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Years ago, I worked for an organisation led by a brilliant and charismatic woman.

She had that gift of natural leadership.

People’s eyes lit up when she entered a room, she had the knack of inspiring people to give of their best and if she simply stood up at a crowded event the room would fall silent, ready to hear what she had to say.

Indeed, there was no denying that under her leadership the organisation thrived.

As a leader, though, I felt she did have one flaw.

Although she had a talented senior leadership team, they were people who (to my eyes) rarely challenged her ideas.

This became evident in the weeks after our talented director moved on and got another post. The organisation was facing a merger and deprived of their leading light the senior management seemed to flounder. They found it difficult to agree on a common direction and decision making became tortuously slow.

I left the organisation shortly afterwards to work in a better-led environment. I wasn’t alone; quite a number of staff jumped ship at the same time, meaning the organisation lost a significant amount of talent and experience.

As a leader, I can see it’s tempting to surround yourself with people who are likely to agree with you. But it’s usually a mistake.

The advertising legend David Ogilvy understood this. When he hired a new agency head for one of his international branches, he would give them a set of Russian Dolls. Inside them he put a slip of paper on which he had written:

If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.

It worked. Ogilvy & Mather thrived, grew and became perhaps the most significant advertising agency in the world.

For me, a key part of hiring people who are ‘bigger’ than oneself is to hire people who aren’t afraid to disagree with you. Firstly because they give you fresh ideas and insights that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Secondly, because you know your business has the talent to succeed in your absence. And thirdly, because it helps you keep a sense of perspective.

Keeping a sense of perspective is vital, especially when your business is doing really well. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your decisions will automatically result in success. That can lead you to make major mistakes.

The ancient Romans knew it was important to guard against this. When Caesar or his generals returned successful from military campaigns, they would ride in a four-horse chariot through the streets of Rome at the head of their army, captives and spoils of war.

Standing behind the leader in his chariot was a slave a gladiator status called an Auriga. His job was to hold a laurus crown over the leader’s head, continually whispering the words ‘Memento homo’, or ‘remember you are (only) a man’.

The idea was to help the leader avoid losing his sense of proportion.

So, even if you are lucky enough to be a natural leader, it’s always wise to surround yourself with talented people who have the courage to disagree with you. It not only helps them develop but it also helps you develop and your business to get stronger.

And as Ogilvy knew, it’s the only way to grow a company of ‘giants’.

Avatar for Ben Locker
About Ben Locker

Ben Locker is a copywriter who specialises in business-to-business marketing, writing about everything from software and accountancy to construction and power tools. He co-founded the Professional Copywriters’ Network, the UK’s association for commercial writers, and is named in Direct Marketing Association research as ‘one of the copywriters who copywriters rate’.

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