Preparing myself for the interview with Ward Crawford
“People will mirror what you want when you are in a position of power; they will try to present you with the image you want to see. Break the mirror!”Ward Crawfordused to be a successful executive, but in his early forties he realised that his purpose in life was not related to big corporations. He didn’t want to be just another executive fighting for his position when it was evident that the time for change had come. He said goodbye to the safe corporate world and opened a new chapter in his life. Now he works independently and as a Fellow at The Centre for Leadership Studies Network at the University of Exeter, UK.
This is part of a series of interviews and essays from the Leadership Academy Certification from the Centre of Business Excellence of the University of Lljubljana.: http://www.mediachange.info/en/Leadership/
Did you have big dreams as a child?
My childhood was very dynamic. My first dream was simply to survive, and from there I wanted to move on – to provide stability for my family. I wanted to be a good husband, a good father, a good person. I was driven by the need to be secure, and so I took safe decisions for a long time. I chose to study engineering, got a good job and stayed away from challenging opportunities that came by – I stuck to avoiding risk.
Engineering was your first choice. What came later?
In my early forties I felt it was time for a change. My oldest children had gone to university and I was feeling secure. But I didn’t want to be like my grandfather; I remember him from Belfast, a really rough, rude guy, still working at the age of 77. Then he was forced to retire and within 6 months he was dead. I didn’t want that – to be dependent on my job and my position. I knew that my executive career would end one day, so I began to prepare myself to take risks at work. I became a ‘less corporate’ man.
What do you mean by ‘less corporate’?
Well, in a way I changed my priorities, and the company I was working for, Cadbury, didn’t like it once I had changed, because I no longer fitted the mould. At that point I decided to do something that I chose for myself – something I could do for the next forty years. I didn’t want to be like my grandfather; I wanted to do something that would fulfil me, that I could control. Every single executive has seen their former boss retire, as your career always ends; only one in 20 will probably survive. We refuse to see it. We just don’t want to face the fact that usually it will end at someone else’s decision, not ours.
You lost your position, your title, and in a way your power. How did this affect your life?
I was actually not at all prepared for this, so I decided to invest some time in education. I quit my job and took a kind of sabbatical. It was totally deliberate. For men in their 40s it is normal that they start to lose it – maybe they want to stay young and attractive, or they become arrogant. Watching my peers, I knew I didn’t want to be like that. So how could I shape my own future? I didn’t have a clear idea but I wanted to break away from that social mould, so I decided to break from my identity as an executive. For three months I was embarrassed because I couldn’t say that I was an executive! Later I did my Masters and was tempted to go back into the industry but in a different role, but then I realised that I couldn’t learn anything new in this environment and left, to start teaching, consulting, and living…
Did you realise that you were being a leader when you left?
There are so many different philosophies on leadership, but I don’t follow any of them. What I hope I can do is to practise leadership – to help people to become self-aware. It’s such a simple thing! Leadership means you are being seen, observed and followed. People are looking at you all the time. But first and foremost, have a look at yourself! Find a way to see yourself the way you are, not the way you would like to be. Challenge your self-perception. People will mirror what you want when you are in a position of power. They will try to flatter you, to present you with the image you want to see. Break this mirror! Self-discovery is about working together, collaboration, and networking. Use your self-knowledge to become a leader.
What about charisma and leadership? There are plenty of books on this topic.
A very useful extension of that is that leadership can apply to anyone in any position. You allow another person to help you, and you help them – finding the way forward is what leadership is about. Leadership applies everywhere. Break the mirrors and take the opportunities.
Are there any specific environments where leaders can realise their potential, and enable cultural change?
Senior people in the big corporations have very little time. They spend a great deal of time reporting, trying to define what is happening. In the largest organisations one person is doing the work of two or three people from the past, and much more is expected from them; Charles Handy wrote about that 25 years ago and it has only got worse in the meantime. Time pressure is one reason; corporate culture is another. Alpha charisma is still what is mostly expected in the corporate world. Those who oppose that would say that it is wasteful to cooperate, and to enable people. For some it is career-challenging to cultivate a culture of cooperation, and it is hard to achieve that in corporate systems.
What is the alternative?
Self-leadership is making your own decisions. Find an environment that resonates with your values. It is much easier now than it was ten years ago. You can depend on your own judgement, on your own networks, on your understanding of yourself. It also means that while being more independent you can still earn money and support your family.
How would you define success? What does it mean to you?
I am very conscious of how difficult it is to answer this question from my position. I have a family, a house, and a car… Success is the satisfaction of being fulfilled through others so that you are in an environment where your dreams come true. But it is easy to say that if you live in a beautiful house like I do. For young people it is difficult to judge what success is for them. Some of them have a safety net established by their parents, and they have the freedom to pursue what they want from life. Fulfilment is a wealth of experience, contribution and engagement. Understanding motivation is crucial. You need to give freedom and trust both to yourself and to your kids.
It seems that the relationship between children and parents is something very strong?
All of us are products of our principles. I wanted to protect my kids, to establish their security, but on the other hand I expect them to be the opposite of me – to be rebels, to explore, to fight.
The poet Philip Larkin summed it up very succinctly:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you…”
What do you think are the values that really count?
Humility, respect for others in its deepest sense, and the freedom you give to others. I would add that everything has to have a purpose. Without a purpose we just drift through life. Approaching this critically is important; you have to question yourself over and over again. You can reinvent this purpose throughout your life – reconsidering it over the years. Sometimes we make mistakes and we have to accept that as well. We must be self-critical as well as generous, and ask ourselves what is next. That is what freedom allows.