There’s nothing that you can do that can’t be done

I remember hearing the lyrics to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds as one of the first songs that made me stop and really listen, and from that day, John Lennon was one someone I followed. Lennon was dynamic, radical, and confrontational plus a whole lot more. There is so much more that he shared with the world apart from his music.

Therein lies a depth of his wisdom. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic verbal wit in his lyrics, and humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talented musicians ever seen. He epitomises disruptive innovation as much as Jobs or Musk, as described by Clayton Christensen.

John was always one to say what was on his mind and never shy away from controversy. Living in the US, the Nixon administration had Lennon under its watchful eye throughout the first half of the 1970s. Speaking out against the Vietnam War and mingling with anarchists made Lennon a target of Nixon. Already paranoid, Nixon thought the influence Lennon had on America’s youth was enough to damage him politically, and he sought to deport John back to England.

After four years, the case was finally thrown out and Lennon got his Green Card on July 27, 1976. Standing on the courthouse steps after receiving his permanent residency, Lennon was asked if he harboured a grudge against the Nixon Administration for tapping his phone, putting him under surveillance and a four-year campaign to deport him. Without missing a beat, John smiled and said, Time wounds all heels, as ever spontaneous, witty and reflective.

Back in the summer of 1956 John met Paul McCartney, and they began writing together. As The Beatles, they were C20th cultural icons. They created the unexpected. I always enjoy The Beatles White Album. The diversity of music in this album is incredible. From the beautiful melodies of Julia and Blackbird to the pounding beats of Helter Skelter and Revolution, it is truly unexpected. The Beatles were the first artists to record in stereo. They were the first band to experiment in the studio. They were the first band to list lyrics on their album. Lennon made his mark

But life moves on, and John’s relationship with Yoko Ono and his interest in global social and political issues saw him stand back from music. However fast forward to September 1980, John and Yoko signed a contract with Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released Double Fantasy. (Just Like) Starting Over hit number one, and there was talk of a possible world tour.

But on December 8, 1980, returning to their Dakota apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, John was shot seven times by Mark Chapman, a fan to whom he had given an autograph a few hours earlier. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital.

Lennon’s brutally confessional solo work and his political activism were a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his murder, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality.

I don’t think John would have been content playing his guitar at weddings and parties in Liverpool, he was amongst the earliest adopters of a global perspective, embracing new ideas and culture. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making music. Lennon’s risk-taking and creativity are clearly evident, but there was always a balance between experimentation and implementation.

He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. Lennon prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle. Lennon thought big. Even in the early days when starting out he used to say To the toppermost of the poppermost! and he believed it. Lennon aimed high and got there, in no small part because he believed he would get there.

John epitomised a disruptive innovator: he was a restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, learning new philosophies and anything else he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique. Here, in his own words, my reflections on how his mindset and thinking offers inspiration for startup entrepreneurs to be as innovative as he was.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans Blink and an opportunity will pass you by. Startup life is never a direct route, it weaves, twists and turns. But if you have a goal, a dream or a plan in place, it acts as a compass that keeps you on track, no matter what detours need to be taken along the way.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted Lennon was a thinker, he had a thirst for knowledge, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising you own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking, never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination Reality plus a sprinkle of imagination, turns that which seems impossible into something that is possible. If you can imagine it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it and imagine by asking yourself the question, ‘What if?’ Then go do.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are. You are what you are Stop listening to what others say you are. You are what you are. Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. I just believe in me Lennon once said, and he meant it. Have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

There’s nothing that you can do that can’t be done John seemed to live in chaos, he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d hurriedly scribbled ideas on, and often he couldn’t articulate his ideas well. But John was an agitator, he was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing. Keep working, it makes you happy.

Whether you’re a musician or a software developer or own a local bakery or a freelance landscape gardener, you have to keep working no matter what. Your audience, your customers, are craving the unexpected – give it to them. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Lennon did, and give an insight into the depth of your uniqueness?

What we’ve got to do is keep hope alive, because without it we’ll sink. I don’t believe in yesterday, by the way Risk failure by aiming for the sky. Lennon fits this description well, he didn’t conform to an orthodox style. In fact, like many great musicians, he held his instrument the wrong way. He experimented with made-up chords, new concepts – and had some celebrated failures in the process.

I’m not going to change the way I look or the way I feel to conform to anything. I’ve always been a freak. Focus on your strengths, and be different. Lennon found his calling and focused on his passion. Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it. Perhaps this is what Albert Einstein meant when he said Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.

John is the man who encouraged us all to Imagine, and that’s key for any startup entrepreneur, to imagine your future product, your future business, your future self. Everything you can imagine is real, said Picasso, painting is just another way of keeping a diary – the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

In an era of ‘add-water-and-stir’ solutions to problems, John was asked what he’d like to be remembered for. Not surprisingly, it’s not how many records he’s sold, how much money he’d made, or how many times he was named the world’s most influential musician. He wanted to be remembered for his deep faith and belief that all of mankind can be successful.

He measured his own life by the impact he’s had on others. I stand in a long, long line of people who will say John helped me to become a better person not because he provided me with all the answers to my own problems, but because he offered me a new set of lenses to see how to begin to solve them for myself. He helped me understand the importance of doing work that I care about, be an original, do it collaboratively, and to balance that with building a personal life of meaning as well.

Finally, reflect on this, one of my favourite Lennon quotes, which captures the attitude, mindset and self-belief needed by any entrepreneur, to fit alongside their imagination:

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

The innovator’s DNA of John Peel

Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, Listen, mate, life has surface noise – John Peel.

Sunday was John Peel’s birthday, he would have been 81, but alas he died 25 October 2004. Happy birthday to the great man. I owe so much to him for introducing me to so much good music and getting me through many a night shift on essays and studying at school, University and beyond.

To this day my music collection is full of bands he introduced me too on his late night show: Cocteau Twins, The Fall, Joy Division, The Clash, Cabaret Voltaire, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, The Ramones, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Wedding Present, Echo And The Bunnymen – and Magazine: 20 January 1978 Shot by Both Sides. Devoto’s vocals have been characterised as a speak-sing voice that veered between amused croon and panicked yelp.  Glorious.

Peel was Britain’s most consistently innovative radio presenter for almost 40 years, enduring thanks to his relentless reinvention and discovery, and an ability to adapt to changing musical fashions to remain at the cutting edge of taste. He was an innovator. He had a seemingly endless enthusiasm for the new and the disruptive, and in his time, he championed many new musical styles and new bands before they crossed into the mainstream populism. Once they did, he lost interest and went off in search of the next musical innovation.

Born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft in Heswall near Liverpool a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War, his life was changed in the 1950s like that of so many of his generation by the advent of rock’n’roll. It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession. After initially working in America, he returned to England at the heyday of pirate radio stations, and with no outlet for a broadcaster of such eclectic tastes on the BBC, he joined Radio London, which rivalled Radio Caroline as an offshore broadcaster.

Adopting the name John Peel, he called his late night show The Perfumed Garden. When the Marine Offences Act effectively outlawed offshore broadcasting in August 1967, Peel was one of several pirate DJs to switch to the new BBC Radio One. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the counterculture of the time, often in open conflict with the BBC hierarchy and more conventional DJs, whose chart-orientated musical tastes he openly derided.

During the 1970s, Peel’s influence waned a little as the music he had been responsible for popularising became increasingly mainstream. Then in 1976, punk exploded, and Peel became its most vocal champion on the airwaves. The event that ostensibly changed the face of the show for good was the first play of a track by the Ramones, Judy Is A Punk, on 19 May 1976. The musical make-up of the programme did not immediately revolutionise, but more and more of punk’s first wave began to find its way onto the show.

As he switched his playlist to a diet of the Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Undertoneshe discovered an entirely new audience who loved the fact that he could play a record like Teenage Kicks by the Undertones and then declare he liked it so much he was going to play it all over again – the first time that had ever been done on BBC radio.

He went on aligning himself with challenging new music for the rest of his career. There were a number of major innovations that Peel introduced to radio, but two have stuck in my mind. Firstly, The Peel Sessions, which were radio debuts from new bands, often playing four songs live; secondly, an annual tradition of Peel’s show was the Festive Fifty, a countdown of the best tracks of the year as voted for by the listeners.

Peel’s over-arching dictum was that he wanted to hear something he had never heard before. It is notable that his favourite acts tended to be those where there was a strong, original and identifiable presence, whether it was the guttural singspiel ofThe Fall, the languid mocking commentary of Half Man Half Biscuit or the jingling guitar sound and sharp lyrics of The Smiths.

The first time I listened to Peel was towards the end of 1977. A few of the lads at school were talking about the new Manchester bands, and Peel’s show, so I tuned the radio late at night and heard the new songs. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them all but there were enough interesting pieces of music to intrigue me enough to listen again. In that one night I heard The Fall and Joy Division. They played stuff the likes of which I had never heard before. The most memorable song I ever heard on Peel’s show was Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil, sung by Elizabeth Fraser of The Cocteau Twins.

I became a dedicated listener from early 1978 onwards. It was a golden period, every night finger poised over the record button with the microphone in front of the radio – because another thing Peel did was play the record in full and not talk over it, so you could record it. Brilliant! There’s a box of C90 tapes in my attic of the various recordings I made.

