Sorrell’s exit signals our desire for a softer style of leadership: Seven Hills Co-founder Michael Hayman for City A.M.
The following article from Michael Hayman MBE originally appeared in City A.M.
Is it better to be feared or loved?
The philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli asked the question in his treatise The Prince as part of his advice on leadership.
A tweet late on Saturday evening last week announced the untimely end, whisking away his career in the dead of night. Pundits have called him the Napoleon of ad land – and with his current state of exile, it feels like the great leader has indeed been imprisoned on the business version of Elba.
Every day, his business obituary is being crowdsourced by what looks like a gleeful commentariat. We are fascinated by the manner of his departure – but it is the reputation of the man himself that is perhaps even more intriguing.
That he was revered can never be in doubt. But what emerges is that he was also greatly feared. After decades in authority, perhaps the style of the long-serving autocratic leader is finding its way into the history books.
Consider this: since he founded WPP in the mid-1980s Britain has had six Prime Ministers. And only four technically elected world leaders are still in position – the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, the President of Uganda, and the President of Kazakhstan.
As a leader who had survived so long, Sir Martin found himself in rarified company.
Having worked in a far-flung outpost of the WPP empire, I can attest to the omnipotent and ever-present guiding hand of its founder.
His departure is not so much the changing of the guard, but a regime change – not least because we expect today’s leaders to show a softer side in their relationship with people and society at large.
Earlier this year, BlackRock’s chief executive Larry Fink wrote to business leaders to say that, as far as the firm’s investments went, “every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society”.
This sentiment has caught the imagination of business leaders all over the world.
Let’s not forget that these words come from a global asset management firm that has hitherto been seen as having the very hardest of hard noses when it comes to investor returns. It is a significant about-turn.
And of course, there is self-interest here. For capitalism to succeed, it needs more people to believe in it, and that means more people loving it.
We’re seeing a growth of activism in the commercial world, especially among younger firms that want to grow in a more purposeful way.
Purpose is about the belief that you can make a difference, and that optimistic action matters in the building of the world-beaters of tomorrow.
What this challenges is the idea that the business of business is business, and that the sole role of leaders is to deliver financial returns.
Sorrell was, of course, a master of financial returns.
From running the finance department at Saatchi&Saatchi, Sorrell went on to buy a shell company, Wire and Plastic Products in Kent, and turn it from a small-time shopping basket manufacturer into a media mammoth.
All done in a single lifetime, and with phenomenal aplomb.
But despite his success, his reputation suffered. His leadership was frequently marred by shareholder rows over his pay. Even when a reported salary of £70m was slashed, it still left him as the highest paid boss of the FTSE. He was unapologetic, and his rule was absolute.
Stephen Allan, boss of WPP-owned Mediacom, has already suggested that Sorrell’s departure would “liberate” staff.
While many will attest to both his great personal kindness and skill as a leader, they will also tell you that he was not a man to be crossed, and that he was feared.
Has this, coupled with the lack of transparency around his departure, made us quick to forget the story of the self-made entrepreneur? After all, WPP is one of the greatest British business stories of our time.
Machiavelli answered his own question thus: it is better to be loved, but achieving this is difficult. Fear is the easier route, and therefore the way to go.
But if recent events show us anything, it is that this advice has not stood the test of time.
Leaders need to connect, and the Business Spring hastened in by Sir Martin’s departure may well be the first step towards its own Summer of Love.