Andrew Cowen on Leadership

An address to the School Fellows at the 2009 Leadership Day



My name is Andrew Cowen, I am the grandson of J Arthur (later Lord) Rank. Firstly let me say two things:


-         Firstly a big thank you to Paddington Arts for hosting today. Paddington Arts have been long term friends of the Foundation and in partnership with them, we think we have made a difference. Our relationship, primarily through the Youth programme of the Rank Foundation rather than the Education Scheme has done its bit for leadership in the field of youth work and this organisation is steeped in that culture.

-         Secondly I am today deputising for my brother Fred Packard who died earlier this year. In that context I only wish that my role today was to be his warm up man and not the main course.


Today we are here to discuss Leadership. I am here because my grandfather was a leader, you are here because in your schools, you have been marked out as showing signs of being leaders and opinion formers amongst your peers.


When the Scheme started in 1978 it was delivered in a typically British manner of understatement. The identity of the benefactor was a closely guarded secret, Lord Rank, Fairy Godmother or the Moonies, it was all a secret. In some way it was almost apologetic.


In 2003 we decided that being apologetic and secret was not the way forward and we established the Fellowship to bring together the 1200 or so people who had been beneficiaries to the system, identify the benefactor and in the Fellowship, provide a conduit for beneficiaries to reinvest in society. It has been an unqualified success and if you want to see two shining examples of everything good about the Educational Scheme, Fellowship and Rank Family then look no further than Jason Chaffer and Emma Watson Mack who have played a definitive role in developing the Scheme and Fellowship to what it is now.


The Scheme and Fellowship is not static. It is very much alive and it derives that life from the very active and very welcome input of a Steering Committee, and Executive in Tim Young and the very long suffering Gill Zammett (without whom nothing would happen) and you, the beneficiaries.


Recent developments include:

-         extension of the Scheme into the State sector to assist in tertiary education

-         introduction of community placements to marry up the Scheme and Fellowship with the Foundations Youth programmes

-         the founding of a sister organisation to provide the same ongoing tools and structure for those who have been beneficiaries of the Foundations Youth or Adult scheme in the youth leadership sector.

-         Reinvesting through an active charities programme and the workshop programme. Recent successes include legal issues, marketing, fundraising and charity administration.


Under this common guidance, I like to think we have created a vibrant group of people who have the capability and tools to make a difference in whatever walk of life they choose and encourage others to do the same.


If that sounds like a cult then you are wrong and I have explained myself badly. The Scheme and Fellowship exists to help beneficiaries to plough something of their good fortune back into their parent society. If you choose not to do this, nobody will present you with a bill and nobody will coerce you.


That said, if Tim's judgement of you is right we hope that you will want to take advantage of the framework and tools that the Fellowship offers. Moral blackmail spot is now over.




HISTORY LESSON: Why is the Foundation, Fellowship and Scheme concerned with leadership? Why not  concentrate on something tangible that provides social advance or some other tangible benefit like child poverty or similar?


My grandfather was one of the grandees of post war corporate Britain. Coming from a devout middle class trade background in flour milling, he was smart enough to see where the tide of growing disposable income might take a pretty much moribund leisure sector that had just about survived war and rationing.  Cynically dubbed the "Methodist Bingo Magnate" by a rival, he developed the Rank Organisation into a leisure brand that spanned bingo, cinema, theatre and holiday camps.


Very much the staple of post war entertainment in an era where international travel remained the preserve of the super rich and package holidays did not exist, he became a major player in every high street in Britain through his chain of Gaumont and Odeon cinemas. Not only that, he was the first non American to integrate his film distribution network with production of films giving this country its own creative department. At the sublime, he gave us cinema classics like Powell and Pressburger's Matter of Life and Death at the other end of the spectrum he gave us Carry On and in that was singlehandedly responsible for perpetuating Sid James' laugh and Kenneth Williams "Oooh Matron" long after the utterers had moved on.