By the close of 1984, at university, I was still listening to Peel every night, but as time passed and I started work and got married, I drifted away from the 10pm to midnight slot he had. I got The Wedding Present and The Smiths as my last two gifts from John. I would still listen from time to time, especially The Festive Fifties, and there were still some great discoveries in there, but times were changing for me. I had a job now and a house and a wife and you can’t spend two hours every night listening to the radio, can you?

In those early years of listening he opened me up to so much music that I would never have encountered otherwise. I suppose I discovered his show at the right time when I was more open and yet more opinionated about music. By a rough count, 80% of my iPod music comes from stuff I heard on Peel’s show.

I don’t think I listened to many shows after 1990, only when staying in hotels working away with work or up late studying my accountancy exams and then my MBA. No more listening to his show on headphones, half-asleep under the duvet: no more sessions from obscure and noisy bands from the middle of nowhere making you go ‘wow!’.

For me the appeal of John Peel was his non-demonstrative yet enthusiastic attitude to innovative music, introducing new bands and avoiding the commercial push to play the already popular bands. He was the antithesis of this – he sounded like he was having a great time just playing the music he loved and stuff that he thought you should listen to. For the generations of music fans who grew up on Peel’s eclectic and very human late-night radio show, he opened the door to a whole new world of music, the kind of stuff you’d never hear on daytime radio, let alone find in mainstream High Street record shops.

Peel showed all the traits of a disruptive innovator, highlighted in The Innovator’s DNA, by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, build on the idea of disruptive innovation to explain how and why the likes of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are so successful. They identify five core traits and skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs from the rest of us, and how they are restless and repeatedly come up with great new ideas. They researched five hundred innovators and identified five discovery skills that distinguish innovators.

First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill called ‘associational thinking’. ‘Associating’ happens as the brain tries to make sense of novel inputs, it helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.

Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as ‘the Medici effect’, referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a range of disciplines – sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, spawning the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.

The other four discovery skills trigger associational thinking by helping innovators increase the building-blocks for ‘thinking outloud’ from which innovative ideas spring. Specifically, innovators engage the following behavioural skills more frequently:

Questioning. Innovators hold a passion for inquiry, frequently challenging the status quo, asking questions to understand how things really, they are today, why are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions. They found that innovators consistently demonstrate a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumber answers (A) in a typical conversation but are valued at least as highly as good answers.

Observing. Innovators are also intense observers, carefully watching the world around them where observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things: Peel attended three concerts a week to check out new bands, gaining a rich observational insight of emerging bands.

Networking. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives. Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things.

Experimenting. Finally, innovators are constantly trying out and piloting new ideas, unceasingly exploring the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things.

Collectively, these discovery skills – the cognitive skill of associating and the behavioural skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting – constitute what Christensen et al called the innovator’s DNA, or the code for generating innovative business ideas.

I think Peel showed he was made of an innovator’s DNA. He embraced a number of musical genres, never getting stuck in a musical paradigm. Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae, which you can subsequently market he once said. Peel’s attitude to most things was filled with a totally original wry sense of humour and irony

For many of us his shows were a source of the brilliant, the rubbish and sometimes the downright unlistenable, but it was always interesting and it made you think. He gave innumerable bands their first big break and routinely exposed diverse and emerging genres. Check out his eclectic tastes on his own Desert Island Discs list:

http://www.johnpeelarchive.com/john-peel-desert-island-discs/

Peel was ironic and humorous, a stream of random consciousness seemed to come out of the radio speaker from him either side of the music. I recall he introduced a Fall session with the words, Really needs to be played loud enough to start a civil defence alert. His demeanour was one of pure delight of an innovator when something new has come to pass and he can share it with the wider audience.

I hope you enjoy this one. He said and meant it. He never pandered to the audience. A catchy, addictive tune might be followed by a few minutes of sheer noise. What he most liked, he once said, was not only music he had never heard before, but music he could relate to nothing else.

Radio is by its nature ephemeral, but those Peel Sessions were innovation showcases, capturing emerging new talent. They are testimony to his desire to seek out and share new ideas, and a fitting legacy to his life’s work. Make your mark as an innovator like John Peel, gone but never forgotten.

Startup founders: adopt the growth mindset of Eric Liddell

The announcement of the death of actor Ben Cross last week brought back memories of his role in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, when he played Harold Abrahams, the British Jewish athlete driven as a runner not just to win gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics, but also to battle antisemitism.

The film also features a fellow British team member, the devout Scottish Protestant missionary Eric Liddell, played by Ian Charleson, who is similarly in a quest to combat discrimination. Abrahams wins the 100 metres, while Liddell triumphs in the 400 metres.

The two actors shared one of the most memorable opening scenes in film history, among the sprinters on a training run along a Scottish beach, enhanced dramatically with moments in slow motion and Vangelis’s inspirational music.

Don’t tell me you haven’t run along to the music in slow motion at some time in your life? I always do it when I see someone going mad in the gym and satisfy myself with a slow-motion lurch to the line to win an imaginary gold medal, with just a mild sweat on.

Chariots of Fire has always been one of my favourites because of the story and principles of Eric Liddell. Although it didn’t inspire me to become a runner, it offers a number of personal performance and coaching lessons, not just for athletes, but for startup folks as well. 

Chariots of Fire is about mindset, determination and self-belief. At the heart of the film is the quest for Olympic glory, with personal challenges resonating throughout. The film depicts the struggles of the two British Olympic runners and how they reconcile their love of running with their respective faiths. It tells the story of a special man, Eric Liddell.

Liddell was the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, powered by his unremitting Christian faith, something that causes consternation when he pulls out of a 100m Olympics heat because it is to be run on a Sunday. Liddell feels divinely inspired when running: I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Liddell, nicknamed the ‘Flying Scotsman’, was favourite for the 100m Olympic gold, however his faith is a barrier as the 100m final is slated for a Sunday, so he switches to the 400m. Imagine that, the opportunity for a gold medal sacrificed because of his beliefs.

Before the 400m final, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well. Liddell’s best was 49.6 seconds – but one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the Americans and wins the gold medal in a new World and Olympic record of 47.6 seconds.

Liddell’s racing career was short, from 1921 to 1925. In those four years he won two Olympic medals and seven caps for Scotland at rugby union, where he became a first-choice wing three-quarter before forsaking the sport in 1923 to concentrate on athletics.

His final race came less than a year after the Olympics, in June 1925, when he won the 100 yards, the 220 yards and the quarter-mile events at the Scottish Amateur Championships. A few weeks later hundreds of well wishers turned up at Waverley Station in Edinburgh as he began his journey to China to become a missionary, where he remained for the rest of his life.

However, once Japan entered WWII, Liddell and other westerners had their freedom of movement restricted, and in 1943 he was interned at a camp in Weihsien. There he established a school and took charge of the children’s recreation, organising sporting activities.

Early in 1945, six months before the camp’s liberation, Liddell became ill. In a letter he told his wife that he feared he was having a nervous breakdown. In fact it was a brain tumour, untreatable in those circumstances, and on 21 February 1945 he died. He was buried in a simple garden, his grave marked by a small wooden cross.

The site was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1989. A gravestone, made of red granite from the Isle of Mull and carved in Tobermory, was placed near the site in 1991. The simple inscription came from the Book f Isaiah 40:31:“They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary. 

This is an evocative and poignant story of amazing achievement shaped by strong personal values, the key insight to stimulate our own journey and startup thinking is Liddell’s growth mindset. Mindset is everything, we bring it to every decision and action we make, and shapes how we approach challenges and opportunities.

In her book unpacking her research, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck distinguished two extremes of the mindsets people tend to have:

  • A fixed mindset where you assume your qualities are carved in stone, whatever skills, talents, and capabilities you have are predetermined and finite. Whatever you lack, you will continue to lack – I’m either good at it or not. I stick to what I know, feedback and criticism are personal;
  • A growth mindset whereby your qualities are things you can cultivate through effort, everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Failure is an opportunity to grow, I can learn to do anything I want, my effort and attitude determine my abilities.

I define mindset to be the lens from which I view the world. A growth mindset is an empowering lens from which I can see how to better myself. Fundamentally, my takeaway is that success comes as a result of effort, learning, and persistence.

The distinction between fixed and growth mindsets has significant implications for how we address the growing pressures around us. The mindset paradox suggests that the greatest threat to success is avoiding failure.One of the most provocative aspects of Dweck’s work is what it says about our approach to challenges.

In a fixed mindset, you avoid challenging situations that might lead to failure because success depends upon protecting existing qualities and concealing your deficiencies. If you do fail, you focus on rationalising the failure rather than learning from it and developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you focus on learning and development and actively pursue the types of challenges that will likely lead to both learning and failure.

With a growth mindset, you understand that your individual capabilities can be developed to improve performance and expand in new directions. You focus on self-development, creating work opportunities, environments and practices that enable you to develop new skills by experimentation.

As Liddell showed, the future belongs to those who can adopt a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset will likely be increasingly overwhelmed by mounting and sustained uncertainty. Worse, the more they avoid failure, the more susceptible these individuals can be, not learning from mistakes and missing opportunities.

Even if we correct these misconceptions, it’s still not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. To remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with these triggers, learning to recognise when our fixed-mindset persona” shows up and what it says to make them us threatened or defensive.

It’s tough, but we can gain a lot by deepening our understanding of growth-mindset concepts and the processes for putting them into practice. It gives us a richer sense of who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to move forward. So here’s my framework, inspired by Eric Liddell, to cultivate a growth mindset in your startup:

1.     Your goal is to not quit

Having a strong mindset is not a status quo, but rather a journey. Most of the difficult part is to retain the growth mindset orientation and just not quit. At the beginning we are doing everything and often we fall into the trap of thinking that the greater our input, the greater and the better the output will be. That’s just not true.

