Episode 182 – Leadership and Language with Chris Hirst

Chris HirstThere’s a lot of hot air expended on the topic of leadership. It can seem as though ‘leadership’ is a complex, arcane concept far removed from the reality of most of our lives. Here’s the antidote: Chris Hirst’s No Bullsh*t Leadership: Why the World Needs More Everyday Leaders and Why That Leader Is You

In this conversation we talk about the power of language to hide or reveal the truth, the importance of writing generally as a business skill, and writing a book specifically as a thinking tool, and the importance of pushing through. 

If you’re writing, you’re a writer. If you’re leading, you’re a leader. Here’s how to do both a little better.


Havas: https://havas.com/

Chris on Twitter: https://twitter.com/chrishirst

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club Summer Reading List 2019: https://alisonjones.com/the-extraordinary-business-book-club-summer-reading-list-2019/

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I am here with Chris Hirst, who is global CEO of Havas Creative Group, a multidisciplinary marketing services network. He was previously CEO at advertising agency Grey London and was once an engineering graduate working in a glass factory.

                                                      His career path has taken him to the boardroom via an MBA at Harvard Business School. He was named in 2017 and 2018’s Evening Standard Power 1000 List and number three in the industry’s most influential CEO rankings.

                                                      Chris is a regular commentator on national media and he’s also the author of No Bullshit Leadership: Why The World Needs More Everyday Leaders and Why That Leader Is You, which is a belting title. Welcome to the show, Chris.

Chris Hirst:                            Hi. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Alison Jones:                        Let’s start with the elephant in the room, which is why the world needs more books on leadership, which is something you tackle right at the start, isn’t it? It’s not what you’d call an empty field.

Chris Hirst:                            I think the world definitely … Well, certainly now, the world needs no more.

Alison Jones:                        Now it’s got yours, we’re good for books on leadership.

Chris Hirst:                            Before I wrote it I felt we could just about squeeze one more in and then I think we’re done. We can move onto another subject. Well, the world doesn’t need any more books on leadership and, frankly, nor does the world need anymore hot air or anymore bullshit, frankly, around leadership.

                                                      I suppose my premise for the book is that there’s a big industry, a huge industry, the business industrial, leadership industrial complex, that almost sometimes seems to have a vested interest I think in making the subject seem elitist, inaccessible, and incredibly complicated, something that only a chosen few can aspire to and achieve.

                                                      The premise of my book is that’s not true. A lot of what is said and written around the subject of leadership I think is just snake oil, it’s just bullshit, and aside from that, just irritating me. I think there’s two significant problems that causes.

                                                      The first is that I think anybody who is already … It inhibits anybody who is already in a leadership position from fulfilling their potential and I think, secondly, potentially even worse than that, I think it excludes many, many, many people from thinking leadership could be something that they could ever aspire to. My hope and aspiration is to at least puncture a little bit of that.

Alison Jones:                        I was interested by that phrase and the subtitle, Everyday Leaders. What did you mean by that? I think I’ve got a sense what you mean but I’m just really interested. Who are you writing for? What were you hoping to convey with that phrase?

Chris Hirst:                            Well, I think it is a reasonable proposition to say that the majority of people who are in leadership positions aren’t the people we typically think of when we think of leaders. I mean, we’re told that … Kind of word association to the word leader is we think of generals or FTSE 100 CEOs or dot com billionaires or maybe once upon a time we would have thought of politicians.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. They’re not doing so well with that these days.

Chris Hirst:                            They don’t pop to mind quite as they used to. My premise is in fact that the vast majority of leaders are not those people and that’s because I think that anybody who has somebody or some people they are responsible for is a leader, whether you run a ward at a hospital, a department at a school, a Sunday league football team, an advertising agency like I did, or and of course FTSE 100 CEOs as well. I think I’m writing for those people.

Alison Jones:                        You write cleanly. I use that … I was trying to think of other ways to describe it. I mean, when you write a book called No Bullshit Leadership you better not be writing in highfalutin, long, convoluted sentences, but you do write really cleanly. There’s no obfuscation in there. You simplify it. I always thought that obfuscation and long sentences that ramble on and so on it can almost like a sign of insecurity. You’re obviously just really confident in what you’re saying but how long, how much rewriting did it take to get to that cleanness and clarity of text?

