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“Speak softly and carry a big stick” – Part 3 Leadership

Skills for the Non Executive Director – Pt3 Leadership

Theodore Roosevelt’s words, “Speak softly and carry a big stick and you’ll go far” was a reflection of his military capabilities which were designed to convey the principle that it was far better to use intelligent forward thinking in order to avoid a costly crisis. It’s clear that such a phrase has a threatening connotation but it’s especially clear that it’s far better to have a solid understanding of the situation.

Not everyone can be or wants to be a ‘leader’. Many are happy to follow, whilst some believe they are better leaders than those that do, and some are placed in leadership positions when they’re not qualified to be there.

There’s different types of ‘leaders’ too, some are autocratic whereas others will adopt a more inclusive style. This inclusive style is used particularly well as part of a recognised training system in the commercial aviation industry. CRM or Crew Resource Management is used to identify the personal qualities of an aircraft’s flight crew so that they can collectively maintain the safety of the aircraft and its passengers. CRM focuses solely on the ‘non-technical’ (NOTECHS) side of flying by assessing candidates in a range of environments to see how they cope both individually and collectively in challenging environments across four key areas: –

  • Situational awareness
  • Co-operation
  • Decision making
  • Leadership

The medical profession adopted the same NOTECHS methods too, when it became apparent that poor man-management was frequently to blame for low levels of patient welfare. Both professions drew similar conclusions that frequent changes in team composition was often the greatest contributory factor for a negative outcome. Boardrooms shouldn’t have issues of personal safety (although I have seen grown men cry in board meetings) but the importance of strong non-technical interpersonal skills are essential for any first-class management team at executive, and/or non-executive level.

As individuals, our cognitive skills are essential to us when forming a team, new or otherwise. They relate to us being entirely comfortable with our skills, whilst being open to the views of others, so that we can flourish and ultimately provide strong leadership to those who rely on us.

Good leaders mitigate risk by understanding the overall situation, something which any professional marketer will recognise and rank the most significant of the four areas; hence the reason why I’ve ranked them in the order that I have above.

Knowing: –

  • What are the current market conditions and how have they changed?
  • What financial restrictions might affect our growth and adaptation against them?
  • If we have any operational limitations such as across the supply chain, customer base or the inherent skills of our staff?
  • Are our products and services up to closer scrutiny?
  • What are my own limitations, and what do I need to do to overcome them?
  • What previous experiences can we draw on as individuals or a group to help us progress?

Personally, I don’t believe you can be a leader until you have proven you can understand the situation (internally and externally) and can co-operate with those around you. Of course, not everyone will agree, but generally most executives understand and accept this and are willing to co-operate for the good of the business as a whole.

Then, there’s the ‘decision making’ part of the mix. Everyone’s heard the phrase, ‘Knowledge is Power’, well it is, but only if you use it wisely. Knowing that the market’s buoyant is fine, but is this as a result of short-term trend/panic buying or a sustained long-term approach from consumers? Knowing which it is will help you mitigate a costly market entry approach made at completely the wrong time and understanding these issues gives rise to the ‘leadership’ element.

In my last NED role, the executive board were open to taking on my contrasting views about staff remuneration and when my views were proven to be correct, new methods were adopted by the executive team to drive productivity and genuine loyalty. Thinking back to a scene from Top Gun do you recall where Maverick asks Viper what he should do next and Viper responds with, “A good pilot is compelled to always evaluate what has happened so he can apply what he has learned”? In an effective boardroom it’s no different, we recognise we might not have all the answers, but if we can begin to see our own shortfalls then we can improve as a group. By evolving ourselves, we become valuable contributors and then effective leaders in our own right.

Interestingly, one thing that appears not to have been included in the list is ‘communication’, but it’s not missing as such, because it’s an integral part of each of the four facets. Without clear lines of communication, things simply fail. Initiatives fail, people fail and ultimately businesses themselves also fail. In my previous Non-Executive Director role, it was clear to see that the executive board were failing because tasks were verbally agreed and communicated within the minutes but were never used to bring accountability, despite the company’s Articles of Association and the requirements of the 2013 Companies Act. In fact, some members of the executive board felt they were above the need to act in such a way because the company was theirs to run, however they chose. It was a challenge, but as an NED I leveraged change for the directors that shared this vision, to their delight and the delight of the shareholders.

Serving as a Non-Executive Director is an honour and a privilege and a role that brings great satisfaction. If you’re an executive board member and having read this it strikes a chord with you and you’d like to get in touch, please email me at, Nigel Davis to see if I may be able to help you.


Nigel Davis was voted ‘One of Britain’s Top 50 Small Business Consultants’ & is an MCIM Chartered Marketer and Non-Executive Director.


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