Takeaway: Having a strong mindset is not a status quo, but rather a journey: most of the times the difficult part is to retain your positive mindset.

2.     Discomfort is your friend

If you want to grow, you’re going to get uncomfortable. Nothing worthwhile comes easy, which is why discomfort shouldn’t be avoided, but rather embraced and accepted. Discomfort in itself is a good barometer to measure if you are stretching yourself. Growth mindset in startups manifests itself in founders who have a genuine curiosity, a willingness to learn, are comfortable being uncomfortable and resilient to the core.

It’s often easier to stick with the things you know and follow the path of least resistance. Be conscious of this, and seek out activities that will challenge you, force you to learn new things, and to grow your skills.

Takeaway: If you are comfortable with what you are doing you are not pushing the boundaries enough.

3.     Prioritise thoughtfully – and do it fast

A growth mindset is all about prioritisation at speed. You need a firm grasp on what will move the needle most for your venture. Do those projects first, and you’ll be more productive, more efficient, and most importantly, focused on work that really matters. Face forward, and move forward, at the best pace you can, and concentrate on yourself.

Takeaway: Look forward, don’t look back. You can’t press ahead at your goals while at the same time watching what everyone else is doing. Yes, you need an understanding of the market landscape, just like a runner can’t just wander into other people’s lanes, but other than that keep the focus straight ahead at the goal

4.     Assess your habits

Inquiring whether behaviour operates as an asset or liability is crucial. This distinction provides the perspective to feel renewed confidence in your strengths or an opportunity to examine blind spots holding you back.

Even when you have the best intentions, your brain can rebel like a toddler throwing a tantrum. This is when habits can do the heavy lifting. Determination is a growth mindset characteristic. Resistance is a fixed mindset anchor, a myriad of mental and emotional forces that can self-sabotage us from doing the work and achieving our dreams.

Takeaway: Entrepreneurship provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about ourselves as a reflection of our strengths and weaknesses. It just takes the courage to explore. We are always a work-in-progress

5.Get out of your own bubble

As an entrepreneur, self-reflection and openness to change are the cornerstones of success. But it’s easy to get caught up in a bubble of your own ideas and become obsessive. In the end, it comes down to whether you have a genuine desire to really know yourself and your limits. We are hardwired to avoid change, especially once we’re comfortable. We don’t want to leave our safe, warm caves and head out to hunt the lions, whatever they might be.

Takeaway: entrepreneurship provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about ourselves, as a reflection of our strengths and weaknesses. It just takes the courage to explore.

6.     Be yourself

At the start of the 400m, Liddell shook hands with each of the competitors and introduced himself. It was natural for him, but in an Olympic final, it was completely unexpected. Then he left them in the dust with his superior running ability. 

Takeaway: You don’t have to be overly aggressive in order to achieve your goals. Better to be who you are and run the race your own way.

For a man whose athletics career was so brief and is now so distant, the lessons to be drawn from Eric Liddell’s growth mindset have always resonated with me as incredibly valuable for entrepreneurs. He was a remarkable man. It took until the 1980 Olympics for another Scot to win a gold medal. After the 100m final race, Allan Wells having won the 100m title that Liddell was denied by an accident of scheduling, he simply said: That one’s for Eric Liddell.

Don’t let solitude send you stir crazy, use your imagination

Most of us have become solopreneurs during lockdown, working home alone. How have you found this? There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Or maybe that’s just me then! I’ve been reading a lot about working in solitude, from Virginia Wolf’s and astronaut’s diaries, to Robinson Crusoe, and how Einstein did his best thinking alone. More of that later.

Working day-to-day in a team involves constant adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed, you mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But on your own, when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking, or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

This period of working alone at home captured something about human awkwardness for me, reminding me of my youth when you’re all clumsy elbows and emotions, and out of it you create a kind of desolate euphoria – for the first time in a long I had time to have time.

We have long stigmatised solitude, it has been considered something to avoid, a realm of loners, but some aspects have been better than anticipated for me. Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through personal epiphany. When you have these moments, don’t fight it. Accept it for what it is. I’ve certainly found aspects of this enforced solitude restorative and creative. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent years alone, held a similar notion: We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom he wrote in Thoughts in Solitude.

The best book I’ve read on solitude during lockdown has been The Lost Island, by Alfred Van Cleef, a book capturing a man’s search for meaning on a remote island, the forbidding Amsterdam Island in the south Indian Ocean. Giving some extreme downtime to ponder life’s strangeness, it’s a striking narrative of a man’s search for and discovery of his life force in the most secluded of places – an isolation like we’ve all experienced recently, although the views were probably more inspiring.

After the death of his father, Van Cleef, the last of a family of Dutch Jews, learns that he is unable to have children. His search for solitude led him to an island lost in the immensity of the Southern Ocean, a place so far-flung that ‘remote’ scarcely does it justice.

Entrenched on this lonely, wind-battered rock – approaching its grey shores was like watching a black-and-white movie on a channel with poor reception – Van Cleef anticipates a total escape from the frenzy of humanity. He shares his time on the island with seas elephants, fur seals and albatrosses and weird scientists – everyday life is spiced with daily scientific discoveries (a new shade of bird vomit, a record gust of wind) and arguments over the management of stocks of chocolate spread.

The island mirrors an emotional desert. It is an untamed wilderness with sheer exposure to the elements, one where life at its most precarious and stark. The island proves to be his kind of place. Van Cleef treasures his geographical, cultural and psychic distance from it all, replacing an emotional black hole with a geographical one. There is wit and humour, yet it is impossible to ignore that this is Van Cleef’s quest for salvation. This points to the paradox at the heart of solitude: life in the quiet carriage can be both good and bad.

William Wordsworth has lessons for people trapped inside by natural forces greater than human will. He wandered lonely as a cloud, taking long walks in remote places, and in this season of cancelled parties, the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth went unmarked. Celebrations of the English poet, born on April 7, 1770, should have bloomed like his beloved daffodils, but for now the British landscapes he loved are empty of the visitors that his verse attracted from crowded Victorian cities.

In a period of enforced apartness, Wordsworth’s pursuit of joyous solitude seems timelier than ever. For Wordsworth, solitude brings joy above all because it carves out space for memory. More than the treks and climbs around picturesque locations that filled his years, what Wordsworth cherished was memory as solace and strength – A few hermits make their lives in isolation, birds which fly alone.

For me, solitude is about the quest for balance, and modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand we have ‘networked solitude’ – just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away.

During this spell of collective standstill, our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration: social distancing has been a tragedy for those living alone, but for others it has proved a mixed blessing – many people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting.  If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this vestige of a neverland lodged in my psyche, I do enjoy the tranquillity of time spent alone. I need time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

As we all spend more time at home, it’s only natural to get a little stir-crazy. But we’re in the same boat as great thinkers like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, who were isolated at a time when medical knowledge struggled to combat plagues. And even though conditions were rough then, the time spent isolated led to breakthroughs for both of them – Newton did it over the course of 18 months while isolated to avoid the Plague, revolutionising optics and gravity, and inventing calculus along the way.

One of the reasons Einstein carries such a hefty cultural weight is that he, like Newton, single-handedly invented a fundamentally new view of the universe whilst also in solitude. Einstein’s turn came in his Annus Mirabilus in 1905, when he published four ground-breaking papers and a PhD thesis, touching on optics, and the size and motions of atoms. A few years later, as the Spanish Flu devastated the world from 1918-1920, Einstein was gaining notoriety for his work on the Theory of Relativity, again flourishing in isolation.

Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own. Intuition for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s time spent alone with nothing more than his imagination. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

Now besides modelling my own lockdown-hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve tried to adopt his approach to innovation – we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them – which I know has helped me in isolation. Taking this further, I’ve always adopted the maxim ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as a way of learning, so I’ve developed my own interpretation of How would Einstein approach this situation? to declutter and unpack thinking whilst in solitude, his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. Einstein asked himself what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then created it. I’ve found it a great way to help kick-start my mind-mapping sketches.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. It’s the same for your startup thinking, shoot for the stars.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Touch, Fire and the Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Keep pushing your boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Einstein lived his life by looking at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success. Do this grounded thinking yourself, as it helps to create the forward path.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein learned to view a problem in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

A couple of final quotes from Einstein to end with, that always make me smile, and were useful to reflect upon during lockdown. Firstly,I never think of the future, it comes soon enough. He held an appetite for tolerance, ambiguity and even delight in contradiction. Despite his brilliance, he was patient too, a quality we’ve all needed these past three-months: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s been good to reflect upon that too.

The outbreak of coronavirus has been hugely distressing. Those that can safely self-quarantine and cope with the solitude are fortunate. We’re all likely to catch a little cabin fever, but don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking, Einstein had good thinking habits – in his own solitude, he focused on the positive aspects, about have the time to reflect, thinking differently, and not just sitting there daydreaming or worrying.

As we come out of lockdown, there are better things ahead than we leave behind. Maybe your solitude has had some hidden silver lining. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, but rather than seeing solitude as a negative, be like Einstein. He pictured the future, working out possibilities of new realities, where what he was doing today was completely different tomorrow. Use your imagination. That’s what Einstein did when he was alone.

