Opening minds

25 January 2016

L89_SimonCohen_pic WEBSimon Cohen began his communications career in the sharp-elbowed world of advertising, pitching to clients over boozy Soho lunches and turning up for work every day power-dressed and ready for action.

It was a life, he says now, that was hard-driven and, despite the financial benefits, unrewarding, so when he moved to set up his own company, he decided to focus on the more fulfilling area of social activism. His communications company, Global Tolerance, was hugely successful and he was working with such inspirational figures as the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and with the United Nations (UN) on peace and conflict-resolution projects worldwide.

Yet after a decade building up a pioneering business, in 2013 he put the whole company on a one-year sabbatical in order to be present at the birth of his first child. Then, in March 2014, tired of the travelling and long periods away that the business demanded, he decided to give it away through an ‘open-leadership’ exercise, which meant selecting two people who would develop the company while retaining its original, social activism values and handing them the assets plus 95 per cent of the shares.

It was a bold and potentially risky step but Simon, 36, believes in the pursuit of happiness and he has designed his life now to fulfil that goal. He and his wife, Kate, and two daughters live in a rented house on a Cornwall clifftop from where he works one day a week as a consultant for a Buddhist master, earning £30,000. He writes for the Harvard Business Review and The Huffington Post, among other publications, as well as contributing to Thought for the Day on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2.

‘Not just a living’
He will be drawing on these experiences and explaining how they have shaped his approach to leadership as one of the keynote speakers at ASCL Annual Conference in Birmingham, 4–5 March.

“My professional life has been invested in what is of most value to me and to the world in the sense of happiness,” Simon says. “I wanted, like Churchill said, to make a life not just a living.” He believes, he says in open leadership and allowing personal qualities and characteristics to shine, rather than the buttoned-up, authority-driven approach upon which so many leaders continue to rely.

“Open leadership is about certain qualities, such as subjectivity and vulnerability. Stereotypical ideas of leadership might be around being in a position of authority and leaving aside our emotions, our family, our baggage at the door in order to project strength and even perfection. What I am advocating is probably the polar opposite of that: it’s about being whole and being the same person that we are at work as out of it.”

It’s a tragic irony that we may get to the positions we are in because of who we are, yet, so often in a role, we are slowly institutionalised, he says. “So the very thing that makes us ‘us’ and the reason why we were hired in the first place has been dissipated and diluted.”

If this sounds vague or unconvincing, he points to Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama as examples of open leaders who eschew a traditional, authoritarian leadership style in favour of a more personal strategy and achieve great things as a result.

It is possible, he says, to incorporate this open approach into a system – so not just the leader but the whole team is encouraged to use their gifts and talents.

‘Sound of Silence’
“Step one is understanding what the gift of ourselves and our staff are. At Global Tolerance, we had the Sound of Silence minute every day where we asked a powerful question and one of those questions was around gifts – what am I truly gifted at? It’s how we found out that a member of the social media team was a gifted designer.

“When people are honouring their gifts it improves morale, employee well-being, reduces employee turnover and increases productivity as people are really fulfilling their potential.

Another theme of his talk will be the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Educational institutions are seen as places to accumulate knowledge, which is a mistake, he says.

“Knowledge is extremely important but if we think of all our educational institutions as places to accumulate wisdom, I think it can reframe how we think about education.

“I have had the privilege of working with some wonderful pre-eminent and spiritual figures. For me, the wisest of them all are children and babies. They are never in a rush – it takes us an hour to leave the house with our two daughters because they are noticing the world around them. My children have taught me how to slow down, be present.”

The wisest people don’t take themselves too seriously either, he adds. “I was managing a press conference for the Dalai Lama and halfway through the talk about the meaning of life he just cracked up laughing for about 90 seconds. Something in his head had tickled him and he had the whole conference laughing out loud, then he just carried on. What a great way to capture the meaning of life.”

London bombings
In July 2005, Simon had one of his most vivid lessons in leadership. He was working with Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, who was about to embark on a tour of the UK. When the London bombings happened on 7 July, killing 53 people on Tube trains and buses, Gandhi switched his theme.

“He was going to speak about inter-faith relations as a Hindu leader but also as a peace activist and former senator. When the bombings happened, it was changed into a peace tour discussing the peace-loving nature of Islam, which considering the tensions at the time… I had such profound respect for him and learned a great deal.”

Simon had personal reasons for wanting to see some good emerge from the tragedy. His friend, 52-year-old Colin Morley, was among those killed in the blast at Edgware Road. Colin was the founder of Be the Change, a communications project to encourage organisations to improve ethically, socially and environmentally and a fellow traveller in the peace and conflict-resolution world.

“In the days after 7/7, then the Paris attacks in November 2015 and with Donald Trump’s comments about immigration most recently, there are many who are using the mainstream media to perpetuate fear rather than hope,” Simon says.

“But the experience of losing a friend in the London bombings really brought home to me the desperate and urgent need for spreading more hope.”

Lessons in leadership
You matter’ – I learned this from Dr Jeni Stepanek. It’s how to listen to but eventually silence the internal, detracting voices that say, “You can’t do that, it’s impossible/ everyone will think you are crazy.” If you accept that you matter, you have the courage to tread untrodden paths.

Don’t put people on a pedestal’ – I learned this from the Dalai Lama, who would be first to say there was nothing special about him.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference’ – this is the Serenity Prayer. I first came across it at Gamblers Anonymous where I went at 17 after developing a gambling problem. Sitting in a circle with a group of bearded old men was a really scary experience and I learned a huge amount. The prayer is a wonderful lesson in life leadership.

ASCL Annual Conference 2016
Simon Cohen will share his experience of leadership at ASCL Annual Conference, 4–5 March in Birmingham. Book your place now to attend our flagship event for all members of the leadership team. The event is an excellent opportunity to hear from experienced and influential experts, share experiences and network with colleagues and friends. For more information and to secure your place, see www.ascl.org.uk/ascl-annualconference

Julie Nightingale is a Freelance Education Writer