Leadership lessons…from outside the business world
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Leadership lessons…from outside the business world

Lists of inspirational leaders are a staple of business news – but what lessons can the insurance sector learn from leaders in the worlds of politics, sport and culture?

Virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention
Credit:David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images

Within the insurance world, we often refer to this CEO or that president having demonstrated great leadership – perhaps after a particularly good run of results, a successful merger or acquisition, some stellar hire, an astute foray into new areas of operation, or a tactical retreat from some under-performing lines of business.

However, there are other qualities that pertain to good leadership, in addition to making good business decisions or turning out a pithy CEO letter or conference address.

Here we take a brief look at the world outside business to see what recent activity from leading figures in the areas of politics, sport and culture can tell us about alternative leadership skills.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei presents "Safety Jackets" to build yourself
Credit:Christoph Soeder/Christoph Soeder/dpa

Sometimes showing leadership is simply about having clear ideals, a strong sense of purpose and the commitment to demonstrate both in your own unique style, whatever opposition you might face.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is probably best known to many for the giant ceramic sunflower seeds with which he filled the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern gallery.

However, Ai has also long been a critic of totalitarian regimes – through his art and also via social media.

This is no artistic pose on Ai’s part. He spent a portion of his childhood in a labour camp where his poet father (and family) were sent for criticising the communist regime under Chairman Mao Zedong.

After his family returned to Beijing, he first studied as a filmmaker and was then allowed to further his education in the US, where he began to explore his artistic leanings.

He came back to China in 1993 and started producing art that was critical of the conformity and corruption that he saw in the society around him.

Having collaborated on the design for the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (a project he later regretted being a part of) Ai’s star appeared to be on the rise in his home country.

However, after being beaten by police, a brief spell in prison and then four years of house arrest, Ai fled China in 2015, moving first to German and then later to Britain.

True to his dissident nature, he is as critical of the art world as the political one – speaking out against what he views as the hypocrisy of Western galleries collaborating with Chinese state-run institutions while remaining silent on the issue of censorship and human rights abuses.

Jacinda Ardern

Credit:Guo Lei/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The New Zealand Prime Minister’s position near the top of this list is purely alphabetical, but she is undoubtedly a hard act to follow.

While she hasn’t always enjoyed unbridled popularity at home, Ardern has fast become the darling of the world’s media, and not without cause.

First, there is her easy familiarity with the public. She looks as comfortable on a public walkabout or in her endearingly clunky Facebook/Twitter updates as British PM Boris Johnson looks uncomfortable in a carefully stage-managed factory visit or press briefing.

She has received plaudits for having had a child while in office, but has eschewed this frankly stereotypical view of her feminist credentials, saying “I want to be a good leader… I don’t want to be known simply as the woman who gave birth”.

And the sangfroid she showed during a live television interview, as a magnitude 5.8 earthquake briefly interrupted the broadcast, only hints at the steel underneath.

She showed herself unafraid to confront tragedy when a far-right gunman attacked a Christchurch mosque and, instead of mouthing platitudes, donned a headscarf to go and listen to the grieving relatives of victims.

Her response to the Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand also showed a decisiveness notably lacking among the leaders of many other countries. New Zealand’s rates of infection and mortality from coronavirus have since proved to be among the lowest in the world, despite a recent uptick.

Most impressive of all though is her unabashed commitment to values that, unusually among politicians, she actually appears to hold.

"One of the criticisms I've faced over the years is that I'm not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I'm empathetic, I'm weak,” she told one interviewer. “I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong."

Lady Gaga

The MET Gala 2019 - New York
Credit:Jennifer Graylock/PA

While the coronavirus pandemic has emphasised for many the divide between the haves and have-nots – with some celebrities bemoaning their fate via social media as they sit out lockdown in a luxury second home somewhere in the countryside – it has also brought out the best in some people.

Lady Gaga has long been praised for her commitment to inclusion, particularly with respect to the LGBT community, and before the concept became fashionable in celebrity circles.

However, when she’s not going through a rapid costume change (and latterly, elaborate face masks) the performer also finds time for a little social activism and fundraising.

Gaga dug out her celebrity-friends contact book when she was tasked with curating an online concert during lockdown, in collaboration with the World Health Organization and Global Citizen, rather grandiosely titled ‘One World: Together At Home’.

In bringing together performers including The Rolling Stones, Lizzo, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, Elton John and Taylor Swift, the event raised around $127mn, with proceeds going towards vaccine development and local and regional charities, while also increasing awareness about the challenges faced by frontline workers during the pandemic.

