The benefits of gritting your teeth through gales of doubt and a barrage of entrenched norms have been highlighted in a BBC interview with Linus Birtles – MD of the publishing firm behind hard-hitting IT news site The Register.
When he took on The Register in the mid-1990s, its biting, satirical tone was out of step with its rivals, ruffling industry feathers and scaring off advertisers. However, Birtles was sure that the way forward wasn’t to retreat – but to keep going against the grain.
He explains: “We wanted a publication that could ask difficult questions of the computer industry. There were too many paper publications in those days which were very much governed by the publisher, and journalists were asked to soften their tone – you know, ‘Don’t upset the advertisers.’” Birtles notes that The Register went through a particularly gruelling struggle during the dot-com crash. However, he points out: “when we came out of that crash, in terms of digital products, we were the largest product in the UK, which meant that advertisers couldn’t ignore us if they wanted to reach their marketplace.”
Now, all of the things that made The Register so countercultural and challenging in its early days are the very qualities that are keeping it alive. As Birtles notes, “we are convinced that if we softened out tone, changed our tone, changed the user experience, the readers would disappear.” He adds: “whatever your core principle is, stick to it.”
What kind of attributes does a leader need to stay such a difficult course, if sure that their unusual or offbeat vision will eventually yield success?
“This is where self-awareness is key,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “It’s all about understanding what your values are, what motivates you, what inspires you, where you will negotiate, where you will compromise – and where you will not. If you have clarity about all of that – and it takes a great deal of introspection in order to do so – then the path ahead almost lights up by itself.”
Cooper notes: “This links very neatly to Finn Jackson’s book The Churning: Volume One – Inner Leadership, which I reviewed in the spring issue of Edge. Jackson’s cause celebre as a writer is the importance of purpose in leadership, and the foundation of that purpose is authenticity. Jackson notes that you have to do a lot of very hard work on yourself as a leader in order to be able to make that authenticity concrete enough to withstand the inevitable storm of opposition that you are going to face.
She adds: “In their early stages, organisations that disrupt, and occupy seemingly unpopular, minority positions, are going to find their journey difficult until they become more accepted by the mainstream. So at that stage of their lives, it is vital for the leaders behind those organisations to hold true to their concepts. If that concept is something as ethically driven as The Register, then it’s even more important.”
For further thoughts on self-awareness, check out these learning resources from the Institute