The Formidable Individual
David Ogilvy once said:
“No creative organisation will produce a great body of work unless it is led by a formidable individual”
Let that sink in.
Do you agree with that assessment?
I know I do, but make your own judgement.
Have you ever seen a team enjoy success without a formidable individual?
When we work with new enterprises, be they startups or spinoffs from a larger company, one of our first questions is now “Who is your formidable individual?”
Yes, a team can design a business model on a whiteboard, and a committee can set a vision.
A team can be assembled, but for them to be held accountable for results, they need a key person driving the progress.
What does a formidable individual look like?
There is no gender, age or race attached to this person, in fact there’s nothing tangible to be measured.
Instead it’s the steely resolve, the eye for detail, the passion for the craft that separates a formidable individual from someone who is just doing their job.
I’ve seen it in restaurants, cafes, churches, tech companies, politics, schools, artists, filmmakers, authors, social media influencers, comedians, and a lot of business executives.
These are people who are driven towards a target – they have a vision for what something should be, and are hell-bent on seeing it come to life.
They understand how all the parts of the machine fit together, and are there to coach their team on how each person’s role makes the vision become reality.
They typically have strong opinions, high standards, and a sense of urgency.
Contrary to popular belief, a formidable individual is not a perfectionist – at least not intentionally.
Instead they’re someone who sees the whole situation, and takes responsibility for ensuring that all the boxes are ticked.
They also have a clearer understanding of what “Good Enough” looks like, and hates seeing their team cut corners.
Steve Job referred to this as being like a craftsman varnishing the back of a dresser, even though it won’t be seen:
“For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
Formidable individuals ask that each element of the customer journey be considered, and that the team does at least a decent job of each step.
For this reason, most of the formidable individuals I’ve worked with wouldn’t call themselves perfectionists, but instead they seem bewildered that nobody else cared enough to spellcheck the invoice, dust the conference table, send the reports when they were promised, etc.
These aren’t people who have chosen to care about their special subject, but rather are bothered by things being done the wrong way.
They find their industry interesting, and think about it at night and on the weekends.
They notice the fine details of their competitors’ work, and dream up new ideas while on holiday.
There’s no off switch in their heads, and this is what drives them to come in early or leave late.
For this reason, it’s difficult to hire a formidable individual – the job description would look ridiculous.
You can’t force someone to be obsessed, you can only identify and feed an existing obsession.
The challenge for the formidable individual is to find ways of magnifying their work.
One great piece of advice for entrepreneurs is to do each job yourself before hiring a new team member.
That way you know exactly what sort of person the role requires, and also have a better understanding of the work itself.
The challenge is then keeping the new team member motivated and empowered to carry out that work without you.
If they’re not empowered, you’ll be constantly called back to “tick off” their work.
If they’re not motivated, standards will slip and you won’t be able to fully trust them.
So now you’re splitting your attention between the higher level work and micromanaging your team, all the while getting more frustrated that nobody else seems to “get it”.
For this reason, the formidable leaders who find success aren’t the ones who have the most talent, but who can inspire their team to think in the same way.
And ultimately, that inspiration comes down to relationships.
If a formidable individual has good relationships with their colleagues, they’ll build two-way trust and confidence.
Their team will go the extra mile, and see for themselves the benefits of doing things properly.
At the same time, the leader can focus on their own role, with the assurance that, on the whole, their staff will do the right things by default.
I’m not sure that you can teach passion – you generally have to bring that to the table.
You can identify it, and you can feed it, but it generally stems from something inside you.
That said, you can nurture that passion, build on your strengths and fill the gaps in your professionalism.
For starters, a formidable individual needs to understand every part of their business, and be at least 51% proficient in each of them.
This includes topics like HR, finance, social impact measurement, the sales process, and the engineering that goes into your product or service.
I’d also recommend specialising in your Customer Journey, and identifying which bottlenecks you can resolve with a little effort.
For some books on this topic, I’d look at:
Start With Why by Simon Sinek – all about how leaders bring everything back to their core values and philosophies.
If you get the Why right, the How and the What tend to follow.
The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni – about how leaders create and reinforce clarity.
If everyone is on the same page, identifying barriers and flaws becomes easier and less personal.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin – about how leaders need to choose to be fully accountable for results, and how this makes work easier and more successful.