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The Globe and Mail

Why good leaders should dump the thick-skinned approach

After the rumpus over [ad firm boss] Sir Martin Sorrell's ginormous pay packet, I find myself admiring the man more than I did before. It's not that I think he deserves his £6.7m ($10.7-million) pay packet; obviously, he doesn't.

Instead, what I admire about the media magnate is his skin. His largest organ turns out to be most unusually thin. Sir Martin was deeply hurt by shareholders hostile to his thwacking pay rise, and wrote in the FT: "The most wounding comment, made anonymously, is that I deserve a 'bloody nose'."

I can't remember the last time I heard a powerful person admit to being wounded by anything, let alone by an anonymous comment.

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Compare the adman's thin skin to that of two other business leaders in the papers last week: Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. Mr Dimon displayed the hide of a rhino when, on his way to explaining to a Senate committee how come JPMorgan lost more than $2-billion, he walked past protesters who were shouting: "This man is a crook!"

More rhino hide was flashed by Mr Blankfein when he rose above recent attacks on his leadership style to joke in public that he would carry on running Goldman Sachs till he died.

The Dimon-Blankfein skin is meant to be the desirable one for all successful people. To be impervious to attack is thought to be powerful and dignified. Every executive coach tells every aspiring person who has to deal with criticism the same thing: Don't take it personally.

But I'm starting to think the thinner skin suits CEOs better. It's not just that it is more honest and natural to feel pain when you get stabbed. It is more effective, too.

Even though Sir Martin's attempt to fight off his critics didn't work this time, it still showed a commendable willingness to engage. If you are CEO, it is your job to take things very personally indeed. It is your job to be hurt by much of what critics say. A thick skin means attacks don't draw blood. It means it is easier to dismiss anything painful. It means complacency is just around the corner.

Think of successful actors. It is no accident that so many of them have such excessively thin skins that they go mental every time a bad word is written about them. It is essential to the job. The thinness is what makes them try so hard to give their best performance night after night.

Left to its own devices, skin naturally thickens with age. Mine has got more leathery as time has passed. I still remember how hurt I was when I started this column 18 years ago, and a colleague told me I was occupying valuable space in the newspaper that could be used for important news. I felt quite sick. I redoubled my efforts to do better.

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Now I hardly ever take criticism to heart. This state of minding less has been vital for my mental health, especially given how the Internet furnishes a never-ending stream of beastly stuff. My new-look, thick skin has made me altogether happier and much easier to live with. But I fear it has also made me less good at my job.

Last week, I gave a speech that didn't go very well. Ten years ago I would have been mortified, but this time I shrugged and thought: Win a few, lose a few. I didn't take it personally. The trouble with not taking it personally is that I am taking no steps to ensure that I do better next time.

Sir Martin is one of the few businesspeople I have written about who yells in pain when something hurtful is said about him. Almost every time I've mentioned him I've received a message back, usually faux-jokey in tone but still showing some signs of anguish. Today, I look forward to receiving another.

I remember once, after doing a personality interview with him, I received a letter in which he wondered how it was that I appeared to have liked Gerry Robinson, another interviewee, more than I seemed to have liked him. At the time I thought this a bit undignified, but I've now changed my mind. It's this what-does-he-have-that-I-haven't attitude that makes Sir Martin go on being so successful. It is this very thing that made 98 per cent of shareholders vote, despite the pay rise, to keep him on last week.

Instead of telling successful people to grow thicker skins – which time will help them grow anyway – we should be urging them to look after their skin and keep it as thin as it always was. The ideal is to have a skin as thin as an earthworm's but the constitution of an ox. And also, perhaps, a clotting mechanism to ensure a scab forms on wounds and the victim does not bleed to death.

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