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on leadership examples

A recent Facebook group has got me thinking about the old days at one of my former employers, The Post Office. It goes back to 1982/3 and concerns the then Chairman, Sir Ron Dearing.

At that time I was newly promoted to a first line manager role, but with no team of my own; I was a member of a project team looking into the computerisation of Post Office counters and we had developed four systems in conjunction with various industry bodies. There was to be a formal media launch and I was elected to set everything up and to star in the filming along with my boss, the wonderful Diane Santos.

On the afternoon before the launch I was setting things up and making sure that the room looked good with a colleague, and agency casual named George. We were pretty much finished when the Public Affairs Director came in and briefed us on the timetable and running order for the next morning. A little while after he left we had another visitor; Sir Ron Dearing, our Chairman. He was on his own, no bagman or PA in tow, and introduced himself rather than assume we knew who he was (George didn’t). He talked us through how he wanted things to go and what he wanted from the session and he noticed that one of the posters on the wall was out of date. This was sharp as it was only about a month past, but he checked his watch and, noting that it was around five thirty, said that it would be too late for us to get a replacement for eight the next morning so he asked us to take all of the posters down. I mentioned this because there were many who would have told us to find the right one, but to have someone accept that such a task was not possible was encouraging.

The next morning I was in at six and was happy that we were ready to go when asked. No I should here describe the room because it has some relevance to my story. It was about the size of a single deck ‘bus, say ten metres by about two and a half. The door was at one side of one of the narrow ends and, as you walked in, the right side to about half was down was filled with computer equipment. From the half way point along the centre line for the rest of the room was a four position mock up of a Post Office counter. Into this space were assembling two TV news crews, one each from ITV and the BBC. The latter were filming for both of their channels whilst the former represented their own channel plus the new Channel 4. There was also a business correspondent from each channel, a couple of photographers and our own Public Affairs team, George, Diane and I and some of the Post Office hierarchy. Maybe forty people in all.

Into this mob came a wizened old man who, at that moment, looked like a pensioner. It was Sir Ron and he had been doing radio interviews since around six. This time his bagman was with him and carrying his jacket. He spoke briefly with one or two people and then came a transformation that still brings a shiver to me after all these years. He asked for his jacket and was helped into it, he ran his hand through his hair and, before my eyes, the frail looking old man became the chairman of one of the largest public corporations in the country.

Diane and I were called forward too do our bit for the cameras and all went well. Sir Ron did a bit to camera for each crew and then it was done. One or two people began to drift away and the news crews packed up. Diane went back to the office and George and I wedged ourselves into a corner to wait until we could have the room back to shut things down. As we waited we saw the Chairman’s bagman touch his arm and point to his watch, but rather than leave Sir Ron, who was not a big man, peered around the room until he spotted George and I. He pushed through the throng to get to us and thanked us both by name for making the morning a success.

It was a wonderful gesture and not many would have made it. He was a busy man with a lot to get through and yet he found time to acknowledge a pair of front line troops. It was gesture that I still treasure. It was also a lesson that I never forgot.

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