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Inspirational Leaders

Georgina Fuller

It has been said that every great person stands on the shoulders of one who has gone before. Georgina Fuller asks who inspires the leaders of today

When we think back to the person who first inspired us, we may well think of the first heroes we had as children. If we were fortunate enough to have half-decent childhoods, we probably thought of one or both parents as inspirations. They provided the template for who we hoped to become when we grew up. We wanted to be just like them. When we hit our teens, celebrities and sports stars started to replace our parents as idols and it was their pictures that adorned our walls. Fast-forward several decades and we have probably drawn inspiration from many different people in different areas of our lives. Some of the most popular heroes today come from a diverse range of worlds – from adventurers like Bear Grylls to athletes like Tanni Grey-Thompson; from authors like Maya Angelou to those from the business world like Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Inspirational people, especially high-profile leaders and prominent figures, are often quick to cite their personal heroes and talk about the people who have inspired and encouraged them to become who they are today. These idols are often people the leaders can identify with, and come from similar backgrounds and industries to themselves; far enough removed to be impressive but close enough that they can follow in their footsteps. They may have paved the way for their successors by introducing a new concept (Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook), set an outstanding example of leadership and integrity (Colonel Tim Collins during the Iraq war) or defied their gender stereotype to take over one of the most challenging, high-profile companies in the world (Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!).

Before someone criticises, there must be a round of applause for those who have tried

    The creator of YO! Sushi and former Dragon’s Den panellist Simon Woodroffe is one of the many business leaders inspired by pioneering predecessors. The entrepreneur, who introduced conveyor belt sushi bars and robot drinks trolleys to the masses, cites Wagamama noodle bar founder Alan Yau as his leading light. “With no real previous experience Alan conceived and opened Wagamama, something that was, at the time, completely different. He was totally committed, driven and obsessed with detail and doing everything right,” he says. “I learned that anyone can have a vision and break the rules.” 

    The noodle bar first opened its doors in London in 1992 and now employs 3,500 staff in 17 countries. Woodroffe, who started YO! Sushi in London in 1997 and has since gone on to launch Yotel and, more recently, YO! Home (design interiors), says he is full of admiration for anyone who tries to do something different. “It should be a law that before someone criticises, there must be a round of applause for those who have tried,” he adds.

    Heather Killen, chairwoman of Horse & Country TV, is another case in point. Killen says the late Mark McCormack, founder of International Management Group (IMG), has inspired her to want to change the perception of sport. McCormack, an American lawyer and sports agent, started the international management firm for sports stars and celebrities in 1960 and went on to become “the most powerful man in sports” (according to The Sporting News) and one of Forbes 400 Richest Americans.  

    Killen, who left a steady job on Wall Street to join an unknown start-up called Yahoo! in 1996 before becoming a director at ITV, draws parallels with her new job at Horse & Country TV and McCormack’s role at IMG. “The way Mark shaped golf and tennis into hugely valuable properties is very inspiring,” she notes. “He was a real game-changer in how people viewed sports, through changing the way they were covered by the media.” Golf, for example, was considered a somewhat dull game played by affluent suburban country club members before Mark met golfer Arnold Palmer and turned him into a global superstar. “The same opportunity exists with the massive and passionate group around horse sport and the whole lifestyle that goes with it,” says Killen. “Mark believed in the power of personalities to bring narrative and glamour to a sport, and he backed the people he represented to the hilt, which fostered tremendous loyalty.”  

    Not all business leaders, however, are inspired by moguls from the corporate world. Christopher Pullen, global managing director at office management firm Regus, says the best place to find world class leaders is in the army. “All of the principals of Investors in People (IiP) were taken from the military model,” he says. “I always try and employ ex-military people in junior management roles as you get utterly dependable and dedicated people that really know how to motivate teams.” 

    Pullen, who spent 10 years in the army after training at Sandhurst military school and becoming a regional director at National Car Parks, credits his former boss, Lieutenant General Sir James Bucknall KCB CBE, currently commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, as being the most inspiring person he’s ever met. “James has a charismatic and infectious leadership style, based on integrity and doing the right thing,” he says. “You followed him and worked your very hardest to achieve results for him, simply because of the trust and respect that he engendered.” Pullen, who was Bucknall’s adjutant (staff officer) when he commanded 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, said it’s been very useful to have a reference point of excellence during his formative years in management. “In the civilian world, such powerful reference points are very hard to come by,” he adds wistfully.

    However, while many of today’s CEOs and business heads are inspired by their peers, some of the most influential people still look to their families for their inspiration. Cosmetics queen Bobbi Brown, for example, recently told Inc. magazine that she learned everything from her grandfather Sam Shatten, a Russian immigrant who became one of the most successful Cadillac dealers in Chicago. “My grandfather taught me always to have your eyes open,” she says, “because you never know what opportunities are going to come your way.”

    My inspiration


    Alexander Vaschenko, president/founder of NARR8, a mobile app and digital content channel provider: “Steve Jobs [co-founder, CEO and Chairman of Apple Inc.] is one of my heroes. His work and his life have taught me how courage and adhering to your principles will, ultimately, triumph in the end.”

    Damian Clarkson, CEO of event catering company The London Kitchen: “The person who stands out for me is Lucy Gemmell, a trend setter within the food sector and the founder of Rhubarb Food Design. Lucy pushed the boundaries. She did things her way, striving for the perfect experience.”

    James Lock, CEO of Communicate recruitment firm: “Without wishing to sound clichéd, my business inspiration is Richard Branson. He has successfully moulded himself into a self-made entrepreneur, relying on his personal qualities; perseverance, courage, and extraordinary people skills, and on trial and error.  I can see how someone before me has done it and I try to emulate that.”

    Steve Abel, CEO of P4D international courier company: “I’d say Anthony Robbins [American self-help author and motivational speaker] has been my inspiration.  He certainly knows how to fire me up and listening to him was the only one thing I did differently when I started on my business P4D. Hearing his advice and following his steps every day eventually turned into a habit and I became obsessed with becoming successful.”

    Charlotte Ball, principal director at the Young Enterprise School: “Christian Nock is unknown to many but since August 2012 he has been walking along the coast of Britain raising money for Help for Heroes charity. He has inspired me to really think about those in need; such a selfless act could influence so many.”


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