A Fatal Flaw In Modern Leadership- And How To Fix It

Tim_Jarvis_sled_900x600I thrive on pressure. It’s a strength. And a weakness. So I was delighted when the toughest guy IN THE WORLD (no kidding) told me recently that he loves it too. It’s part of the solution to the ineffective leadership we see a lot of today. Here’s the insight.

I heard famous explorer Tim Jarvis talk a couple of weeks ago about his retracing the extraordinary 1916 exploration done by Ernest Shackleton and 5 companions. Tim repeated their incredible journey, sailing a small rowing boat with five others 800 miles through the roughest ocean in the world, from Antarctica to the island of South Georgia. He said the teamwork and motivation of all the crew was outstanding when they were under pressure on the high seas. But as soon as they landed on solid ground, and rested, then discontent, disagreement and disunity began to unfold. People began to think about themselves more than the team. His message is simple, and I absolutely believe it:

“Pressure builds teamwork.”

At Singleton Ogilvy & Mather in the early 2000s, the motivator was simple: it was said a bullet was fired at your head the moment you joined- your challenge was to run as fast as you could to stop it from hitting you. It was, simply put, a high expectation environment. Tough place. Very hard working. All about the client and all about client results. They say ‘purpose driven organisations’ have the best chance of success. Well, the Purpose was clear and unapologetic – DELIVER RESULTS.

It was a different, hard, uncompromising place. Some hated it. They usually left pretty quickly. Fair enough. But the people I really respected there absolutely thrived on it. It was a badge of honour to survive and make it in that agency. If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. And dammit- it was true.

One of the pillars of that culture was the Monday Morning 8.30 am meeting. Every single person in the agency had to turn up. These were tough guys. Anyone could be called on to step forward and update on something. Hearts beat fast. Adrenalin flowed. It was frightening. It was WONDERFUL. And it was totally inspiring. For me, anyway. And for those who stayed and achieved in that environment.

I have always found the most motivated, happiest teams are those that have 10% too much work to do.

No doubt that’s a ‘gasp- what a seriously out of fashion view and lacking New Age hipness and beanbags, mobile massage and doona days,’ but so be it. Yes – absolutely- it IS all about people: genuinely caring, helping them learn and grow, and to achieve their full potential. It’s about motivation and inspiration. And in my experience, the right level of consistent pressure helps deliver that.

A Recipe For Motivating Teams

For me, motivating teams is about setting high standards, insisting they are adhered to, working with pace and with deadlines that force action, regular communication, and a fair dose of friendly pressure on all. Take care of all the team along the way of course. And make sure you lead from the front, set the example, and make it a place where your team members feel they are kind of special to be part of that high performing team. Because, you know what? They bloody well are.

And absolutely I have got it wrong- pushed too hard, asked for too much, demanded and ranted, and been an insensitive shit. I continue to learn and grow as a leader, continue to make mistakes, and try hard to keep fine-tuning and to improve. Nevertheless, I still have seen nothing, anywhere, that builds teamwork and a sense of pride faster and more powerfully than being part of a hard working, high expectation, high delivery team, driving real results for others, and themselves. Time for me to have a cup of tea and a lie down. Thank you.

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29 Responses to A Fatal Flaw In Modern Leadership- And How To Fix It

  1. pete shmigel September 11, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Nice piece. I wonder: is the performance created by pressure per se or by sense of common purpose? Pressure is inherently about fear and anxiety, while purpose is about hope and aspiration.

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 10:59 am #

      Not sure. Don’t agree that pressure is about fear and anxiety. Pressure to me is the expectation and ambition I set myself. It’s about standards. And working with pace.

      • Tim Matheson September 11, 2013 at 11:36 am #

        I would say fear and anxiety represent stress rather than pressure. Pressure is when you know what your doing, stress is when you dont.

        • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

          I like that a lot Tim- I think that is a great way of looking at it

  2. Thom September 11, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    I absolutely love this post

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

      Thanks Thom!

  3. Bianca September 11, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    Another great article, Chris!

    I have to agree – nothing builds teamwork and a sense of pride better than being part of a hard working, high expectation, high delivery team.

    And nothing wrecks it quite like an underperforming team member who gets away with doing the bare minimum and rejects innovation and change while your high performers carry them along.

    So yes, please ask us for more, push us hard and have high expectations for all your staff – because if you don’t, it will be the high performers you lose and not the ones skating on easy street. Your high performers are, after all, the ones who will easily walk into another job.

    ***Yep, I’m speaking from recent experience here. “When you’re green, you grow. When you’re ripe, you rot.” That is getting me through a tough time right now. Thanks Chris! ***

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

      Bianca- thanks so much for your thoughts and perspective. Keep the faith! Chris

  4. A curious observer... September 11, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Yes – Pressure can be a form of positive stress. And in quick bouts that’s great – fight or flight instinct kicks in and as you have to pay your rent, fight is usually the first instinct!. BUT, and it’s massive, you cannot run on cortisol forever. You will die. And I think we have to be really careful not to tout pressure and the resultant adrenalin rush as a physical state that is NORMAL to be in day and day out.

