Crowdsurfing: New leadership skills

mtphotodoc3The last in a series of extracts from Martin Thomas’s new book

Some business leaders and politicians are natural crowd surfers.  They are pragmatic and flexible, without appearing to be weak.  They are endlessly fascinated by and curious about human behaviour and especially that of their customers.  They also have the ability to anticipate consumer demands and needs and then respond in the right way and at the right time.

Many of the entrepreneurs behind the world’s most successful new brands possess these crowd surfing skills.  But others have had to train themselves to be become crowd surfers, often having been forced to change their behaviour and that of the companies they lead.  Michael Dell by his own admission had to learn the hard way, after the blogging community – Jeff Jarvis’ “raging mob with pitchforks” – came close to bringing his business to its knees.

What type of personality is best suited to becoming a crowd surfer?  Writing on the subject of leadership, historian Niall Ferguson has described good leaders as “the ones that realise (a) I’m fallible, and (b) the world is chaotic.”   Echoing the sentiment expressed by Intel’s Andrew Grove in his best-selling book, ‘Only the paranoid survive’, Ferguson also suggests that, “insecurity is … an important part of being a good leader.  You have to be aware of your vulnerability.” (Business Strategy Review, Summer 2007)

One of the most common sentiments expressed by many business leaders is that things feel out of control.  For some this is highly disturbing – it conflicts with their idea that management is all about the imposition of control and the search for predictability and certainty.  Trying to find order amidst the chaos is the thing that keeps them awake at night.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the head of agency giant WPP, is clearly not one of them: “these days, complexity goes with the territory.  Anybody who believes that life is going to become simpler in this day and age needs to have their head examined.  In an increasingly networked world, the 21st century is not for tidy minds.  I think – certainly in our business – trying to simplify complexity actually ends up in destroying value; that keeping complexity adds to value.”  (Management Today, April 2008)

Leaders, such as Sorrell, appear to be the ones most likely to thrive in this new world – they are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, possibly even chaos.  Tom Peters, as befitting the author of a book called ‘Thriving on chaos’, describes them as leaders who “love the mess” and defines ‘crappy leadership’ as “The leader who needs to be comfortably in control.”

Martin Thomas has spent 23 years running marketing communications agencies in PR, advertising, sponsorship, entertainment marketing and new media.  The blog of the book is

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Some other posts you'll find interesting:

  1. Welcome to the world of the crowd surfer
  2. What big advertising agencies see in social media
  3. Trying to hold back the tide

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