Want to be a better leader? Read leadership expert Neil Jurd’s tips

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Former Army lieutenant colonel Neil Jurd has become one of the UK’s top names in leadership development. We find out why:

“I think training has a bad reputation,” says Neil Jurd. Neil feels this was born in the days of overhead projectors and continues with PowerPoint presentations, involving  “dull days sat in rooms, having an overload of facts and figures and theory directed at you.”

As a leadership coach, it’s no surprise that Kendal-based Neil, 52, feels his approach is different. For one thing it involves playing a game called Gutterball… of which more later. Neil’s success can be measured in various ways. There are awards, including the OBE he was due to receive at Windsor Castle as in-Cumbria went to press. His approach is supported by a range of prestigious clients, including Virgin Media, pharmaceutical company Kymab, Wilson James (the company that runs Heathrow Airport) and numerous schools, colleges and NHS trusts. Readers of The Leadership Book, written and published by Neil in 2020, include the managing director of printer/photocopier maker Brother. “He loves it,” says Neil. “He bought another fifteen copies for people that work for him.” Neil thinks that the book’s simplicity makes it accessible.

The same can be said of his approach to leadership. “You just need to know what you’re trying to achieve, and connect with people,” he says. “Look after people. I define leadership as achieving more by connecting with people emotionally and intellectually, in pursuit of a common purpose. If people are led they will do more, create more, innovate. There’ll be less friction. If they’re just managed, they will be treated like a resource. They’ll generally go through the motions. You don’t get that energy you get with vibrant leadership.”

A frequently asked question in business: what’s the difference between a leader and a manager? “You lead people. You manage ‘stuff’ – time, space, resources. You have to manage because if you don’t, people don’t know if they’re going to get paid, or the computer system goes wrong. But to improve a process, you need people. And they need that emotional connection. Lots of people don’t know how to lead, but they know how to manage. They make up for not knowing how to lead by seriously managing. That’s very common: inexperienced leaders who micro-manage, and often work really, really hard. So not only do they do the wrong things, but a lot of them.”

Neil’s philosophy draws on his 20 years of British Army service, which included stints in Iraq, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. The scar on his right cheek is courtesy of the Iraq mortar blast that left a chunk of shrapnel buried under the skin. He left the Army as a major in 2009 to spend more time with his wife Michelle and their daughters Matilda and Elsa. Neil became head of logistics at British Sugar. He’d been there for just a few weeks when Michelle was killed in a road accident, on Neil’s 40th birthday.

With his daughters aged four and two, Neil left his job to look after them, and needed to find another way to make a living. He was invited to speak about leadership for various organisations, using his experience of leading soldiers in conflict and training officers at the world-renowned Sandhurst military academy. These talks led Neil to become a leadership coach. He says that the Army’s leadership skills are “totally transferable” to civvy street. “It’s an absolute focus on purpose. But a big part of it is building the right culture: trust and mutual understanding.”

Perhaps surprisingly, he thinks that military leadership can be more considerate than its business counterpart. “The business style can be really ruthless. People will very easily make commercial decisions that hurt people, often for marginal gain. I think there’s this feeling that if people don’t work out, you sack them and buy a new one. In the Army, you’ve got the people you’ve got and you build them into the best team you can. Because we work together over five, ten, fifteen years, you encounter the same people again and again. I think in business, people move on. If you treat everybody as if you’re going to be working with them for a long time, it makes you a lot more considerate.”

Neil adds that his style is not only influenced by his years in the military. “It’s a mix. The Army gave me experience of leading a lot of people. I saw lots of very effective leaders. And I saw some ineffective leaders. It all gave me food for thought. At British Sugar, again I saw that mix of great leadership and awful leadership. Charismatic leaders can be a nightmare. You see them in politics all the time – these people whose charisma ingratiates themselves with people. But they’re not really leading. To me, that’s manipulative leadership. What works as a leader is when you just authentically connect to people. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert, or funny, or not funny. Just being comfortably yourself with people will allow a meaningful connection. That develops the sort of culture that you need in a team. The charismatic leader will get people looking up to them or sucking up to them or emulating them. What they won’t get is a genuine one-to-one connection.”

Another trait of poor leadership is surrounding yourself with likeminded people, says Neil. “It really helps if they’re not like you. It’s natural to gather people who are like yourself, because we feel comfortable with them. But ‘comfortable’ isn’t a great word for an organisation. You don’t get energy and creativity when you surround yourself with people who are reflections of you. You don’t get that alternative perspective. One of the things that’s most important from my experience is people who tell me I’m wrong. People who will say ‘Do you know, Neil, that’s not going to work.’ You don’t want people who know it’s not going to work but don’t want to tell you. So you end up going down all these dead ends or disasters.”

Neil is director of officer training for the Army Cadet Force and was commandant of Lancashire Army Cadets for five years: giving hundreds of young people, some from impoverished families, opportunities such as trips abroad. “I don’t think you’ll find many people who do what I do who also actually lead stuff,” he says. “I think you have to. How are you authentic if you’re not living those emotions: the frustrations and excitement of leadership?” Helping young people is also an aim of the Michelle Jurd Trust, the charity Neil set up in his late wife’s memory. Through an annual ball and other fundraising events, the trust has raised about £250,000 for charities. Neil’s charity work was recognised with the British Citizen Award, presented at the House of Lords last September. He attended with his partner Macarena.

The Michelle Jurd Trust isn’t the only example of Neil creating something positive from a bleak situation. He wrote his leadership book during the first lockdown, and also produced 30 short videos about leadership and team development. His online resource, LeaderConnect, gives access to courses, videos and other leaders.

“I’ve got a simplified way of seeing things – I help people to shut out the noise. When people become stressed they can’t differentiate between the important things and the peripheral dressing. I can usually distil down what’s important. A lot of my thinking is around, ‘Yeah – but what are you trying to achieve?’ Things either contribute to that, significantly, or you shouldn’t be wasting much time on them.” Neil mentions a school he works with. As with all clients, he encouraged it to redefine and distil its purpose. This became ‘Transforming lives through the power of education’. “By getting that statement right, you’re not just delivering the syllabus. When you know you’re transforming lives, what does that look like? Maybe more trips, more role models, more fitness and sport. It can shift your thinking, if you can gather the staff around that.” Which brings us to Neil’s methods. No overhead projectors. No PowerPoint presentations. His props include little more than signs with messages such as ‘Leaders achieve things far beyond what they could do alone’. “I unveil them while we stand around with a coffee. The theory is generally ten minutes explaining something simple. Then they’ll do a scenario-based activity where they have to solve a problem. It brings out the dynamics between them. The ones who get frustrated in the office will get just as frustrated when they have to work out how to get a ball from A to B through a series of gutters in the game, Gutterball. The ones who are calm thinkers, or the ones who just can’t get going, all of that comes out. Then we do a review, where they understand their emotions and feelings. People struggle with that. But understanding your emotions and feelings and applying them is a huge part of building connections and leadership.”

What satisfaction does the man himself gain from his work? “Where they’ve really changed things, it’s incredibly rewarding,” he says. “I kind of feel connected with it. But I’m very careful never to become a leader in the organisation. It’s always about empowering the leader, not driving the leader. It’s always got to be about helping them to grow, helping them to think. And then just being there to support them when they need it rather than telling them what to do.”

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