At a time when some celebrities have taken to Zoom for reasons of self-promotion during a fallow period for their careers – or simply out of sheer narcissism – Gaga’s effort says that knowing the value of your brand is not simply about profile-raising. The resulting concert indicates her ability not only to build a good contacts book, but also to make effective use of it – with pretty stellar results.

Colin Kaepernick

NY: Celebrity Sightings - 2019 US Open - Day 4
Credit:Anthony Behar/SIPA USA/PA Images

As a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick has had a mixed career, but an outstanding one nonetheless, helping to bring his team to the Super Bowl XLVII – the first time the 49ers had competed in the event since 1994.

However, during the 2016 season in the National Football League, Kaepernick attracted attention not for his American football prowess but for a political stance that may well have cost him his career, but also made him an icon for millions.

Having initially decided to sit out the national anthem at the beginning of pre-season games as a protest against the fatal shootings of African Americans by police, Kaepernick then chose to continue the protest by kneeling (with one knee on the floor) out of respect for US servicemen and veterans.

Having unwittingly spawned the phrase ‘taking the knee’, Kaepernick attracted the ire of commentators including President Donald Trump, who accused him of ‘unpatriotic’ behaviour.

Unabashed, Kaepernick continued his protest – alongside fellow players – throughout the 2016 season, before parting ways with the 49ers in 2017.

Kaepernick failed to pick up a new contract with another team ahead of the 2017 season, leading to accusations that he was being frozen out of the NFL for his political stance. He filed a grievance against the league and later settled with it in a confidential agreement.

Having taken a sometimes lonely stand against social injustice, Kaepernick had the last laugh when he signed a partnership deal with Disney to make a documentary series on race and social injustice.

Who knows whether Kaepernick will ever return to football, as he has said he hopes to – but he remains a leading figure for the Black Lives Matter movement and sports people with a social conscience everywhere.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention
Credit:David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images

Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has received her fair share of abuse as a politician – and faced it down with her characteristic vigour.

Having taken office in 2018 at the tender age of 29, Ocasio-Cortez showed that limited campaign funds and little endorsement from senior Democrats was no impediment to electoral success if you run a highly effective grassroots campaign.

She won the primary election with a 15-point lead over Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley, and then went on to ace the general election with 78% of the vote.

Ocasio-Cortez has consistently aligned herself with the underdog on issues like a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, universal healthcare and other anti-poverty measures which, while winning her the support of progressive groups, have also garnered excessive hostility from political opponents and sections of the media.

With her Puerto Rican heritage, Ocasio-Cortez is part of a group of young, female, ethnic-minority members of Congress, who she dubbed ‘The Squad’.

Along with naturalised Somali American Ilhan Omar, African American Ayanna Pressley and Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez came under fire from President Trump, who suggested the members of The Squad should “go back and help fix” the countries they came from.

Ocasio-Cortez’s riposte on Twitter, where she has a considerable following, was to suggest that as Americans citizens the four were focussed on finding solutions to fix the country they belonged to.

And when Republican Representative Ted Yoho referred to her as a “f***ing b***h” in front of reporters, after the two clashed over crime and policing, Ocasio-Cortez took to the floor of the House to not only denounce the use of language that denigrated women, but also to call on fellow female politicians to give their own testimonies about sexist behaviour in Congress.

Her democratic-socialist ideals may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you were going to lay money on who was likely to be the first female President of the US…

Marcus Rashford

Leicester City v Manchester United - Premier League
Credit:MI News/NurPhoto/PA Images

Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford put the British government to shame with his stand on free school meals during the height of the coronavirus crisis.

The Manchester-born striker teamed up with hunger and food-waste charity FareShare to raise money for children who would typically receive the meals during school term times – but, with the closure of schools due to coronavirus, would be missing out on this much-needed resource.

Rashford then wrote an open letter to the government urging them to take action on child poverty – a move which has been widely credited with driving the government’s U-turn on funding free school meals during the summer holidays.

And in September this year, the footballer announced a taskforce, in collaboration with a number of leading UK food brands, to tackle child food poverty.

Sports stars lending their support to charitable ventures is not uncommon of course, but Rashford’s compassionate plea comes from the heart. As a young man only a few years into his career, he has not let his achievements (and the considerable rewards that came with them) obscure his own humble origins and the challenges faced by his family when he was growing up.

Empathy, the willingness to take positive action where it is sorely needed and the ability to inspire change are all leadership lessons that every CEO could learn from.