Mac, first tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in leadership? What made this issue so significant to you?
When I was a young guy, I was pretty much on the same page as everyone else. I trained as a gymnast and studied to be a drama teacher but I gave them both up since I was restless and wanted to look for more out of life and have a few adventures. But, because I then didn’t have a job, of course I just found myself in trouble for the next ten years. You could even say I came to the point where I was living at the edge of the criminal world. At one point, when I was 32, I lost an awful lot of money in a shady deal and it came to me that I had to change because I was going to get myself thrown into prison or shot. But the reason that I landed into so much trouble in the first place had to do with my youthful worldview. I used to look around and I just didn’t like what I saw аll that much. Most people just go make some money, buy a house, get married, build up their pension plan, retire, go for a cruise, then die. That didn’t seem to be enough to me. I craved something that could make life feel meaningful. At one point, I became the gardener in a leadership training centre. And one day I decided to go watch the leadership training. During that leadership exercise something happened and there was nearly a fight between the various business clients. The facilitator had lost control. It was a serious situation. And I was looking at it and thinking, “Well, this looks pretty much like the world I’ve just come from”. So I stepped in and got involved. I calmed things down and that was the beginning of my career as a management consultant.
How do we recognize a leader? What are the different types of leaders?
I think you recognize leaders by their actions, not by their words. A leader is somebody who has a vision that can benefit other people. Leaders use their power, their energy, their language to influence their world. They aim to achieve something for others, not for themselves.
Do you believe that anyone can become a leader?
There are two broadly different views regarding leadership. The first is that you cannot train leaders, they’re just born. The second view maintains that, yes, you can train people to be leaders. I have a third view. My feeling is that leadership is a choice that anybody can make. Let’s say you’re in the street one day and you witness something bad happening to a child, for example. And, in that moment, you decide you’re going to do something because the situation has touched your heart, and you get involved—even though you don’t have the qualifications, you don’t feel very brave, you don’t have any experience and you are not even sure what you ought to do. I believe that’s the moment when a person becomes a leader. It’s when they make a choice. And to me, that kind of choice is wonderful, because it’s open and available to every one of us.
Who are your personal favourite leaders?
Aung San Suu Kyi, just released from house arrest in Burma. Now that woman is a true leader. Imagine it. Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship for many years. Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections, I don’t know, ten years ago— the democratically held elections—and the military came in and put her in jail. But she has never ever, ever given up even though she’s a very gentle woman, a very kind, loving person. To me, this is the kind of leader we want. We don’t need people with inflated egos. Aung San Suu Kyi is a remarkable example of a modest leader, in comparison to many of our politicians and business executives, not to say there are not a few of them who are true leaders as well.
Why are there so few real leaders, in your view?
Well, first of all, we have something called universities! What do they teach? They don’t live up to their name. Universe. Universities. I would love to see a university that truly aims to help students become wise, not just clever but wise. But universities today mainly help young people to obtain a degree, then to get a good job. But this is not a life. I can’t insist that this is true everywhere but in the UK right now, the universities accept as many students as they can fit through the door each year and it’s all about money. It’s not about educating young people in the way that it should be. So kids imbibe the values which they are offered. They aim for the job with the most earning potential, one which will guarantee them “stability”. And then they begin to worry about losing money. Even their marriages and kids take second place to that fear. What kind of leader could you become under those circumstances? What kinds of goals could you represent?
Do you think that there is a difference between community leadership and political leadership?
Yes, in some societies it is very hard to be involved politically. I have a friend from Zimbabwe. He told me he was leaving politics because he knew he would be shot if he continued to speak the truth. So, yes, it’s extremely difficult to hang on to your principles and your values, when you must deal with a political landscape where everything is compromised and corrupt. Being a leader is certainly not always a good way to win friends.
What advice can you offer to young people who dream about becoming leaders beyond your previous comment that they must make strong choices?
Do you know the anecdote about Gandhi? One day he was walking through the village and a woman came running up behind him, dragging a little child. She said, “Bapu, Bapu, tell my little boy to stop eating sweets”. To which, Gandhi replied, “Come back in three weeks and then I’ll instruct the child”. But the woman demanded, “Why? Why won’t you simply tell him now? Look at him stuffing his face with sweets! Please, tell him to stop eating sweets”. Still, Gandhi said, “No. Come back in three weeks”. So three weeks later, the woman returned dragging the little child still eating sweets and, again, she begged, “Bapu, tell him! Tell my little boy to stop eating sweets”. At last, Gandhi turned to the little boy and said, “Little boy, stop eating sweets!” And the little boy replied: “OK”. Then, the mother asked: “Why could you not instruct him three weeks ago?” Said Ghandi, “Because I too love sweets. I had to see if I could stop eating sweets myself first, because you have to be the change you wish to see in the world”. So this is what I would say to young people. When you start to live a life where there is an integrity between what you do and what you say, then you begin to have a real influence on the lives of others, not necessarily on some grand world stage but simply on the lives of your friends, your family, your co-workers. People