During this process, my grandfather was keen to the point of obsession with technology. He was one of the first private citizens to fly in an aeroplane and it was this appetite which made him his second fortune in his prescient backing of an obscure document copying technology that became Xerox and spawned the photocopying revolution that changed office life forever.


His technological fulfilment via photocopying replicated his interest in Leadership. In the same way that photocopying provided a multiplication function, my grandfather was of the opinion that the benefit of any venture, in his case philanthropic, could be multiplied, or in todays parlance leveraged by people who had the ability to inspire and motivate others... leaders.


It is that thinking that made the consideration of leadership a theme in his later years and a defined purpose in his settlement of all his wealth in the Rank Foundation.


That thinking lives on in the strapline for the Foundation... Pebble in the Pond.      


So with the history lesson over and the context of today set, I would just like to think a little about leadership before we start on the days activities.




LEADERSHIP: Leadership is not a piece of behavioural mumbo jumbo dreamed up by a Mittel European psychologist in the middle of the last century to try and score a Nobel prize.


Leadership is a biological need. Humans are not designed to live on their own. They are pack animals and ever have been since we morphed from reptiles on leaving the primordial soup. We have perjorative terms for those that live on their own, "Loner" or "hermit" and have made fun of those who have sought spiritual enlightenment by cutting themselves off from the rest of their society.


Before we got to the stage where we are now and learnt to read the Guardian and understand our social context, Leadership was a pretty red blooded affair. Those of you, like my grandfather, who are cinema buffs will remember what happened with the apes in "2001 A Space Odyssey". Many of you will remember what happened in Lord of the Flies when humans are put into a context where first world social mores are no longer applicable.


Yessir, we are pack animals and we look to a leader who in rougher times would provide the pack with the necessities of food, shelter and direction and through his strength and cunning impose a social order on this hirsute bunch of developing humans that would deliver the cohesion that would allow the realisation of a common purpose.


What's changed? In William Golding's parlance, we'll still eat Piggy but we'd like someone else to butcher him, put him in a polystyrene tray and tell us firstly he was organic and secondly what his carbon footprint was.


Leadership is still a social need but as we have moved away from a life where survival was a priority to one where a second skiing holiday is a necessity, the abstract has moved on.


Tribalism may have morphed into football support but we still all feel an urge to belong and the other side of that coin is the need to be led or to lead.




MEANING: What do we think of as leadership?


A good place to start is the dictionary and dusting off my Oxford Pocket I find that the definition of "lead" is:


" Cause to go with one, help to go, guide by persuasion or example or argument, direct the actions or opinions of others"


Further down the definition I was amused by one of the applications of the word as a noun " thong for the leading of a dog". This conjures up an interesting picture. Speaking personally, my dogs prefer a length of cord with a slip knot.


Putting leadership into Wikipedia, that fountain of all modern knowledge I find that a leader is " not necessarily hostile to, but is aloof from participation in work" Sounds like the sort of job we could all do.


This diversity of meaning reminds me of the joke about the Telegraph and Sun crossword. Both demanded the answer to a five letter clue which was "Egg on". The Telegraph solution was "impel", the Sun, "toast".


 It would seem that leadership has a similar issue to the crossword in its diversity of response.


It may be that the meaning of leadership is as personal as the meaning of say, prayer but I do not subscribe to that given that leadership revolves around the relationship between at least two people. It must therefore be capable of being distilled into something more tangible than a metaphysical state.



MY EXPERIENCE: To help in this perhaps the next place to start in within the context of ones own experience (sounds like I've been doing too much Guardian now). I am 51 and for people of my mileage, leadership was deemed to be found in the field of public service:


-         Firstly military: I was brought up in an era and in an environment where no one was apologetic about painting half the globe pink and subsequently defending it. My schooltime understanding of leadership was very much formed about military leadership delivered in the form of  Wellington, Marlborough, Montgomery and the like. I was too young to have seen George C Scott in "Patton" and Blackadder Goes to War had not been made


-         Secondly political: My history was based around the golden age of British parliamentary democracy where Gladstone and Disraeli slugged it out on the floor of the Commons and where figures of the magnitude of Palmerston, Grey and Castlereagh cropped up at least every decade. In my life, the only true political leader of significance was Margaret Thatcher, who as well as fitting the Oxford English definition, had a vision and a decisiveness that gave her name to a decade.



