One of the things I love about The Marketing Society’s annual conference is that every year they gather an eclectic cohort of speakers who cover an enormously diverse range of topics far beyond the normal realms of a business conference. As marketers, and as bold leaders, one of the most important things we can do for our development is constantly nourish our brains with new learnings from “the outside”. Yet again, the Marketing Society conference served up a delightfully inspiring mix of stories to help us achieve such an aim, this year themed around the concept of bravery.
The first speaker of the day, Dr. Emma Barrett, opened proceedings by giving us a fundamental grounding in the psychology and physiology of being brave. A couple of her points really resonated with me and were subsequently reinforced throughout the day.
Firstly, that being brave is about managed risk-taking based on careful preparation. By contrast, risk-taking without preparation is not bravery at all, it’s just recklessness.
Take the case of Garrett McNamara a world-record big wave surfer who’s faced extreme physical peril on many occasions. He described the meticulous preparation that is undertaken each time he goes out to sea, and the significant crew of people he needs around him to help him achieve his goals. Likewise, Mark Thompson, the President and CEO of the New York Times, described the relentless pursuit of every last detail of the truth in which his journalists are engaged before breaking brave stories such as the Harvey Weinstein expose or fighting back against Trumpist attacks.
The second point that particularly resonated for me was that bravery requires a clear and valued goal to be established, something against which to fight and make it worth all the risk. One way or another, every speaker at the conference could eloquently articulate the “enemy” that inspired their bravery.
Raha Moharrak, the first Arab woman to climb Mount Everest, was fighting against the massive cultural oppression faced by women in her country, expressed through the simple utterance of the word “No” by her father when she described her dreams to him.
Syl Saller, global CMO of Diageo, candidly described how she has fought many times in her career against a feeling of “I can’t…” when faced with new challenges or roles.
Celebrated violinist Myn Kim is still fighting a massive sense of physical and emotional loss experienced when her precious musical instrument was stolen, and Dr Ali Parsa is fighting the arcane health practitioner system in the UK by providing a system that means we could all see a GP within one hour of requesting it.
But the last word of the day must surely go to Hassan Akkad, who modestly described himself as “the annoying guy” for revealing the truth about experiences suffered by Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country and seeking asylum in places such as the UK. Hassan, who was an English teacher in Damascus living a normal twenty-something life before the war, exhibited extraordinary degrees of humility as he recounted, in words and first-person video footage, the story of his activism, incarceration, torture and eventual exodus from Syria.
Unlike most of his fellow speakers, he simply had no choice but to be brave – his life quite literally depended on it. Moving his audience to tears he described one physical and emotional challenge after another – from repeatedly braving the treacherous waters of the Aegean Sea in a small rubber dinghy filled to twice its capacity, through trekking the length of Europe on foot, and eventually facing the hostility of anti-immigration campaigners upon his arrival in London.
Hassan is, for me, the pure embodiment of purpose-led behaviour. Whilst slight and unassuming in physical stature, his “leadership persona” was enormous, vibrant and truly inspiring. Like all of his fellow speakers he had found a way to confront his fears and, rather than trying to become fear-less, instead find a way to use that fear as a motivator for change.
Hats off to The Marketing Society for once again pushing the boundaries of our knowledge, comfort and critical thinking. It was a brave agenda and it will certainly have inspired some braver (and bolder) leadership thinking as a result.
Steve Walker is the Founder and Principal of Two Sides Leadership & Brand Transformation, and former global CMO of Sony Mobile. You can follow him @walkersteve.