Chris Hirst:                            Well, I mean, it took some but that’s how I suppose I write. It didn’t start as a 90,000 word book and end up as a 45,000 word book. Yes. I suppose my premise is that leadership is difficult but not complicated. In fact, actually, you know what? I think you can apply to quite a lot of things. Not everything by any means but you can apply to quite a lot of things. Therefore, I wanted the book to reflect that.

Alison Jones:                        You use quite a lot of diagrams as well, which I liked. Which came first, your diagram sketches or your text?

Chris Hirst:                            One diagram sketch came first. It’s hard to describe a diagram sketch on a podcast…

Alison Jones:                        I know. Audio is a terrible medium for this. Sorry.

Chris Hirst:                            I have a sketch that illustrates what I feel leadership is and that is two circles linked by a line and the circle on the left is you are here and the circle on the right is this is where you want to get to. Next to both of those I’ve written the word easy but leadership is the line that links the two and that is difficult.

Alison Jones:                        Getting there: really hard.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. Exactly right. Getting there: really hard. That actually came first. I was asked to do a presentation a couple of years ago on leadership and I sketched that and I guess the book came from there.

Alison Jones:                        I feel actually genuinely quite joyful about this because I think there has been a tendency for people coming up into leadership feeling a bit insecure about it to kind of grab the long words and the theory and wrap it around themselves. If just one person feels empowered to speak clearly having read this book and just realised that that is actually how you communicate with people I think you’ll have done a great service.

Chris Hirst:                            I think I talk a little bit in the book about confidence and vulnerability. I do think that sometimes … I’m a big fan of the English language. Every word has its place. I mean, I think there’s some times when what we might call big word is a beautiful thing.

                                                      To just use them to try and make yourself look clever or powerful I think is actually not just a bit pointless. I think it’s self-defeating and I think … For example, clearly, confidence is important. It’s important that a leader has confidence. It’s important I think that all of us have confidence. That’s a great thing to be.

                                                      I think one of the most confident and in some ways sort of soft powerful things I think a leader can do is admit to not knowing. I think I talk about the fact that saying, “I don’t know” is a really important and powerful thing for a leader to do because of course a lot of the times you don’t know. I mean, we’re all just humans and all just people.

                                                      I think the preparedness to admit to not knowing or uncertainty or vulnerability actually strengthens and builds your credibility and ability to … Credibility as a leader and ability to get people to actually follow you, which of course is important as a leader.

Alison Jones:                        I do wonder sometimes if maybe we have the political leaders we deserve because we won’t let them do that actually. They get pilloried for it.

Chris Hirst:                            I feel that very strongly. I actually feel that very strongly. I think that it’s … For example, decision making. Obviously it’s a critical … Not just skill. It’s just a thing that leaders have to do all the time and they have to be good at decision making. When I say good at decision making I don’t mean good at getting everything right. I mean good at being prepared to make decisions and accepting the inevitability of getting some of those decisions wrong.

                                                      I fundamentally believe, and have for a long time, that that is a real issue in our politics and for anybody to try and tackle something as complicated as running a country there’s bound to be stuff that they get wrong. I mean, we sort of jump with glee if a politician changes their mind. I mean, I want people to change their mind. I want people to be persuaded by argument or I want people to learn from experience and be stronger as a result of it. I think that’s a really important…

Alison Jones:                        Maybe there’s a followership book to follow from this, Chris. What do you think?

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. Yes. Possibly. Possibly. It’s certainly a kind of obvious but often forgotten thing I think for leaders to be an effective leader or to be a practical leader of any sort you have to have people who are prepared to follow you and if you don’t have that then…

Alison Jones:                        You’re not leading anywhere. You’re just working on your own. Yes.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. Then it’s just a job title, right?