-         Thirdly spiritual: My lifetime had been devoid of the genesis of new religions but in recent memory the likes of  General Booth of the Salvation Army again fits accepted versions of leadership


-         Fourthly social: From reformers with whom my only acquaintance was via school text books like William Wilberforce or Mahatma Ghandi to Rev King and the Civil Rights movement in the US during my childhood there are plenty of examples to show that leadership is not delivered from a position of power and privilege.



In looking at those held up to be leaders in my own lifetime and experience, I am now beginning to find some common denominators, shared ground not to mention mixed metaphors.


At the same time I am aware that all those regarded by society as leaders are not pleasant people who demonstrate laudable characteristics. For every Thatcher, you do not have to move very far to find a Pol Pot or a Hitler for every Rev King, a Jim Jones.


The dividing line that pushes people with leadership potential down a right or wrong route is as fine as that between the Force and the Dark Side debated by Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies or that which separates genius from lunacy.


QUALITIES: So in order not to outstay my welcome I think it is time to nail the qualities that are the hallmark of the leader today, a sort of 10 Commandments:


-        Inspiration: Can a leader be uninspirational? I think not. Even if one movers away from the "over the top" school of leadership espoused by Richard Hannay, Biggles, and Bulldog Drummond to today's lower key incarnation of leadership inspiration is essential if a leader is to be able to "guide by persuasion argument or example". I also believe that this quality has to go further than simply being able to articulate a case. A close friend of mine is a Champions League defamation barrister who can certainly guide a jury by argument and persuasion, however does he inspire? No.


-        Vision: In order to inspire I also believe you must have a vision or goal to act as an end point for the guiding by persuasion argument or example. Can you inspire without an object for that inspiration? I don't think so and without it the process becomes as bogus as the South Sea company which generated to the eponymous bubble "for the carrying on of an undertaking of great advantage".



-        Charisma: To sell even the most attractive cause to would be followers, I believe the leader must have charisma. My friend the Oxford Pocket goes a bit over the top on this one defining the meaning as " divinely conferred power or talent" but thankfully then goes on to qualify this "or capacity to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm." I cannot think of anyone who I would regard as a leader who has not got this. Good, bad, Stalin or Mother Theresa. Its there. At the risk of being accused of playing word games, I am amused to see then next but one entry (the other side of "charity") I find "charlatan" defined as "false pretender to knowledge or skill". Very much first lexicographical cousins and perhaps where George Lucas found the Darth Vader/Skywalker debate!  


-        Command without coercion: In times where leaders were seen in a military context, or where society had a much more rigid caste system that the one we enjoy now, most authority was absolute. You obeyed a command as the consequences of not doing were so horrendous that regardless of what you thought of the command or the person giving it, you just did it. Apart from the armed forces and one or two other institutions such as the emergency services, we live in a society where absolute power is a rarity. Even in our own homes there is now seldom the absolute power of the Victorian Father and authority is exercised on a consensual basis where the person giving the direction relies on the trust placed in him and the assumption that his direction will be to the common good to avoid having that questioned or disobeyed. Today's leader has to be able to lead by consensus and not by absolute authority. To rely on the latter in today's framework of society reduces you to the level of a traffic warden. They lack inspiration, they lack vision, they lack charisma but if they tell us to move our car we do so because we can't be fished to fork out £70 or retrieve the wretched thing from the police pound. 


