responsible for getting things done, but that doesn’t mean that you’re better in every way, or you have to dominate every situation.
How can a business leader support their team by giving them tools and supporting them to reach their potential?
Choosing the right people. Choosing people who are really passionate about what it is you’re trying to achieve really solves quite a few problems. Then keeping people focused on what you’re trying to achieve throughout is important.
Most things go wrong when the manager doesn’t know how to lead, so tries to control everything. I never talk about delegation because delegation by definition involves a lot of control. For me to delegate a task to another person, I’ve got to have thought through the problem, worked out the solution, and then give a disempowered person direct instructions to fulfil the task.
I would say that it’s far better that other people just understand the objective and are allowed to use their own brains. That way you get everyone’s brain power applied to the problem. It’s freedom within boundaries.
Can you be a leader if you are introverted?
Something like 40% of society are introverts by preference. Extroverts could make great leaders, but so can introverts. Typically, extroverts have more connections, but are slightly shallower, whereas introverts will favour more intense but fewer connections. I’m introverted, given the preference. I’ll find some space, go for a walk and sit down to read a book. But in business terms, I know that connecting with people is really important.
Where it could go wrong is if the introvert felt under pressure to be that stereotype of the leader who likes to give talks to 20 or 30 people at a time and maybe likes the sound of their own voice. Being a good leader is just being yourself but noting that you do have to connect with people, even if connecting with people can feel a little bit uncomfortable. It’s a social muscle that must be worked. But it can be worked in your own way. If you just want to have quiet chats with people, then do it that way.
Is there a difference between leadership and management?
You need both. If you only manage, you probably won’t adapt particularly well to what’s coming next. But if you don’t have management, your organisation will be unsteady, it will be unsafe – people won’t know whether they’re going to get paid at the end of the month. They won’t know whether the company car that they get has been serviced.
So, you need management to give you the foundations to your business, you lead people and people will make the difference. Whereas by leading, you get that brain power from your team and that energy running through the organisation and it can change direction and it can adapt. You need both but lots of organisations don’t put enough of a premium on leadership.
With good leadership, you will get good management, but with good management, you might not get good leadership. So, you probably need the leadership first.
What would you say to a leader dealing with imposter syndrome?
I haven’t counted the number of coaching sessions I’ve done over the last eight or nine years, but it’s a lot, hundreds or thousands, and impostor syndrome crops up in almost every coaching session. Sometimes it feels like I know something that other people don’t because I know that almost everybody in a leadership position has some form of imposter syndrome. It’s not just you or me – we all have it.
There’s something deeply built into the human psyche that causes us to doubt ourselves, we have this impostor syndrome. When people feel like an impostor, it’s often when they have this idea of what the leadership role requires, what a director looks like, or what a head of department looks like. It’s that positional approach to leadership, where they feel like they need to look like or be their former boss, or whoever did it before them, but that’s not what makes you be a great leader. And I do mean a great leader.
You can be a great leader in a small way. Things that sometimes people get hung up on are their own education, or people worry about their accent because they think that people around them sound posher. But honestly, none of that matters. You can have that great education and sound posh, but not have a clue about leading. Whatever your background, you can lead as you are by being yourself.
If you try to be something different, you will become less effective as a leader because people will connect less well with you, they’ll sniff that inauthenticity. If you’ve got something that you would like to achieve, whether it’s forming a charity or moving to the next level in your organisation, you will do it much more effectively by being comfortable with yourself than you would if you were trying to be what you think the role requires.