five minute interview: david cliff, gedanken

What is the most important attribute of a business leader?

The ability to engage with complexity without getting bogged down. The world has evolved from KIS (keep it simple) formulae as organisations become complex, evolving, learning systems that can access a world economy. There remains place for elegant simplicity that involves leaders capable of appreciating complexity and unintended consequences of their actions.

What is your guiding principle?

People, not leaders, make organisations. Nothing happens in life, work, politics etc. without collective mandate and support. Individual genius in enterprise stands for little without the skills and support of accountants, project managers, salespeople etc. Good leaders see the contributions everyone makes to the organic whole that is the organisation.

If you hadn’t gone into business what might you have done instead?

I already did it. I spent a good deal of my early career in the caring professions as a psychiatric social worker dealing with the challenges of people’s mental health. I saw first-hand the importance of people’s self-actualisation and self-respect through work and the difference it makes to families and whole communities.

What advice would you give your children and business?

Soar if you can, but stay real. Recognise that there are comparatively few “dragons” in reality and that the day-to-day experience of business for the majority is one of sustained, solid hard work. It’s the reality-grounded leaders who keep their businesses going longitudinally who are the true heroes of the economy.

What would your employees say about you?

Apart from “he makes truly dismal coffee”, I hope they would say he’s fair, consistent, respectful and clear in his boundaries and expectations. In truth, I’m more interested in what employees would say about themselves: are they happy, valued and productive?

David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.


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  1. Alastair -

    Great interview — very insightful! David really understands the core of business and how most ‘ordinary’ business leaders / owners work.