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Going back to that point about language. I’m really interested in how leaders particularly use language and writing for themselves and for the people that they’re leading. I’m fascinated that you pretty much write this way. This is the way you write, which is amazing. It’s a real gift. I don’t know if you know how rare that is. Is this just something that comes instinctively to you or is it something that you have worked on in your career?

Chris Hirst:                            How I write?

Alison Jones:                        Yes.

Chris Hirst:                            No. I don’t think it’s something I’ve worked on particularly. I don’t know really. Honestly, until you’ve asked me this question I’ve never really thought about how I write.

                                                      I suppose I read a lot. That’s for sure. Obviously I guess there’s two ways to get better at writing. One is to write a lot and I do write in various forms but I’ve never written a book before and that’s because I think the way you get better at anything is you do it more.

                                                      The other way I think you become better at writing is to read. I do read voraciously books of all sorts, shapes, and sizes. I suppose from that I suppose. Also, I don’t know, maybe like you said in the introduction, I did a degree in engineering. I never wrote a single essay after the age of … In school, I never wrote a single essay after the age of 16. I did maths basically for sort of six years.

                                                      Maybe there’s something in the sparse kind of clarity … Not simplicity intellectually but I don’t know what the right word is to describe maths but there’s something in there.

Alison Jones:                        You’re looking at concepts, aren’t you? And abstracts.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. There’s something in the lack of extraneousness in math that comes through in my writing possibly. I don’t know.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. I like the idea of … Also, engineering is quite a visual thing as well. It’s quite spatial. You can see the way you organise ideas … I do think there’s probably a crossover there. The fact that you put the diagrams in because that communicates what you’re saying. I think that’s … It’s a visual thinker, it’s an engineering trait as well.

                                                      I like also your little summaries. ‘Even less bullshit’. If you haven’t got time, because it’s not a long book but if you haven’t got time to read it, here you go, here’s the thing. You distil it down again at the end.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes.

Alison Jones:                        Which is brilliant. It is sort of like your checklist almost, isn’t it? I can just see that in a manual.

Chris Hirst:                            I think it is. When I read business books or not all non-fiction but some non-fiction, I like the idea of summaries. I like the idea of being able to say, “You know what? Can you just give me it in a page?”

                                                      Because particularly in a business context you should be able to. You know, you should be able to distil what really is the essence of what you’re telling me in this chapter. You should be able to do it in a page I think.

Alison Jones:                        There’s an interesting conversation around this because you do get people who say, “Well, actually if that’s really what you’re talking about let’s just have that,” but actually it works better I think once you’ve read the argument, heard the stories, done the thinking, then it’s a reminder, then it fixes it almost in your head, doesn’t it?

Chris Hirst:                            It does. That’s why I think it’s … I think, for me, any book, whatever the subject, I want that book to be a well-written book and that’s not just the use of language. That’s the construct of it, that’s the arc that you develop as you develop your argument, let’s say.

                                                      I think that is part of how you embed an argument in somebody’s mind because that enables you to use examples or analogies or anecdotes and I think those things can be actually the bit that sticks as much as the bullet point sort of checklist, if you see what I mean.

Alison Jones:                        Yes.

Chris Hirst:                            I think there’s the right balance of both.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. No. I like the… The Ashton Kutcher thing made me laugh. ‘Opportunity looks a lot like hard work.’ Great line.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. Also trying to pull examples from unexpected places I think is quite powerful because particularly in a leadership book, which as we just discussed at the start there’s already plenty of those, they do tend to be very formulaic, they tend to use examples from the same places. You know, an example from General Electric, an example from Nike, an example from Apple, all of which are all very well but I felt like I’ve read all of those a thousand times already so where I can find examples from somewhere else?

Alison Jones:                        How do you go about that? Is that a case of just having that question in your mind as you read the newspaper? As you watch telly? As you just go about your life?

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. I think so. I mean, not all but probably 50% of the examples or the asides, let’s call them those, in the book are ones that I’ve used or come across over the past I suppose 10 years and have used in presentations or speeches or what have you in different shapes or forms.

                                                      I guess as I was writing one would pop into my head and I’d think, “Oh, you know, I’m going to talk about the Ashton Kutcher thing. Maybe that would be good to go here?” It wasn’t very scientific to be honest with you, that process.