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

      That’s fair enough Georgie

  5. Cobber September 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    Another great article Chris, I like that this one, like the subject, is really punchy.

    Similar to what your saying but in another vein is creating a lowest common denominator within the team that is a positive for the business, and people will inherently gravitate to the lowest common denominator.



    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      That’s true Cobber!

  6. Amy September 11, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    Chris – what a wonderful post!
    I have just returned from a year working in Amsterdam for an agency who put immense pressure (high standards and very high expectations) on the whole team.

    I have never worked harder in my life nor have I ever been so satisfied.

    My perspective on the relationship I had with colleagues turned very quickly from an egotistical rat race into true comradeship as we went into battle together. The results are incredible.

    Thanks for the extra motivation to implement the processes that will apply the same high expectations and pressure on my own team going forward.


    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      Thanks Amy- that’s great feedback and endorsement of the point of view. Thanks!

  7. John Gardner September 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    Thanks Chris and I can speak from experience that you set high standards and a fast pace! And by setting high standards/expectations, as mentioned above, you will develop a high performing team. When recruiting, we stress the high standards and pace of MAGNUS and we find it’s a great way to truly test the recruit’s appetite for the challenge – some rise to it and some do not, but better to know earlier than later. One of our values is teamwork and we take it seriously in terms of developing a truly supportive and bonded team. Call it pressure, if you like, but I look at it more as taking people out of their comfort zones to build strong and lasting teams and teamwork! Pressure cooker environments are not sustainable – that is proven – and nor does every personality-type thrive within one.

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

      Thanks Gardy. Agree. Miss you.

  8. Shelley September 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    Agree 100%. I see this play out not only in the team, but in myself. If I’m not being pushed that little bit beyond my limit, I tend to drift.
    You’re absolutely right though, balance is what’s key. Too much pressure and there’s burn out.
    But there’s something so brilliantly satisfying about working hard and seeing outcomes. Great post.

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      Thanks Shelly! Appreciate very much the support. I know not everyone agrees with the ‘pressure’ approach and I absolutely agree that pressure long term is not sustainable, but high standards and accountability are. Thanks again. Chris

  9. Alex C September 11, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    Great post! Absolutely agree. The corollary to this is that a lack of healthy pressure is what leaves space for politics and bureaucracy to grow

  10. MC Hammer September 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Did someone forget to fire that bullet when you started? BANG.

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

      AAH MC- you are so amusing. I am ready to be hit anytime. Plenty else to do…. But then again, you’d miss me so I might keep running….

  11. Julia September 11, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    I’m a recent subscriber to your eDM, after a mentor in my industry put me onto your blog. I’ve read a few of your posts now and have taken something away from each. I recognise your observations like you’re working alongside me, and your insights and big picture view give me the motivation to step it up a notch, to work towards where you are now. That type of inspiration can be hard to come by, but is essential to continue creating excellent work. So thanks.

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      Thanks Julia- that’s great feedback. Thanks. Chris

  12. Russ September 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    Thanks Chris enjoy reading your posts! You have a great knack of communicating normal ‘life’ scenarios which for some reason in this day and age appear not to be the norm!! Go figure.

    I also like what John said above. At the end of the day its all about ‘attitude’, which then in turn dictates behaviour.

    I once heard a great quote which i think came from supercoach Wayne Bennett; ‘recruit for attitude and train for performance’! Tried telling my 12 yr old son that one on the way to school this morning……..

    • Chris Savage September 11, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

      Thanks Russ!

  13. Alex K October 16, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    Reading this post a bit later than I should have Chris; but read it at a perfect time. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Duncan June 5, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    Chris I loved the energy and intensity of your post, thank you. I too love pressure, probably too much on occasion. For me the post prompted a deeper reflection on what is more important for performance pressure or purpose? Perhaps pressure is the catalyst for elevating your performance good or bad. Purpose and purposeful leadership for me is about creating the right environment for individuals and teams to thrive.
    So what drives purpose? In my experience success inevitably happens when three things are occurring. When you are:
    1. Doing something not in your own self-interest – part of something bigger.
    2. Working with, leading and collaborating in relationships with others.
    3. Growing personally.
    For me purpose is both the key for my personal development and my leadership style. Acting with purpose creates a self-fulfilling and sustainable positive pressure, keeps the levels of quality high and reinforces ones sense of self worth.
    I’m feeling better already. Thank you.

    • Chris Savage June 5, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

      Duncan- I like this very much and learnt something from it. Thank you. Chris


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