-        Collegiate authority but with the determination to make decisions: Command , ultimately the prerogative of the leader, cannot be exercised in an absolute fashion as I have just articulated. An extension of this is the delivery of authority through a collegiate system of government. Most countries in the world have some pretence at delivering government through a democracy probably being the ultimate expression of collegiate authority albeit only exercisable in intervals of four years. Business has become more corporate. The days of Henry Ford being able to say that the ideal number of persons on his Board was an odd number below three no longer works. However do not confuse exercise of authority in this fashion as a recipe for compromise as a leader has the ultimate responsibility to make the decision having first listened to the arguments, the lobby groups and others. As Margaret Thatcher said " Advisors advise, ministers decide."


-        Strength of character: To do all of these things, you need strength of character. To stand up and be counted and to be able to justify your decisions to all and sundry. That needs tempering with an understanding that according to the Catholic Church, the only infallible person is God's Regent on Earth, the Pope. Indeed of Winston Churchill, someone who would probably appear among most people's Desert Island Leaders, some one wrote " Churchill never doubted his own genius though sometimes his subordinates wished he would". Strength of character requires a balance.


-        Initiative: Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leader if not a despot, coined the expression "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". A leader must have initiative to reassess the vision. The ability to change direction need not be to the point of Thatcher's "Lady's not for tuning" but can a true leader have the misguided permanence of purpose of the front lemming?  



-        Intelligence: It is difficult to see that the qualities in the 10 Commandments to date, all seven of them, can be fulfilled by someone who lacks intelligence. This does not mean that leaders have to be academics and this statement holds even less water if reversed: academics are seldom leaders although they may well provide the vision onto which a leader will attach his or her lien.


-        Communication: All of this will come to naught unless the leader elect can articulate his or her vision in a way that will inspire others into a bargain whereby in return for the leaders vision, the populace are prepared to be led. The modern day marital aids for communication, the blog, the video, the soundbite, facebook and tweet have diluted the raw communicative power required of history's leaders and have allowed some who better fitted in the next Oxford pocket entry after charity to take up the mantle of leadership. To this end, I think we have strayed too far from the red blood of leadership as of old. To my mind, a leader must be able to sell his or her vision and inspire through his or her ability to communicate and not the ability of a third party to spin.



-        Loyalty: Loyalty is today as rare as an honest expense claim in the House of Commons. It may well explain the paucity of leaders in todays directionless society. In adding loyalty to the list, I can do no better than quote Larry Parsons who in the dim and distant past held the position Tim now holds:


     " True loyalty faces in two directions simultaneously. Upwards to ones superiors and downwards to one's subordinates. The true Leader must be utterly reliable. Those who have appointed him must know that they can depend on him to support them to the utmost of his or her ability. Likewise their subordinates must be able to trust their leader instinctively. They must know that though he may give them a good wigging on occasions, he can be relied upon to be equally savage in defending them against outsiders.

Nothing undermines morale quicker than the discovery that the boss has let you down: nothing binds subordinates more strongly to their leader than the knowledge that he or she will accept the ultimate responsibility for their actions and even if they make mistakes, will stand in the front line and take the fire.

People will put with all sorts of failings and eccentricities in a leader provided that they know that he is straight, that any demands he makes on them or their time will match with equal or equivalent demands on him or herself and his or her time. And that when the chips are down he or she will stand shoulder to shoulder whatever the outcome."


     Not exactly expressed in the modern vernacular but take that away today and you will have justified getting out of bed.



FINALLY: Are Leaders born or produced? I believe that leaders are born and leadership is a quality that you cannot impart with an NVQ. It might remain buried in a person until a set of events triggers it off.


The qualities above, or at least their sprouts have been seen in some degree in you so to some degree that argument is academic. It is not however academic in the context of how you develop these qualities and how you then apply them to your life and the society in which you live.


It is in the context of these last two points it would be delightfully cheesy to read you "If" by Rudyard Kipling. Victorian, unfashionable, but no-one has produced a work to supplant this.


However rather than do that I would commend the Fellowship to you as a way in which to maximise the ripple that your pebble makes in the pond.

Stay in Touch
Newsletter enveloper
Sign up for the Fellowship Newsletter

Join the Conversation
Join us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

Did you See?