Startups – get a ‘lust for life’ like Iggy Pop

It’s Iggy Pop’s seventy-third birthday today. Iggy the manic wildman, hair flailing, body convulsing, eyes wild, naked torso as he leaps into the concert crowd is not growing old gracefully, as you’d expect. But that doesn’t begin to tell the full story of this complex, enduring rock icon, with the spirit and flair for innovation like any entrepreneur.

The year 1969 is already half a century ago. That historic year gave us Woodstock, saw the election of President Nixon, a man in the moon and the Vietnam war. All of this might make one think that a simple 12 months could not be filled with any more history, yet the year also saw the debut of The Stooges, with Iggy as frontman.

In a time where music and popular culture in general was occupied with love, peace and flower power, the Michigan band formed by Iggy Pop suddenly introduced a totally new sound. The controversial, dark and aggressive atmospheres that the group conveyed were early signs that Iggy was about to become a significant voice.

The Stooges played their first public show at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, in March, 1968. Iggy had shaved his eyebrows and slathered his face with white paint. He wore golf shoes, a rubber swim cap decorated with several dozen strips of aluminium foil, and a frock described as ‘an old white nightshirt’. The Stooges generated a caustic, demented drone. The P.A. was cranked to inhumane levels.

The Stooges fell apart, for all the usual reasons – drugs, clashing agendas, poor sales. The band’s final performance was at the Michigan Palace, in Detroit, in 1974. In 2003, they reunited, and in 2010, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Stooges played their last show in 2013. They are now confined to history, as from the original line up, only Iggy Pop is alive.

Iggy now has eighteen solo albums to his name. He is really just a persona he created in order to transmit his ideas more effectively. The shocking primitivism of the early records he made with The Stooges, as vocalist and lyricist, wasn’t just the howl of men possessed, it has a life-force, a personality, and a history, just like you and me. Music can be your friend. Iggy Pop is one of those performers for me.

To me, his approach is one of the reasons Iggy Pop can be seen as one of the most important artists of his time. A minimal processing of his songs, at times even making up lyrics on the spot, combined with a harsh, sharp and shrill sounding guitar, contributes to the rawness of his music. This ties in with Iggy’s infamous stage presence. He embraced the weird, angry, violent side every human possesses, and brings it out time after time during each of his live performances.

I can listen to his songs endlessly. The rawness, the pure human frustration translated into music, decorated by a pinch of humour, never ceases to amaze me. I first found out about Iggy as a 15-year-old. I was already into Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. I embraced the darker side. I found this noise was more suited to my listening. These were definitely people my parents didn’t like – Mum and Dad even cut off my pocket money so I couldn’t buy their records!

I first saw Iggy live in 1977 at the Manchester Apollo. He came on like some kind of demented wild animal. He was bare-chested, a dervish strutting on stage like I’d never seen before. I next saw him at the Factory Club, the pre-curser to the Hacienda. There were pipes that ran all over the ceiling of this grubby club and he sang while swinging off them like a monkey. It was astonishing.

But now over fifty years on, how exactly did his passion for reinvention and transformation manifest itself, and what does it teach us? He showed endless possibilities, extended out into the new spaces, metaphorically and physically. This man can move. Iggy the entrepreneur, the disruptor, the instigator, the craftsman of his own self, manifesting uniqueness and original thought.

What are the traits of this audacious showman that we can reflect upon as genuine entrepreneurial genes? Here are my thoughts.

1. The fearless frontman As the singer and driving force behind The Stooges, Iggy was a one-man whirlwind who revolutionised rock performance through his total physical commitment. Giving no thought whatsoever to his own safety, his antics risked personal injury. He’s credited with inventing the stage dive, although as usual, he was a little too ahead of the curve – late-60s crowds weren’t always hip to his intentions.

As a musical entrepreneur, he’s made clear statements of identity, a proud and profound declaration of autonomy and expression. It might have been over the top, but it never seemed unnatural. He simply made his mark. Like all entrepreneurial leaders, you have to be out at the front and set the agenda. Perhaps not diving into the crowd, but at least getting noticed.

2. Open Mindedness Although The Stooges were decried by critics as musical savages, nothing could be further from the truth. The Stooges’ own brand of howling minimalism was as much of an aesthetic choice as it was a necessity to suit their rudimentary musicianship.

Sure, on stage fronting a band cranking out Lust for Life or The Passenger or I Wanna Be Your Dog and the wildman instantly returns, but there are many more sides to Iggy Pop. His depth of purpose is what’s kept him relevant through the decades. As a punk pioneer in the 70s, an unlikely pop star in the 80s, a godfather of grunge in the 90s, through to a stint as BBC Radio 6 Music host, he’s stayed relevant.

Iggy’s work has always drawn from a huge range of influences – design, film, literature, contemporary art, and of course from music of all genres. His uniqueness is often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely his own, throwing them together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.

3. Collaborative & co-creative It’s fair to say that Iggy Pop wouldn’t be where he is today without the patronage of David Bowie. Iggy had a long collaborative and personal friendship with Bowie, after both musicians relocated to Berlin to wean themselves off their respective drug addictions. Iggy began his solo career by collaborating with Bowie on the 1977 albums The Idiot and Lust for Life, contributing the lyrics – Bowie famously wrote Lust for Life on a mandolin. In return, Iggy also inspired Bowie to make some of the greatest music of his career.

Iggy is apparently also really easy to work with, described as mild-mannered, patient and open to hear other people’s ideas. He listened, he read, he viewed, he engaged, and as a result he constantly evolved – all traits of a great entrepreneur.

4. Restlessness Although The Stooges were never fully appreciated in their lifetime, they have become one of most influential bands in history – they inspired Cobain to form Nirvana, the Ramones got together because they were the only kids in their school who liked The Stooges, and Johnny Marr cited Raw Power as the record that changed his life.

Throughout his career, Iggy is well known for his outrageous and unpredictable stage antics, poetic lyrics and distinctive voice. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

5. Innovation and novelty In Iggy’s own words: When we started The Stooges we were organised as a group of Utopian communists. We shared the pursuit of a radical ideal. We practiced a total immersion to try to forge a new approach which would be something of our own. Something of lasting value. Something that was going to be revealed and created and was not yet known.

Iggy’s passion for novelty and spirit of experimentation is a constant presence in his music and vocal style. It’s important to make people feel something he said. He found his voice in large part through his wanderings in America. Sometimes it takes strange circumstances to provide a mirror in which to find yourself.

He had wilderness years when his novelty wasn’t generating commercial success – early works with The Stooges were flops – but they’re still in print and they sell 45 years later. Okay, it took twenty years for the first royalties to roll in, and Iggy didn’t return to the charts until Lust for Life was re-released in 1996 following its appearance in the Irvine Welsh’s film Trainspotting, but sometimes you just have to keep faith.

6. Stay relevant by creating your own future Musical tastes change, new artists emerge – your market can move in a new, unexpected direction. For a while in the late 1990s, Iggy was pushed to one side. But he stayed relevant. The unexpected is, after all, Iggy’s modus operandi. His 18th album as a solo artist, Free, released September 2019, was an incredible feat of subterfuge.

The penultimate track on Free is Iggy reading Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, over moody peals of guitar, synthesizer, and horn. If you can shake off its familiarity the central idea that a person should live vigorously, unapologetically sums Iggy up perfectly.

Of course, ultimately his legacy will replace the future, but the remastered releases of his Bowie produced solo albums The Idiot and Lust for Life in a new box set on 29th May will provide a fascinating insight into the unique creative alchemy that set the wheels in motion for a sound that went on to dominate and shape popular culture for decades to come.

Today, his voice sounds dark and deep, a greasy grumble, weakened by age. Sometimes it growls, like an empty stomach. But instead of mutating into a hungry animal, Iggy haunts like a dignified spirit himself a champion to all contemporaneous weirdos and every iteration of punk to come, the same way sparks of intelligence and smears of stupor commingle beneath all our skulls and fill our heads at any given moment. Or maybe that’s just me then.

The generation of music entrepreneurs that challenged life and shaped us are now being embraced by death and our high decibel tears are burying them. John Lennon, Joe Strummer, David Bowie, Lou Reed have gone. But as we celebrate his seventy-third birthday, this most sublime of artists remains hankering around innovation.

Still moving to a dislocated dance, he gives us ideas above our own imagination, a truly disruptive entrepreneur. Although his body, voice and energy might no longer be of the same quality as when I first saw him in 1977, he will continue to command the world’s attention, and show a Lust for Life that all startup entrepreneurs should embrace.

Startups! Crisis leadership lessons from Jacinda Ardern

In the current coronavirus adversity, being a leader can be harrowing. Managing competing priorities is an uphill battle, mustering the courage to keep going gruelling. You need to be both tough-minded and tender-hearted with people, looking outward and take responsibility, leaning into tough situations.

Leadership is the art and science of influencing others, keeping your own head above water in the midst of an on-going fire-alarm. But no matter what tumult is thrown into your path, your response as a leader is to take responsibility. It can feel like the whole world rests on your shoulders, but fixing the problem and wrestling it to the ground, owning and addressing the issue, is the primary role of a leader in a crisis.

As leader, it’s up to you to take a hard-nosed, clear-eyed approach, to be the stalwart source of reliability and strength. Put simply, you gain trust by taking responsibility, earning the right to influence people positively and advance your organisation to move forward. People are looking to you. It’s your chance to show them who you really are when the chips are down.

