David Sandell
David Sandell

By David Sandell, Creative Director & Joint MD Triad Limited.

Charisma isn’t always enough.

I often wonder if I had trusted my instincts at an earlier age, whether I might have achieved more in life. I’ve always considered myself slightly introvert, which may surprise some that know me. Being introverted may well have held back many successful people in their early years, until they decided to step forward; like so many things in life it is often simply confidence that opens doors.

As it happens I generally enjoy the company of those more outgoing than myself. Some such individuals are very dear to me and I often work well with extroverts, like the ying and yang of personality.

The question often asked is this: does being louder and forceful mean your ideas are more likely to be chosen, regardless of whether the ideas are any good or not. History suggests it does. But talkers are not necessarily leaders.

The US Army has a name for this phenomenon: “the bus to Abilene.” It’s about a family sitting on a porch on a hot summer day and someone says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, someone says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ Then the next person says, I didn’t want to go – I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on.*

The phrase “I think we’re getting on a bus to Abilene here” when used in US military circles usually sounds alarm bells, it can stop a conversation and acts like a brake. This suggests we all have a tendency to follow those who initiate action, whether it’s right or not. As they say… the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

It therefore follows that authority should to be endorsed carefully, perhaps even earned.

Leadership within a formal institutional structure will normally be underpinned with some form of recognised authority. Without such authority leadership has to be proven, involving stepping up to take the initiative and leading by example.

I had some formal leadership training during my time in the armed forces but only to a point. Adapting to civilian life, observation and instinct helped me build on this. Whether that made me a good leader or not I couldn’t say, you would have to ask my managers and staff. My business partner and I have managed a design company for 26 years employing around twenty very talented individuals in what is generally considered an extrovert environment; designers, programmers and marketing people, young and old all require a different approach to maximize their potential. When creatives and programmers collaborate properly amazing things happen. This probably requires a certain type of leadership because it’s not as easy as it sounds; designers, administrators and programmers all have quite different mindsets and respond to authority in a different way to that of the military; that said, the fundamentals still apply.

I don’t consider myself a charismatic leader, so I try and lead by example or at least by being close enough to people to advise and guide; I’m not saying I’m right, I’m simply trusting my instincts to be in the right place at the right time to be able to say the right thing.

Many accounts indicate that the Duke of Wellington did this so much better than Napoleon at Waterloo. Napoleon hardly moved during the battle, some say due to ailments; deciding to pick his spot and delegate to his generals. Were crucial mistakes a result of blind spots? Wellington in contrast seemed to be omnipresent, intervening at each crisis point of the battle, changing formations in the chaos, rallying etc. They say, Napoleon was adored by his men, was this charisma? Wellington was simply respected; but Wellington’s presence showed empathy even though he demanded order and discipline at all times, particularly at each crisis point. This proved to be a major factor in his success.

Personally I don’t think good leadership comes easy, you have to work at it. When I need to address staff in a large group, I have tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to avoid saying too much to fast, trying to make each work count.

John Wayne, famous American actor and film icon, once said, “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”

Coming back to the extrovert/introvert factor:

As a young person I often heard adults saying, “Oh, the quiet ones are the worst”. I used to think, how dare they, do they say that because they don’t expect the quiet ones to speak up. Then one day I picked my moment and spoke out for the quiet ones.

For those shy ones who feel they may not prosper. I believe many will reach a tipping point when just watching events bumble along unsuccessfully becomes unbearable. You will eventually have to trust your instincts and intervene.

Many of the world’s best CEO’s are in fact introverts. I do enjoy the company of extroverts, but extrovert leadership has the potential to become oppressive and good management comes in many forms.


“The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”

Susan Cain


David Sandell | Creative Director and Joint MD Triad Limited