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Startups and enterprise businesses alike can struggle with stagnation and narrow-mindedness. According to Nick Liddell and Richard Buchanan, co-authors of the new book, “Wild Thinking: 25 Unconventional Ideas to Grow Your Brand and Your Leadership,” the solution may be to look beyond your competitors and seek inspiration elsewhere.
Liddell and Buchanan, who lead the London-based brand consultancy The Clearing, mined the wisdom of leaders from brands including Google, Dropbox and National Trust to find out what keeps those leaders up at night, how they solve problems and where they find their most original ideas.
We caught up with Liddell to discuss what businesses get wrong about leadership, why we should go outside our own industry for inspiration, and more.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
StartupNation: What are some of the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs that you address in your book?
Nick Liddell: Businesses in the book span startups through businesses with hundreds of years of history. I think the really big thing for businesses is, how do you grow without losing yourself? Beyond that, how do you keep finding novel ways to interpret what you do? Internally, the question is how you motivate teams, how you develop as a leader, how you actually sustain the leadership?
StartupNation: How can readers bust out of their default ways of thinking?
Nick Liddell: It helps to draw inspiration from elsewhere, which is why that’s exactly what we’ve done in the book, particularly in terms of establishing a little bit more emotional bandwidth when it comes to the subjects that we’re willing to discuss. We’re really comfortable with things like leadership, growth and management, but we are quite bereft of language when it comes to the emotional landscape of work.
We talk about the role of hate, fear, paranoia and kindness. A lot of these words aren’t things that we’re used to reading about or hearing about, but if you want to have a mature, rounded conversation about life and work, it’s really difficult not to talk about things like paranoia, fear, hate and kindness.
StartupNation: How can leaders foster conversations around those topics?
Nick Liddell: We had an interesting conversation with Nick Morris (who is head of PR and communications) at Dropbox. He was also at Microsoft.
I think hard-baked into our existing concept of leadership is that to have a leader you must have a follower. Those are quite defined roles. In a hierarchy, the leader of the business sits at the top and the followers of the business all sit underneath him. Some of those followers may lead other people and they will be followed by people even further down the hierarchy.
Someone like Nick Morris talks about teams and structures as a much more fluid concept where you take turns. Teams coalesce and then separate, and people reform into new teams.
Even within a team, someone may lead at moments and then another person may step in and lead at another moment, very much like a jazz band. People take turns leading and if someone makes what you would normally consider to be a mistake, then everybody else’s job is to move on from that mistake and turn it into an interesting new avenue for exploration.
If you want to be a really good leader, you still have to maintain an ability to be a really good follower.
It’s something that we forget about when we talk about leadership in the normal hierarchical sense. No one talks about how part of being a great leader is also being a really great follower. Or we talk about it in really safe terms, like being focused on empathy or emotional intelligence.
StartupNation: What are some other misconceptions that you’ve encountered around leadership?
Nick Liddell: Customer focus or customer mindset is currently in vogue, but if you take it to extremes, that can be unhelpful in practice. If you’re an organization that says you’re focused on customers or you’re obsessed with customers, it effectively says that you’re relegating your colleagues to the role of second-class citizens and you tie a hand behind your own back in terms of their ability to service the customer.
A far more mature and more realistic way to approach it is just to say you really care about people. Some of those people are customers, and some of those people are colleagues. Regardless of those labels, you’re going to treat everybody with a relevant level of concern, respect and care.
StartupNation: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or your book?
Nick Liddell: We’re quite conscious that the world probably doesn’t need another business book. We have quite a lot already, so we were really keen not to write another. What we did have was a set of questions that we thought hadn’t been adequately answered anywhere, and honestly, we don’t have the answer ourselves.
So, we put those questions in front of 25 of the most interesting people that we either knew or could find, and 25 really different types of organizations, and tried to see what they made of them. And the outcome of that was 25 thought-provoking points of view. No matter what kind of business you’re in, no matter what kind of preoccupation you have, there should be something in (the book) for everybody.