Yet not all leaders step up to be counted. I don’t take responsibility at all, said President Donald Trump on March 13, responding to questions about the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus in New York City. Those words will probably end up as the epitaph of his presidency, the single sentence that sums it all up.

Now, Trump fancies himself a ‘wartime president’ fighting the pandemic. How is his war going? By the end of March, the coronavirus had killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. By the first weekend in April, the virus had killed more Americans than any single battle of the Civil War. By Easter, it had killed more Americans than the Korean War. On the present trajectory it will kill by late April, more Americans than died in Vietnam.

COVID-19 emerged in China in late December. The Trump administration received formal notification of the outbreak on January 3. The first confirmed case in America was diagnosed in mid-January. Financial markets in the United States suffered the first of a sequence of crashes on February 24. The first person known to have succumbed to COVID-19 in the United States died on February 29.

By March 20, New York City had 5,600 cases. But it wasn’t until March 21 that the White House begin marshalling a national effort to meet the threat in earnest. What they’ve done over the last 13 days has been really extraordinary, Trump said on April 3, implicitly acknowledging the waste of weeks since January 3.

As late as March 9, Trump was still arguing that the coronavirus would be no worse than the seasonal flu, and on March 27, Trump spoke about reopening the country by Easter. But he finally glimpsed the truth through his mental fog: having earlier promised that casualties could be held near zero, Trump then claimed he will have done a very good job if the death toll is below 200,000.

Of course, that the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault, but the unpreparedness of the United States is Trump’s responsibility. He spent ten weeks insisting the virus was a harmless flu that would go away on its own. The strategic fault is more widely shared, but leadership responsibility rests with Trump. He could have stopped it, and he did not. He has blathered, bluffed and bullied his way through a test of leadership that has utterly overwhelmed him.

Compare this to another leader, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. When New Zealand had just six confirmed coronavirus cases, Ardern brought in a 14-day lockdown and the toughest restrictions in the world. At the time of writing, they have had just over a thousand cases and five deaths. Leadership matters in a crisis, and Ardern can take considerable credit for this thus far hugely encouraging outcome.

Of course, New Zealand is a small country, but the principles in leading a country of five million people are the same as leading a country with 65 million (UK) 330 million (US). You have to set out difficult choices, make the unpopular decisions, take the country into your confidence about why you are making them at this moment. You have to show sincere empathy for the difficulties your people are facing, show emotional intelligence and take them with you on the journey into the unknown.

Ardern’s public interviews, statements and social media posts are a masterclass in empathy, crisis management and earning the trust and respect as a leader. She gets the big moments right. On the Covid-19 crisis, the two biggest moments for Ardern came two days apart.

On 21 March when Boris Johnson was still resisting a lockdown for the UK, and he and Trump was continuing to send all manner of mixed messages about public gatherings, work, science, schools, and much more besides, she did a broadcast to the New Zealand nation spelling out the strategy for protecting the country. In this rugby-obsessed nation, unsurprisingly, one of the central messages sounded like an All Blacks team talk: We go hard, we go early.

She emphasised the need for firm action to stop the spread of the virus before it really took hold. She set out and explained in detail but in clear, simple language, the four stages of Alert, her strategy, and what each would require of the people, and what the Government would be doing. Her manner was calm, authoritative, engaging and friendly. She talked with the people, not at the people, creating a genuine sense of community all-in-this-togther.

She didn’t use the repeated phrase we hear from the UK Government representatives – we are relying on the scientific advice – thereby ducking absolute responsibility, which you know will come back in the future to deflect failure. Instead, she focused on the human as much as the economic consequences of the changes that would come as the country went through the different Alert gears.

She spelled out clearly how difficult it would be for everyone, making a personal connection. She spoke to New Zealanders’ sense of self-belief – creative, practical, country-minded – and she ended by urging everyone to be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19.

Two days later, moving from Alert level two to three, giving the country a further two days to prepare for the lockdown of Alert level four, she delivered this memorable line, which helped frame the public’s understanding: We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once. Admitting she was demanding the most significant restriction of movement in modern history, she set out how lockdown would close all organisations, from schools to businesses.

She said without it New Zealand could see the greatest loss of life in our history and she was not prepared to let that happen. She said other countries had chosen not to go early, go hard, and she was not making that mistake. Ardern gave immediate clarity sadly lacking in the US and UK, and spelled out and shared her plan in a way I have never felt the US and UK leaders have done, which has allowed an impression to develop that they are rather making it up as they go along. Yes, there are unknowns, but show open, clear leadership.

Natural empathy has always been a strength for Ardern – in the current crisis, could any other leader have stood at a Government live broadcast as she did recently and talked directly to children about how yes, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were key workers, but they might not be able to get everywhere because they were so busy in these challenging times? Ardern is the only leader I’ve seen who seems to be smiling in this crisis, which gives a feeling of positivity to the people. A leader is a dealer in hope.

I’d argue Jacinda Ardern is giving most Western politicians a masterclass in crisis leadership. But how can we assess her leadership in making such difficult decisions? A good place to start is with American Professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication. Their model highlights direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy as the three key things leaders must address in a crisis. Ardern’s response to COVID-19 uses all three approaches.

Direction giving In directing New Zealanders to lockdown, she simultaneously offered meaning and purpose to what people were being asked to do. Importantly, her four-level Alert framework was released and explained early, two days before a full lockdown was announced, in contrast with the prevarication and sometimes confusing messages from leaders in the UK and US. She shows empathy about what is being asked of her people.

Make yourself available Ardern’s press conferences comprise a carefully crafted speech, followed by extensive time for media questions. In contrast, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pre-recorded his March 24 lockdown announcement, offering no opportunity for media questions. Where Ardern blended direction, care and meaning-making, Johnson largely sought compliance. Trump just seems to apply bombastic rhetoric.

Lead with empathy, not the argument Ardern’s approach is to use daily televised briefings and regular Facebook live sessions to clearly frame the key questions and issues requiring attention. She has regulated distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making – the four stage Alert framework – allowing people to make sense of what is happening and why. Much of her communication has been dedicated to persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. It’s worked, at a time when we have police in the UK patrolling the streets to enforc social distancing and ‘stay at home’.

When dealing with problems which are complex, evolving and cannot be easily resolved within a set timeframe, leaders must ask difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting. It’s clear this has happened in New Zealand. Of course, not everything has been perfect in Ardern’s response, and independent scrutiny of any Government’s response is essential. But expecting perfection of leaders, especially in such difficult circumstances, is unreasonable, when speed and enormous complexity are such significant features of the decision-making context.

But Ardern has got more right than Trump or Johnson. Watch her Facebook video post from her sofa, answering people’s questions as they come in to her iPad. It is a masterclass of compassion, clarity and calm. She is taking responsibility on behalf of her country, for her country. She cares, and that creates a sense of calmness and confidence. The fact the number of infections and deaths is so slow, is quantifiable evidence she got her strategy right in terms of its implementation and timing.

So the next time you’re in the midst of a crisis, don’t try to deflect or underestimate it. Choose to take responsibility as the leader. Own the problem, take a hard-nosed, decisive approach but reach out with compassion to your folks, present a solution, get to work, build trust, and sort it.

You have to take responsibility for your choices. This is the real test of our maturity and emotional intelligence as a leader. Jacinda Ardern hits the mark for her open, transparent communication that oozes humanitarian concern and asserts ‘the buck stops with me, I am your leader’ responisbility, and if you add the outcome of that single-figure death toll to her performance as a strategist, Ardern is the standout global leader of this awful crisis.

Leadership lessons in a crisis from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.

This statement was made by Rahm Emanuel, then the incoming Chief of Staff of the Obama administration. He famously channeled Stanford Nobel Laureate Paul Romer’s saying, A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Waste it they did not. Acting with speed and purpose, coming into office the Obama administration pushed a wealth of transformative legislation.

Over the last week I’ve been speaking with startup founders about how the COVID-19 crisis is catalyzing their businesses thinking into make stuff happen. We agreed it is all about decisive leadership, and many are looking for stories of great leadership outside of business for inspiration.

I’ve referenced to many the most dangerous moment in human history: the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1962. President John F. Kennedy had reviewed photographic evidence of the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off America’s coast, and thus began thirteen days of existential crisis. The whole nature of life, the shape and future of humanity, was at stake.

The Cuban missile crisis is a chilling tale, for the showdown could easily have gone another way, but for Kennedy’s leadership. Kennedy was cool, rational, careful and willing to compromise. Check out Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it relates the key leadership lessons from JFK: he was a leader driven by facts, not preconceptions, by the larger good, and not by his own ego or pride, wanting to be seen as a hero.

In our own hours of slow-motion, there’s real value in engaging with the stories of how leaders have reacted amid tension and tumult in their moments of truth. The vicissitudes of history show us that the past can give us hope that human ingenuity and character can save us from the abyss and keep us on a path to broad, sunlit uplands.

Alas in our current crisis, Boris Johnson hasn’t given me feelings of reassurance and confidence as Kennedy gave the American people. Over the last weeks I’ve not heard a speech from him that assured me with its moral seriousness, depth, or authentic presentation of facts. His utterances are invariably political rhetoric.

Leaders in a crisis need to be able to command authority, trust and respect, implement a coherent strategy, instil confidence, and reassure a nation for whom normal life has been suspended. Johnson is clever but essentially unserious. He seems ill prepared and ponderous. What is striking is just how inarticulate he is when not working from a prepared script.