Alison Jones:                        No, but you know what? That’s really interesting because I think that encourages people listening. If you are just about to tackle a book but actually you’ve been giving talks and presentations and writing blogs forever you’ve already got so much of the furniture there, haven’t you? As you say, you’ve got the resources you’ve built up over the years, you’ve got the things you’ve noticed that have interested you. Your fascination pile. That’s a really good start.

Chris Hirst:                            Well, particularly, if you’re writing a book about I suppose a subject that you feel you know. I think, yes. I hadn’t thought about it until then but they do say, don’t they, that particularly somebody’s first book very often that book, whatever sort of book it is, has an element of autobiography in it. We write about what we know. Even novelists, particularly as a first book, people will say they write about what they know. I think that’s sort of what I’ve done here I suppose.

Alison Jones:                        Why wouldn’t you? Who else could write your book if not you?

Chris Hirst:                            Well, yes. There’s that. Yes. That’s true. I think the hurdle that I have to get over and still, I’m still trying to get over and I expect I’m far from the first author to think this is, why would anybody be interested at all in anything I have to say?

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Which is that marvellous … It’s the chimp chatter, isn’t it? Who am I to write a book? Nobody is going to be interested in …

Chris Hirst:                            Yes.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Absolutely. It’s a real risk. You do have to be careful to not go too self-indulgent and actually nobody is interested in the details of your life. You have to be really self-disciplined in pulling out the stuff that has got something interesting for the reader.

Chris Hirst:                            Well, I certainly think that. In fact, one of the debates that I had with the publisher was whether I should put more in. I think in reality even though I write about what I know, I don’t think there’s very much … There’s lots of me in the book because I’m including my opinions, my views, I’m filtering my worldview through my opinions, if that makes sense, but there’s not much, “Oh, in 2017, I went and did the following.” There was a bit of debate about whether I should put more of that in but in the end I felt the balance was right.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. No. I think you’re right. There has to be a really good reason to include that sort of detail. Actually the world changes so fast. I’ve read business books and the author is talking about what he did in 2004 and I’m thinking, “Well, it’s a different world. It’s got absolutely no relevance whatsoever.” I’d rather hear what you learned in 2004 and how that plays out in the world today.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. I agree.

Alison Jones:                        I always asks my guests to give their best tip for a first time author. I mean, you’ve covered a lot of stuff already but if somebody is listening and they are just about to start their book or they’re in the early stages what do you wish that you had known then that you know now that you could share with them?

Chris Hirst:                            I don’t know if I’ve got an ‘I wish I knew then’ example. I think my advice, though, would be a version of what I suppose I’ve just said, which is I think you got to just get on and do it. I know that that’s ridiculous but, I mean, really what I did was I wrote …

                                                      You get to blocks, you get to moments of self-doubt, you get to hurdles, you get to bits you can’t finish, you think, “Oh my God. I’ve got seven chapters and 10 is a book. What am I going to do if I’ve only got seven?”

                                                      You’ve just got to push through that. I think it’s probably quite easy and I suspect an awful lot of people have got 5000 or 10,000 words written somewhere on something on a computer drive. I think you can get 5000 or 10,000 words down and then it starts to get a bit sticky and soggy and you’ve got to get through that bit because, honestly, this is essentially I suppose what my book is a bit about.

Alison Jones:                        Getting there is really hard.

Chris Hirst:                            Just get on with it and then work backwards from there.

Alison Jones:                        Did you have the outline of the book before you started it? It has the feel of a book that was planned out before you wrote it.

Chris Hirst:                            No. I didn’t.

Alison Jones:                        That’s really interesting. You just sat and wrote it? Oh, wow. I’m really super impressed now because it doesn’t feel like that. There are books that feel like that. This doesn’t.

Chris Hirst:                            Well, thank you. I did kind of what I just described to you, which is I had an idea and the idea was the title, No Bullshit Leadership. I thought, “Well, is that a book? Can I get a book out of that?” “Well, I’m going to try and write 10,000 words and then I’m going to see how much I feel I’ve still got left to give.”

