General Stanley McChrystal was in charge of the 82nd Airborne: a tough, successful bunch of professional soldiers.

How did he get ten thousand men to follow him?

Three tips I found particularly useful for creative directors:


1) “Leadership is not popularity.

For soldiers, the choice between popularity and effectiveness is ultimately no choice at all.

Soldiers want to win, their survival depends upon it.”

That means running or building a company or a department isn’t about being liked by everyone.

There’s nothing wrong with being liked, but that isn’t the job.

Good people want to work somewhere successful.

Somewhere that will help them do better work.

To do that they need a leader who is focussed on that.

Not someone who wants to be friends, someone who wants to be liked.

There’s nothing wrong with that but, if it’s instead of success, it won’t help their career.


2) “Leadership is neither good nor evil.

We like to equate leaders with values we admire, but the two can be separate and distinct.

Self-serving or evil intent motivated some of the most effective leaders I saw.

In the end, leadership is a skill that can be used like any other.”

That means it would be perfect if great leaders were always nice guys, but it just ain’t so.

In order to learn from anyone else, we need to be able to separate content from style.

We may or may not like what Martin Sorrell or Rupert Murdoch stand for.

But each of them has built a massive, profitable empire from scratch.

Isn’t it worth learning how they did that?


3) “The best leaders are genuine. I found soldiers would tolerate my being less of a leader than I hoped to be, but they would not forgive me for being less than I claimed to be. Simple honesty matters.”

Lots of creative directors think that success lies in getting their picture in the pages of Campaign or winning awards.

They enjoy the praise lavished on them.

But that isn’t the same as leadership.

Because it’s personal praise for them, not for the department.

As a general, it’s the soldiers that will make your reputation.

As a football manager, it’s the players that will make your reputation.

As an ECD, it’s the creative department that will make your reputation.

If they know you’re working in their interests, they’ll follow you.

If they think you’re just working for yourself, they won’t.


And if you can’t get people to follow you, you can’t lead.