Johnson can’t find an appropriate tone or method of persuasion. He tried to be statesman like – I must level with the British people – and he tried to be optimistic – We can turn the tide in 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing in this country – but he lacks gravitas and sounds like quick fire, jejune soundbites from a raconteur.

In the political arena the obvious examples of successful crisis leadership are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Both were somewhat erratic decision-makers, but they made up for it by being brilliant communicators. Their styles differed, but the public had little difficulty in understanding their core message. Roosevelt made clear that he was willing to try any combination of new ideas in an attempt to end the Depression; Churchill was unambiguous about the need for Britain to resist Nazi Germany, whatever the cost.

For me, startup leaders should resist the temptation to give Churchillian speeches and learn from the calm authority of Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’, aiming to connect with the individual whilst speaking to the masses. A leader is a dealer in hope during a crisis, and being calm provides more reassurance than a rebel-rousing call-to-action.

So, let’s look at a story of truly great leadership, applying the lessons of someone who has come before us, and be inspired by their performance to shed light on our paths to the future for our own startup.

Ernest Shackleton was an Irishman of Yorkshire parentage, and one of the greatest Antarctic explorers. Shackleton’s most famous expedition was that of 1914-1916. Lessons have been drawn from his leadership style in this expedition, and how they can be applied to crisis situations. It’s a remarkable story.

Shackleton set out at the age of forty on a self-funded voyage to make what was considered the last great expedition left on Earth – an 1,800 mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. His ship was the aptly named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. The Endurance expedition lasted from August 8, 1914 to August 30, 1916. It was one crisis after another.

All was well at the outset, until just one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast when the ship got stuck in pack ice. Shackleton and his men were stranded on an ice floe 1,200 miles from land, with no means of communication – and no hope of rescue. When it seemed the situation could not get any worse it did, as the pack ice dragged the ship north for ten months, 600 miles, and then crushed the Endurance. The men were forced to camp on the ice shelf and watch as the ship sank.

All they had were three small lifeboats salvaged from Endurance, just twenty-five feet long to upturn as somewhere to shelter. Temperatures were so low the sea froze. Subsisting on a diet of penguins and seals, they spent four months in the darkness of the polar winter. And then the ice began to melt. After four months of mind-numbing boredom and danger sat on the ice floe, they were suddenly pitched into an intense battle for survival.

In the lifeboats they battled raging, freezing seas for a week, before making land at Elephant Island. It was inhospitable, with no animals for food or fresh water. Shackleton then took five men and sailed another 800 miles in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, over tumultuous seas to reach South Georgia, part of the Falkland Islands, for help. Their journey lasted sixteen days, navigated only with a sextant.

When they greeted the whaling station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, he looked at them incredulously: Who the hell are you? The remarkable voyage of the James Caird was from April 24 to May 10, 1916. Spending just four days recovering, Shackleton led the rescue effort of his stranded crew. He saved the lives of 27 men stranded. Every single one survived.

‘Shackleton’s Way’ – his leadership philosophy from the Endurance expedition – resonates with themes and messages any startup leader can can take into their venture today. His people-centric leadership style saw them survive against the odds. He built this on camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and, above all, optimism. The key elements to ‘Shackleton’s Way’ maybe summarised as follows:

Be values based Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. Shackleton’s family values shaped his uniquely progressive leadership style. He turned bad experiences into valuable lessons and he insisted on respect for the individual in a climate that demanded cooperation.

A spirit of camaraderie Shackleton created spirit and intimacy between the men. He established order and routine so all his staff knew where they stood, but broke down traditional hierarchies. He used informal gatherings to build an esprit de corps, and spent time with every one individually.

Coach the best from each individual Shackleton led by example. He accepted and understood his crewmen’s quirks and weaknesses. He used informal one-to-one talks to build a bond with his men. He was always willing to help others get their work done. He helped each man reach their potential.

Leading from the front Shackleton let everyone know that he was confident of success. He inspired optimism in everyone. He put down dissent by keeping the malcontents close to him. He got everyone to let go of the past and focus on the future. He sometime led by doing nothing.

Build self-managing teams Shackleton balanced talent and expertise in each team. He ensured all his groups were keeping pace. He remained visible and vigilant. He shored up the weakest links. He got teams to help each other.

Overcoming obstacles together Shackleton took responsibility for getting the job done. He often took risks. He found the inspiration to continue. He kept sight of the big picture. He stepped outside his role as leader to personally help others in their own roles.

Shackleton faced a personal crisis but was famous for ‘thinking on his feet’ time and time again on the Endurance expedition, developing six ‘crisis leadership’ skills:

Challenge your assumptions With the devastating changes in circumstance, Shackleton had to constantly change his thinking. The biggest challenge of leadership is our unspoken attitudes and beliefs we cling to about our businesses, and the need to challenge these.

In the current crisis, rethink your assumptions and attitudes, don’t cling to the past.

Change your perspective Stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton had to take a fresh perspective and be open-minded. We tend to rely on information that proves us right and screen out anything that contradicts our prevailing point of view. As a result, we often filter, distort or ignore the information, so that we only see what we want to see.

Changing your perspective doesn’t mean throwing out all your old ideas, just the ones that get in the way of on-going change.

Ask the right questions Questions open up new ideas and possibilities. Too often we get stuck by focusing on the solution rather than the problem. Instead, ask future looking questions. Shackleton had to ask himself the right questions, before even thinking about solutions.

What if? Is a great way of unblocking the boundaries to your thinking at the present time.

Question the right answer Most problems have multiple solutions, some are better, easier, cheaper, or more feasible than others, but rarely is there only one right answer. Never settle for the first good answer. Good often gets in the way of great. Shackleton had to identify and then evaluate his options, looking for good and bad points within each.

Don’t jump to solutions, ask yourself What are the options here?

Be honest with empathy Shackleton faced each new crisis head on, topmost on his mind was being honest but optimistic. There are the obvious key concerns, and silence on such matters is dangerous. In the end, failure to tell the truth rapidly erodes trust and confidence. It’s also important you adopt the right tone, it can matter as much as having the right message.

It’s also essential you tell the truth. Shackleton was calm and transparent, and told his men he didn’t have an immediate plan to get them home safely, but was working on one. Shackleton was emphatic about accepting where they were at a given moment, and dealing with that.

You can promise everything to the many until you are unable to deliver even a little to the few. Don’t back yourself into this corner.

Listen Shackleton took time to listen to his men’s concerns and answer their questions. He recognised that the quieter you become, the more you can hear. At a time of a highly infectious disease, an online virtual coffee gathering of your team enables you to listen to their voices, listen to their concerns.

In the midst our own current crisis, startup founders need to grab Shackleton’s mantle, and take inspiration from Intel’s Andy Grove who famously said, Bad companies are destroyed by crisis; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them.

Shackleton was essentially a fighter, but he was overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to his crew. His personal motto was reach beyond your expectations. So push yourself forward, be a Shackleton not a Johnson. COVID-19 sees us all facing our Antarctic moment.

‘Dream of painting, then paint your dream’ – inspiration for entrepreneurs from Van Gogh

Einstein’s favourite habit was gedankenerfahrung, it’s when he’d close his eyes and imagined how physics worked in the real world, instead of formulas drawn on a chalkboard.

When he was 16 he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light – how it would travel and how it would bend? He contemplated gravity by imagining bowling balls and billiard balls competing for space on a trampoline surface.

Gedankenerfahrung means ‘thought experiment’, daydreaming. Imagination has nothing to do with physics, but Einstein’s imagination is what made him a genius physicist, connecting his math skills to his dreaming in a way that let him see what others could not.

Entrepreneurs have something of this too, outlier success comes from them going out of their way to be disruptive, to make people think differently. Likewise artists, thinking in pictures and images, using their imagination to navigate the human experience to present new ideas.

Vincent Van Gogh was one such artist, where fantasy and reality merged in some of his most enduring paintings. With his bright sunflowers, searing wheat fields and blazing yellow skies, Van Gogh was a fanatic about light, giving the world many of its most treasured paintings. His 1888 Sunflowers remains one of the most popular still life in the history of art.

But he was also enthralled with night time. The painter of the most audacious, crazy, passionate, frenzied, unleashed bursts of brushwork, may be more evident in his daylight paint­ings, but in paintings such as his iconic The Starry Night, painted while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, his touch is more restrained and you really see his craftsmanship and endeavour.

Van Gogh’s was only an artist for the last decade of his life. Before painting pictures that would adorn the walls of the most celebrated museums, he tried (and failed) at three other careers. He spent the final years of his life traveling through Belgium, Holland, and France in pursuit of his artistic vision.

Alone in a studio or in the fields, Van Gogh’s discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with pains­taking thoroughness. He had initially absorbed the dark palette of great Dutch painters such as Rembrandt. As an art student in Antwerp, he had the opportunity to see the work of contemporaries and frequent cafés and exhibitions.

There, having encountered young painters like Gauguin, as well as older artists such as Monet, the brighter colours and the expressive force he’d been searching for erupted. He painted feverishly. And then, just as he achieved a new mastery over brush and pigment, he lost control of his life. In a fit of hallucinations and anguish, he severed part of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute at a local brothel.

After neighbours petitioned the police, he was locked up in a hospital. From then on, the fits recurred unpredictably, and he spent most of the last two years of his life in asylums, painting what he could see through the bars of his window or from the surrounding gardens and fields.