                                                      I’m not suggesting that it literally came out straight away in those nine chapters in that order exactly as that but, no, I pretty well just sat down and wrote it. The actual initial writing, the first draught, didn’t take me that long in reality. You then learn the sort of rather less fun, more painful, process of redrafting and…

Alison Jones:                        Yes. It’s not done when it’s done, is it? That’s the problem.

Chris Hirst:                            No, it really isn’t. No.

Alison Jones:                        Did you enjoy it?

Chris Hirst:                            I really enjoyed it. I really, really enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed it because … Well, like I just said, I have never really written. I mean, I’ve never really written in any sort of long form settings.

                                                      I enjoy the process of writing very much. I enjoyed it I think mostly because it worked a completely different part of my brain than what I was using every day at work. It was actually although at times hard grind and all that sort of stuff it actually … Quite often on a Saturday afternoon with a mug of tea it was quite a relaxing invigorating two hours or whatever as I sat down and did it just because … Yes. It’s like exercising something that doesn’t get exercised very often, that part of my brain. I learned a lot from it as well, by the way. I learned a lot from it.

Alison Jones:                        I was going to say what did it do for you?

Chris Hirst:                            Well, the themes that I pick up in the book are themes, as I suppose I’ve said, that were there in some form in my mind and brain already over which I’ve sort of accumulated over years I suppose like stalactites or something.

                                                      Actually sitting writing them down really forces you to challenge your ideas and crystallise your ideas and formulate your ideas. I think my ability now to express my views on leadership and decision making and those kind of things I would cover is so much better and more compelling I think and actually gives me a huge amount of confidence when the subject comes up because I’ve formulated an argument and written it down and that’s a nice way of organising your thinking.

Alison Jones:                        You are the guy who wrote the book.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. I’m the guy that wrote the book. Yes.

Alison Jones:                        Along with a few other people. But still…

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. Along with half the population.

Alison Jones:                        I’m almost nervous to ask for a recommendation now. Again, I ask guests to recommend a book that they think listeners should read. Obviously No Bullshit Leadership. Obviously. I do actually genuinely recommend this. Any other book that you think is particularly worth reading and why?

Chris Hirst:                            Business books specifically?

Alison Jones:                        It can be. Don’t have to be. Some people go off-piste here.

Chris Hirst:                            Oh, well, I mean, I’m a voracious reader of books but let me say in the business-y space … I’m not actually a big reader of business books specifically. An author that I really enjoy and have learned a lot from and got a lot from is an author called Tim Hartford, who has written a number of books but the two that I really enjoyed, one, I think it’s his first book The Undercover Economist, which is essentially behavioural economics, which sounds quite heady for those that don’t know. It’s not really. It’s about how the world works or at least how I suppose the parts of the world work. Let’s put it that way.

                                                      The Undercover Economist by Tim Hartford and the other book of his that I really, really enjoyed is called Adapt and the subhead is something like Why All Success Starts With Failure. From what we’ve talked about now you can probably guess why…

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely. Now I love Tim Hartford. He has been a guest on this podcast. We were talking about Messy. I don’t know if you’ve read Messy. It’s brilliant.

Chris Hirst:                            No. I haven’t. I haven’t but I know of it. I should get it. He’s somebody I think that writes very … He writes very well, doesn’t he? Really he does take complicated subjects and not only simplifies them but he makes them interesting more importantly. I mean, I’m all for things being complicated as long as it’s interesting. I think he manages to do that.

Alison Jones:                        He does. It’s really interesting actually talking to him. He was saying that one of the things that he finds really helpful is writing at lots of different scales. He writes books but he also obviously has to write very short broadcast pieces and he has to write the longer sustain pieces for The Undercover Economist and the shows he does on Radio 4 and talks and so on.

                                                      He said that flexing your mind that way forces you to get really clear on what you’re saying but also it gives you the ability to dive deep into it. It was really interesting.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. It sounded interesting. Yes. He writes well. I don’t think I could write for a living I have to say. As in write all the time. I think I’d find it exhausting.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. It’s not one of the most lucrative professions. I think you’re probably better off where you are honestly.

