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Jon Kennard


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The leadership interview: Simon Cohen


In this month's leadership interview, Mike Levy talks to Simon Cohen, CEO of global tolerance.

The banking crisis and the subsequent global downturn have put the H word into the spotlight. According to Simon Cohen, that H stands for Honesty but it could also stand for a word you seldom hear in business life: Happiness. Cohen, a recent recipient of an international interfaith award, heads the ethical communications and media training agency, global tolerance. He believes that we are seeing a paradigm shift in the way business operates and that some new (or perhaps very old) thinking is needed in leadership and training. Honesty is the only policy, he contends. A leader or trainer is a human being with an acquired set of personal values. Being honest means taking those personal values and principles into the workplace and not leaving them at home.
Cohen, you may think, is the last person to advocate principled business practice. After university, the bright boy sailed into a major London advertisement agency and at 22 he had a quarterly advertising budget of £40m. "I lived the good life; fast cars, luxury restaurants, expense accounts. I sold things that people didn't need. But after a few short years, I realised it was all an illusion. I was not happy. I was surviving, not thriving. During working hours I was one Simon Cohen and after work, I became a different person, the one that people came to for moral guidance."
"The old model of the autocratic, 'always right', leader is going to disappear. We are seeing the beginning of that process right now in 2010."
At that point, he threw it all in, worked hard to pay back expenses that he felt had been acquired unethically and formed his own company dedicated to putting the public interest into public relations. Global tolerance sets out to define new rules of business engagement – where the personal and the professional meld. Now he is a much sought-after guru on ethical working and has developed fresh (and challenging ideas) about leading 'good' (in the broadest sense) business. He recently worked for the Dalai Lama, has been invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and he is still only 31.
According to Cohen, "The old model of the autocratic, 'always right', leader is going to disappear. We are seeing the beginning of that process right now in 2010."
Cohen's view is that the leaders of tomorrow are going to be very different animals from those described in so many business school models and training handouts. He says that it wasn't just the new century, it was 9/11 that changed everything – and now we have the experience of the huge global banking crisis. Add to this the challenge of new technologies that will free people from the confines of their traditional work spaces, and through social networking give the voiceless a voice and Cohen's contention is that we are truly entering a new world. This is one where we move away from pure profit-maximisation to value creation in terms of relationships, loyalty (including brand and customer loyalty) and what he calls, 'the unexpected consequences of cooperation' – not least of which is power of 'word of mouth' recommendation (or denunciation). Even giant global companies who work in a dishonest way are open to being outed by vociferous Facebookers. 
Cohen's argument is that leadership is about valuing and understanding those with whom we work – every one of them. A remote leader who knows little or nothing about the 'real' and 'authentic' human beings who work in his or her organisation is no leader at all. This means that business structures will have to change to operate at a human level where each person's unique skillsets (and vulnerabilities) are known. "We do a lot of work with faith communities around the world. Many have been accused of being autocratic where it is, 'my way, or the highway'. But we have found an increasing willingness to listen and learn from one another in a symbiotic way especially after 9/11 when their beliefs were being dragged through the mud by the media."

"Everyone in my organisation is a leader. I don't give advice any more. It is very liberating. Everybody has something original and interesting to offer."
The challenges of leadership in the next decade are immense, says Cohen. The old models where leadership was one-way communication will be gone. "Social networking has changed all that – now we have conversation rather than diktat. That means a more honest, authentic approach to leading a team. Being a leader now means open to being wrong. Honesty is a source of strength. The companies of tomorrow are those that will be constantly listening, learning and evolving.
They are ones where such concepts as 'brand value' have no meaning unless it is part of a genuine conversation between customers and the employees plus management team of a company. In a socially networked world, false values are more easily exposed. "Now, my company values are what others think about us not what we say they are." The Trip Advisor model of business – where customers determine the true values of a company - is one that will rapidly spread, argues Cohen, adding that this scares the pants of traditional organisations.
So whither the leader of tomorrow? "Everyone in my organisation is a leader. I don't give advice any more. It is very liberating. Everybody has something original and interesting to offer. It is the trainer or leader's role to draw that out of people. Of course, you need guidelines and can offer a map. In our media training, we encourage people to be authentic, to be themselves and not follow a pre-selected set of techniques. Leadership is remembering to be human in a strategic way. The role of the leader now is to identify and capture the leadership qualities in every one of us. There is no one I can't learn from."

Simon Cohen is CEO of global tolerance. Follow him on Twitter here

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

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