Van Gogh never thought his paintings would become such stars in the art firmament. In 1890, less than two months before he ended his life with a pistol shot, he wrote to a Paris newspaper critic who had praised his work, It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.

Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting The Starry Night and died two days later. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy, just before sunrise, with the addition of an idealised village. Against the backdrop of this poignant biography, Van Gogh’s night pictures take on added significance, for it was to the night sky, and to the stars, that Van Gogh often looked for solace.

The night scenes captured his interest in mixing dreams and reality, observation and imagination. He lived at night. He didn’t sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés or meditated over the rich associations he saw in the night sky.

It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest. The Starry Night he considered a failed attempt at abstraction. Vincent didn’t live to know that in his reaching for the stars, he had created a masterpiece.

The Starry Night was painted in Van Gogh’s ground-floor studio in the asylum, a view which he painted variations of no fewer than twenty-one times, depicted at different times of day and under various weather conditions, including sunrise, moonrise, sunshine-filled days, overcast days, windy days, and one day with rain. The Starry Night is the only nocturne in the series of views.

Although he sold only one painting during his lifetime, his idiosyncratic, emotionally evocative style has continued to influence artists to the present day. His unstable, impulsive personal temperament became synonymous with the romantic image of the tortured artist, using gestural application of paint and symbolic colours to express subjective emotions.

Entrepreneurs know the value of being innovative and memorable like Van Gogh, unlocking new conversations and possibilities. Modern day entrepreneurial behaviours mirror Van Gogh’s, so what we can learn from his attitude and approach to his art that will guide us in our startup thinking? Here are my thoughts, with quotes from Van Gogh to illustrate his entrepreneurial attitudes.

Open mindedness One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with. Van Gogh’s work was always drawn from a huge range of influences. His uniqueness was often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, with a prowess for producing something entirely his own, throwing ideas together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of entrepreneurs.

Restlessness For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. Van Gogh never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra. At the height of the success he pressed the eject button, and re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. Van Gogh was a thinker, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising your own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking. Never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight.

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination I dream of painting and then I paint my dream. Reality, plus a sprinkle of imagination and intuition, turns that which seems impossible into something that is possible. If you can imagine it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it by asking yourself the question, ‘What if?’ Then go do.

The ability to follow your gut instincts as an entrepreneur is vital to the creation process and carving out your own niche. Steve Jobs followed his instincts to create the iPhone as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? You are what you are! Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. Like Van Gogh, have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Van Gogh did, and give them a little clue about the depth of your uniqueness?

The artist can easily be pulled into copying what is ‘trendy’, but the best artist and entrepreneurs don’t copy, they produce outside of the norm. The most successful aren’t trying to think outside the proverbial box, they no longer see ‘the box’ as they aren’t trying to copy, they are interested in creating something new and improving upon what has already been done.

Be bold and experiment If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced When a canvas (or any startup venture) starts, the learning and journey are as important as the end result. You should always experiment, prototype and be thoughtful about the whole process. Look to the future, but start with the small steps today. Van Gogh left many unfinished canvases, which may not have been true reflections of his intended meaning, but they added to his thinking.

Value critique There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke. Being different and disruptive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to other opinions. Artists are accustomed to hearing direct critique, incorporating feedback into their work, and defending their choices.

Practicing accepting critique can vastly improve not only your products but your entire startup process. This is what stands at the basis of the Lean Startup Method — get feedback, iterate, improve and continue with speed in order to one day get it right.

Take pride in your work Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul. Van Gogh strove for perfection, to create something that resonated with his identity, a personal statement about himself. The products, content, and service you provide from your startup should be a reflection of yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t settle for ‘good enough’. Van Gogh told other artists to Make sure it’s so good it doesn’t die with you, and you can apply that to any product or service.

Keep working – do it for yourself One must work and dare if one really wants to live. Don’t let anyone’s opinion of your work stop you from doing what you are so driven to do. The work will evolve. Don’t ever try to deliberately force your work to fit the desires of the masses. First and foremost, focus on your practice. Second, make sure you have a strong, cohesive body of work. Third, make your presence known.

Prioritise consistency over heroic efforts For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together People often assume that art is a part-time muse-fuelled blitz, pouring out genius. But that’s simply not the case. Though inspiration can suddenly strike, turning it into a tangible finished product is a matter of sustained effort.

It’s getting up every day and doing the work, taking thousands of fresh touches and refreshes alongside the productive mornings. It’s the same for your startup, it’s a combination of inspiration and sheer hard work.

Both the artist and entrepreneur must get their ideas and products into the marketplace and into the hands of customers. We don’t know the artist who kept their art at home hidden away. The same is true of entrepreneurs who we admire – they got out of the building and their ideas into the hands of customers.

For Van Gogh, it ended in tragedy at the young age of 37 with a self-induced gunshot to the abdomen. During his life, Van Gogh produced some of the most revolutionary works of art the world has ever known. What’s holding your entrepreneurial dream? Dream of painting and then paint your dream.

As a startup founder, your future is unwritten

Rebel’s Wood is a young forest on the Atlantic-facing North West side of the Isle of Skye. Hidden away on the shores of Loch Bracadale is this beautiful woodland of native broad leaf trees, predominantly Birch, Alder, Rowan, Oak and Willow. This healthy young forest is doing well after taking a while to poke their heads above the bracken, due to the slow growing conditions of the far North.

The wood was formed by some 8,000 saplings being planted in 2003 in memory of Joe Strummer, founder and front man of the Clash, who died in 17 years ago yesterday, December 22, 2002 aged 50 from a rare heart condition. Strummer was instrumental in setting up the Future Forests campaign, dedicated to planting trees across the world to combat global warming, so it’s an appropriate commemoration.

Joe Strummer was a pioneering, enterprising musician, one of a special few. The Clash were one of the great rebel rock bands of all time, fusing a variety of musical styles, with riotous live performances, and left-wing political and social activism, that inspired many. Through his songwriting Strummer showed young people his radicalism, defiance, and resistance to social injustice. I wonder what he’d make of our country today.

After releasing their final album in 1985, the Clash split, and Strummer went into a personal wilderness for over a decade. Returning with what was to be his final music venture, with a new band, The Mescaleros, Strummer was reborn. Remarkably, his final music displays a steadfast work ethic and renewed creativity, experimentation and innovation in his musicianship.

Strummer and The Mescaleros recorded three magnificent albums, which showcase a reborn, vibrant Strummer producing music radically different from his previous work.  More insightful and mature, a collection of stunning compositions and poetic, freely associative lyrics concerning a host of global subjects close to his heart.

On 15 November 2002, Strummer and the Mescaleros played a benefit gig for striking fire fighters in London, at Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones, his former partner in The Clash was in the audience, and in an impromptu act, joined the band on stage to play a few classic Clash tunes. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together. But within three weeks, Strummer was dead.

Strummer made his mark, redefining music, and reaffirming the principles of committed, intelligent political and social commentary and opposition through music. For someone who used his music to galvanize and promote progressive action, his final performance was most fitting.

In 2018, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 was released, featuring previously unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This was the last time we heard from Joe Strummer.

Strummer was dynamic, controversial and confrontational. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talismanic musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity. Originality was a trait characterising both the man and musician.

His brutally confessional and outspoken work was a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his death, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making commercial music.

Strummer’s ideology of constant innovation and originality in his craft is very rare. His zest and restlessness puts him alongside the names we associate with C21st tech entrepreneurship and innovation, people who’ve built amazing digital services, devices, new business models or social-media platforms. Like them, Strummer wanted to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity, but through his music rather than tech.

Strummer had the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation and individuality. Cloning produces replicas, not originals. Originality. What does it mean to you? Originality results from the power of imagination, like Picasso and Einstein, Bowie, Jobs and Musk.

It’s up to the individual to take advantage of that imagination and turn it into something great. When you dare to be an original, you are in essence daring to be yourself and who you really are. That’s entrepreneurship. It’s true. Life is too short to live it trying to be anything other than your true original self. Be who you are, and be it the best way you know how.

So, how to remember Joe Strummer, as the seventeenth anniversary of his untimely death passes. The John Lennon of his generation, reflecting on his personality, his voice, his actions and his personal values, what can we take from Strummer the individual and the musician into our startup business thinking?

Start small Bootstrapping and learning your craft, with a strong work ethic and determination, will always give you the foundations to make your dream a reality. You have to make a start, make it happen for yourself. Strummer never forgot where it all started for him: I bought a ukulele. No kidding. I saved some money, £1.99, and bought it down Shaftesbury Avenue. Then the guy I was busking with taught me to play Johnny B. Goode. I was on my own for the first time with this ukulele and Johnny B. Goode. And that’s how I started.

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Strummer was that no matter what the obstacles, he never gave up. He was self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed determination to continue and keep moving forward through all challenges. He had a clear idea of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Strummer wanted to be the best, get his voice heard above everyone else. He had something to say. He was ready to take big risks when there were no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in him or his music, but this did not dent his self-belief. He just kept going – keep the big vision, take small steps – and then with The Mescaleros he went again, saw success. Nothing is impossible.

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it. Trust yourself and your intuition.

Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be the best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.

Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

Build prototypes Joe’s risk-taking and creativity always had a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. He prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle.

For each finished track, there were about twenty alternate takes in different styles and genres. He practiced each version over and over until something clicked. If after a while, he couldn’t come up with something that met his standards, he dumped it.