Chris Hirst:                            Aside from that, I wasn’t even going there with that. Just the act of doing it. I mean, certainly I found it … You asked me how I found it. I found it very enjoyable but I did find it tiring.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Yes. It’s interesting because I’m a big fan of bringing writing into the working day because I think it does, as you say, it exercises a different part of the brain and it forces clarity and depth, which are in quite short supply these days.

Chris Hirst:                            It does. In actual fact, a lot of the mediums we use to communicate do involve writing, don’t they? I mean, they are text messages, WhatsApp, emails, and that is writing. It’s written down words.

Alison Jones:                        It’s as important a skill as it ever was really but it doesn’t seem to be valued in the same way it used to be, which is interesting. Yes.

Chris Hirst:                            No. I think certainly … Writing, not so much on text, but if you’re writing an email to somebody quite often you have to take quite a degree of care over that email because you might be wanting to persuade somebody of something or you might be wanting to say something that the reader isn’t going to particularly like or be happy with or agree with.

                                                      I think people’s ability to get the tone right in the written word is really important and actually difficult to do. It’s far easier to get your tone across when you’re standing in front of somebody talking to them because they can see your body language, they can see the look on your face, they can see whether you’re being aggressive or all those kinds of things. That’s harder to communicate in, let’s say, an email. I mean, you can do it but it requires some care and attention.

Alison Jones:                        And as you said before, it requires reading widely and writing a lot because that’s how you do it. You do it by doing it.

Chris Hirst:                            I think you do. I think that applies to everything.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. No secret about writing there, is it really?

Chris Hirst:                            No. Again, I think I touch on that in the book. We get better at things the more we do them. By the way, I think that applies to the subject of leadership. One of the things I wanted to communicate in the book is I think a lot of people in leadership positions don’t really think about themselves as leaders. They don’t recognise them …

                                                      Because they have bosses and they look up and they think, “Oh, my boss is in charge” but actually I think anybody who is responsible for a group of people should consider themselves as a leader and often they are the most …

                                                      Let’s take it in a work context because there are others but in a work context that person is probably the most influential person in the lives of the people that report to them and therefore being able to formulate a point of view on what sort of leader you are and what good leadership is is the way that enables you to improve. If you’re not consciously thinking about it I think it’s less easy to improve because it’s just something that just happens to you and happens to the people that work for you.

Alison Jones:                        It’s how you think about yourself. It’s a funny one, isn’t it? It tends to lag behind reality. I remember after I’ve been running for quite a few years I said, “Well, I’m not a runner.” Well, yes, you are because you’re running. But I didn’t think of myself as a runner because I’d sort of not kept up with reality. I think leadership is the same.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. Well, running, that’s a good example and probably you didn’t because you do other things as well and you think, “Well, no, runners are the people that I see on the television and they’re the ones at the Olympics or winning the London Marathon” or what have you.

                                                      Yes. We tend to project to other people that maybe do it in a more high profile way or more senior than us or something but that doesn’t in any sense mean that we’re not a runner or a leader or anything or a piano player.

Alison Jones:                        If you’re running, you’re a runner. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. If you’re leading … Yes. I love it. The world needs more everyday runners and leaders and writers. Absolutely.

Chris Hirst:                            Yes. Exactly. Exactly that.

Alison Jones:                        Chris, if people want to find more about No Bullshit Leadership, more about you and what you do, where should they go?

Chris Hirst:                            They could find me on Twitter @ChrisHirst. I speak at various conferences and things through the year. I’m speaking at Amazon Growth Summit in October. I think that will be in London. I’m doing quite a few podcasts at the moment. I’m the global CEO of Havas so I’m on their website. If there’s any clients out there with huge pieces of business that’s my day job so if they want to ring me up I’m always happy to talk to them as well.

Alison Jones:                        Yup. I’m glad you got that in. Brilliant. Really good to talk to you today, Chris. That was fascinating. Thank you.

Chris Hirst:                            I really enjoyed it. Thank you.


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