He was tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Despite all his trials and tribulations, Strummer also had an ace up his sleeve – he had a resolute glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lied in his enthusiasm. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.

The future is unwritten There were moments when Strummer wanted to be left with his thoughts. He liked being alone, he needed time to compute what he had listened to and heard. He once said Thinking is what gets me out of bed in the mornings. But according to his wife Lucinda, it was also his excuse for burning the midnight oil. He would say, ‘I’m thinking, I’m thinking.’ And I would go: ‘No you’re not, you’re just staying up!'”

The future is unwritten is a headline quote just before his death, which captures the essence of Strummer and entrepreneurs, restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously searched out anything he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others. He was an individual, in every sense of the word.

In today’s startup environment, we have to be different to be seen. Don’t be a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or another sheep’s clothing. It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation. Individualism is a human thing. Don’t waste your time trying to be a copycat. Be yourself, stand out from the crowd, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

Being Joe Strummer meant turning rebellion into meaning. He hit a chord in my youth that has never stopped humming. Strummer was the key that opened the door for me out of teenage apathy, giving me inspiration.

It’s Christmas 2019. The offices are empty, the roads are quiet. All around the world, people are putting on Clash songs today in tribute as they remember Joe Strummer lives forever. Take a leaf our of Joe’s book, and remember as a startup founder, your future is unwritten. Go easy, step lightly, stay free.

Directions to Rebel’s Wood – From Dunvegan follow the A836 South for half a mile; turn right onto the B884 and follow for half a mile; turn left to Orbost (signposted) and follow for two miles. Park in the yard and follow on foot the track to Bharcasig (Barabhaig) and continue south to the site.

Innovation lesssons from Carl Elsener III and his Swiss Army Knife

Carl Elsener III started his working life as a teenage apprentice cutler straight from school, but from these humble beginnings went on to turn a relatively simple penknife into a global phenomenon – the multi-functional Swiss Army Knife.

The famous red-handled knife with the Swiss white cross has held a lifetime fascination for me, offering a spoon, fork, compass, screwdriver, mini-screwdriver for spectacles, can opener, wood and metal saw, toothpick, tweezers, scissors, pliers, key ring, fish-scaler and magnifying glass. Moving with the times, some latest models come with an LED light, laser pointer, USB memory stick, digital clock, Bluetooth or even MP3 player, but I’ve stuck with the basic model.

Elsener is up there as one of the greatest innovators of all time, with his product shaping a lasting impression of innovation, ingenuity and uniqueness. Today, 45,000 knives are produced daily in Ibach, Switzerland, providing current annual revenues of more than $500m and making Victorinox the largest cutlery manufacturer in Europe.

It started when Elsener’s grandfather opened a cutlery business in 1884. In 1891 the company won its first contract with the Swiss army. Members of the Swiss military received the first Elsener-designed knife, complete with a blade, reamer, screwdriver, and can opener. In 1897, he introduced the Officer’s Knife, which included a corkscrew. After his mother died in 1909, he chose her name, Victoria, as his trademark, then added the suffix inox (stainless steel was also called inox steel from the French noxydable) in 1921 as a nod to the tough components.

Elsener took over as CEO from his father in 1950 when the knives were still hand made. After introducing machine production, he quickly recognised the popularity of his Schweizer Offiziersmesser (‘Officer’s Knife’) among US forces personnel based in post-war Europe. It was the Americans who, unable to get their tongues round Offiziersmesser, first called it the Swiss Army Knife.

He was a tireless man who could work until two in the morning. When he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, he wrote it down on the wallpaper so as not to forget it. Despite his success, his motto remained: Gueti sache chone immer no bässer wärde – Good things can always be made better.

US sales declined sharply after 9/11. Once a popular item at airport duty-free stores, the knives were banned from air travel. Victorinox refused to lay off employees, instead coming up with an unorthodox solution: it leased workers to other companies, but continued to pay their wages. The company has since adapted some of their products to be flight-friendly, including versions that contain all of the original tools minus any blades.

Does the Swiss army actually use Swiss Army knives today? Absolutely! The army also has an implement not found on civilian models that can open ammunition cans and scrape carbon from firearms. Not much of a weapon there. Corkscrews. Bottle openers. Come on, buddy, let’s go. You get past me, the guy in the back of me, he’s got a spoon. Back off, I’ve got the toe clippers right here. Apologies for the comedy, but I’ve had my Swiss Army Knife since a thirteen year old scout, and not sure I could fight off more than a rabid squirrel.

NASA commissioned a special edition for their astronauts, and the knife has been invaluable in various space mission emergencies, including the first time the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station, and one of the tools on the pocket knife was used to open the hatch connecting the two. There are pictures of the moment the penknife was used to open the hatch.

Swiss Army Knives in space is just one of the many extraordinary episodes in the history of Elsener’s product. These include bespoke penknives being made for US presidents, and models of the original Swiss Army Knife being placed in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the State Museum of Applied Arts and Design in Munich.

There is real dignity and romance to Elsener’s entrepreneurial endeavours, his is a moment of time in building a unique product and a business that scaled into a global enterprise with a clear brand identity. So what can we learn about his spirit, vivacity, attitude and creativity into today’s startup thinking? How do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Elsener that should spark your startup thinking today.

A DIY ethic drives innovation Elsener was revered for his Do-It-Yourself abilities. He didn’t quite make it up as he went along, but like any startup he had to find his market, experiment and determine product-market fit, working out where the audience was. The ‘product’ was simple and yet a work of precision and design. Success is achieved by a host of variables, none more so that sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen – talent rocks, but attitude is king. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen – by doing it yourself. 

Belief Elsener took on an established industry with major, established organisations in control and broke the rules with his own product thinking. In doing so, he changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. He had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, measured in branding and cultural – finance too, but that’s the applause, not the goal. Elsener made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask.

Authenticity inspires customers Elsener started with a bold expression of his own, to be truly authentic, not seeking to copy or replicate others. The startup leadership lesson here is one of my favourites: you can be confident and competent all you want, but if you’re not accepted as real, and having a point of difference in what you offer customer, you won’t inspire a following. What’s your signature tune and tone of voice?

Just copying something is no good, unless you just want to be a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional – is there anything else quite like a Swiss Army Knife?

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. Elsener’s design makes the product instantly recognisable, it stands out visually, just as John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album.

Playing it safe gets you nowhere – turn your back on competitors If you don’t take risks you’ll never excel. Playing it safe all the time becomes the most dangerous move of all. Deviate from routines. Rote activity doesn’t lead to the path of innovation or disruptive technology. Elsener never played it safe.

Turn your back on competitors. Yes, ignore them. They aren’t running your business. You are. So instead of focusing on your competitors, focus on your customers. Be empathetic. Know them inside and out. Invest in relationships, not transactions. Learn what makes them tick, how they feel, what they need. This may sound like basic sales training, but it’s vital at the brand level, too. If you know what matters to your customers, you can structure your brand offering with the confidence that it will connect.

Open mindedness Elsener’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. The uniqueness in the product plus constant change and update, combining existing elements in new ways, produces something entirely its own, with a prowess for almost throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of any entrepreneurial business. Not all of Elsener’s experiments worked, but their willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every startup needs.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose Elsener had a vision, was strong minded and had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values and aspirations. Founders never rest on their laurels, they retain the mix of spirit, drive, and passion, more than willing to rebel against the norm, are restless do go again, yet stay true to their vision.

Be a brand At the brand level, you’re not competing product vs. product. It’s not a feature vs. feature game. Your brand needs to have a relevant place in your customers’ hearts and minds. So be true to your brand and the promise you make and bring it out in everything you do. Leading from your authentic vision and consistency of purpose will help your brand mean more to people. And that alone will make you more memorable.

Can you make your product or service stand out as a Swiss Army Knife? It is held that consumers have mind-space for only three brands in any given category: the leader, the challenger, and the one other company lucky enough (or hard-working enough) to be noticed. The rule of three may still be true, but the sheer proliferation of brands flooding a sector can make it especially difficult for any startup brand to stand out.

In an over-crowded category you may find yourself fighting against forces greater than direct competitors. Sheer clutter can be a more powerful distraction to potential customers than any competitor’s offering. Your brand and how it connects to the people that matter to you is a key in differentiating yourself from your competition.

We’re all the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. You need to be authentic, as Oscar Wilde said Be yourself, everyone else it taken, and as Steve Jobs was known for his Be Unique, Be Different personal motto.

Be unique, like a Swiss Army Knife. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else, if you do so, you are insulting yourself. If you want to stand out from the crowd, give people a reason not to forget you. Are you unreasonable? Here’s one good reason why you should be: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. So said George Bernard Shaw in his play Man and Superman back in 1903.

In addition to surreal jokes about extracting boy scouts from horses’ hooves (or vice versa), there are tales of how the Elsener knives were carried by famous explorers from Everest climbers and American astronauts who took it to the moon. Sometimes macabre stories did the rounds of emergency self-amputations and life-saving tracheotomies. But it is a truly unforgettable product and brand.

Elsener would often be mistaken for a janitor when he opened the door to visitors to the factory in his overalls. He went to work daily on his bicycle. He handed over control of the family firm in 2007 to Carl Elsener IV, the oldest of his eleven surviving children. He was humble, but remarkable.

We look to the skies to change the world, but you don’t change the world simply by looking at it. You change it by living in it. Take a leaf from Carl Elsener’s book of life, and make your mark.