When Risking it All Means Gaining it All

Lessons in Leadership from Hernán Cortés and Batman

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador and explorer, born just over a decade before the start of the 16th century. In his world, the empires of Europe dispatched their ships, soldiers, and merchants to conquer the planet and its riches.

In the Americas, the mighty Aztecs had been flourishing since the 1300s, building their civilisation in Mexico. And it was to this part of the world that Cortés set his sights to seek out his fortune.

By 1518, he was to command his own expedition to Mexico, but his superior, Diego Velásquez cancelled the mission. But the flames of ambition burnt fiercely in him, and so Cortés defied the orders of Velásquez and later he secretly sailed off to Mexico with 11 ships and 500 men.

They reached the shores of Mexico in February of 1519. By now, some of the men have become aware of Cortés’ deceit. A few rebellious voices rose, and dissent grew amongst the men.

Smelling the danger, he took the brazen step of destroying all the ships on which they had sailed to Mexico. With this suicidal act, he burnt the only bridge they had to get home. He pushed his own men with their backs against the wall.

All they could do was fight. Fight till the bitter end. Retreating was no longer an option.

Eventually, in 1522, after much bloodshed, Cortés and his men conquered the Aztecs and Mexico and King Charles I of Spain appointed him governor of Mexico.

Of course, today we can reflect on this terrible chapter in history with horror.

But, there is a valuable lesson in leadership to be learnt from the evil Cortés.

When people have their backs against the wall, their instinct is to fight. When we have everything to lose, we give everything we have to win.

The Dark Night Leaps

In the third installment of Christopher’s Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – featuring Bruce Wayne’s Batman, there is an amazing scene that is reminiscent of the Cortés approach.

Wayne is jailed in an underground prison that is virtually impossible to escape. There is only one way, and that is to climb up a wall, towards the sunlight and then jump across a chasm. Everybody who had tried to cross had failed, except one.

Wayne tries a few times. He attaches the safety rope and climbs up the wall. Each time he fails and comes dangling down the rope, scraped and bruised. But then, an old prisoner befriends him and reveals to him the secret about the only one who has ever made the escape: Do it as the child did. Make the climb, without the rope. And fear will find you again. Leap, and if you don’t make it, you fall back down into the void to sure death. But if you get to the other side, you can clamber out and taste freedom.

So this is what Bruce Wayne does. He climbs up without the rope, leaps, and makes it across!

Again, like with the Spaniards under the command of Cortés, Bruce Wayne risks everything and uses the inherent fear of losing it all to make it across the impossible.

Burning the Ships in Our Modern Organisations

Today, in leading our teams and organisations, we need some of Cortés’ management strategies. We need the fear of Bruce Wayne. Because too often, teams are paralysed by the indecision of moving forward. Responsibility is divided and nothing of value and meaning happens. What would it look like in our modern institutions if we burn the ships? What is that safety rope that is holding us back?

The secret lies in framing the context. As a leader, you have to set an expectation and free people from the constraints of their everyday thinking. You have to implicitly, permit them to think ten times bigger than their day-to-day process. This is what JFK did when he announced the moonshot. He created the context for people to think bigger, to risk everything for fear of losing it all.

As a leader today, your challenge is to frame the context for your team. Make them feel the wall against their backs, and free them from the paralysis of indecision and fear of trying. In order to help people think bigger and give their all, we need to do the following.


Remove the Fear of Failure

Promote a culture of creativity and trial. This is the most visible way of cutting the safety rope. A team that is used to experiment is a team that is happy to try bigger and bigger things, building confidence, and winning consistently.


Smother the Blame

Never allow the blame game to steer meetings and conversations. Allow people to vent, but ensure everyone understands that what we’re doing is for the team and for reaching the goal: because failure is not an option.


Frame the Moonshot

Give purpose to where we’re going. To set the ambition, it’s all about the why, and less about what and how.

In summary. If anything stands in your team’s way that looks like a safety, burn it. Break it. Because humans are at their best when they have everything to lose.

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Invoking the Power of Story

How a movie became a sword

China was the biggest importer of the planet’s trash. Where, tens of millions of tonnes of the world’s rubbish was trucked, shipped and flown to various cities around the country, where it was dumped, to be sorted, recycled or re-dumped. When you read this paragraph, it is difficult to imagine the real-life implications of it. But, in 2016, film director Wang Jilang released a documentary film called Plastic China – a labour of love that he’d been working on for four years.

The film swung the spotlight on an 11-year old Chinese girl, Yi-Jie, as she spent the day in, day out, working in her father’s trash processing facility. Potent scenes showed how she would brush her hair, dipping it in a tank filled with trash, even washing her face in the putrid greywater. She would cut cartoon characters from discarded toy packaging to fashion toys with which she would play during her short breaks. Every day, she and her family would live on this rubbish mound, working amidst the waste of the world, and breathing in the toxic fumes from the machines that would melt and soak plastic, turning it into sludge and then producing hardened pellets.

The film hit the international circuit where it was an instant success, winning accolades at film festivals. Importantly, it spread like wildfire through China, where the authorities eventually banned it. But, not before it enraged the Chinese public who could now put a face to the story. Within a very short space of time, the Chinese government launched a nationwide programme, called National Sword, that set out to overhaul and modernise the recycling industry.

Stories – the human success

The simple story is what makes us human. No other animal has this ability to use its power. It is what made us collaborate in large groups, enabling us to rapidly rise to the apex of the food chain, from whence, we began to rule the entire planet.

Stories created culture. They built communities and nations. With a simple story, a young man could be moved to leave the home of his parents, or his young wife, take up arms and go off to war, risking life and limb to defend that story. In 1940, Sir Winston Churchill rose to the dispatch box in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, as the country’s new Prime Minister and made a speech that contains these words:

“We shall go on to the end.

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.

We shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

These words, invoked a compelling story and a vision of bravery and victory, of good prevailing over evil. And they powered the Allied Forces through their immense battle with the German military machine.

There are countless examples of how fiction transforms reality. The Pay It Forward Foundation was launched in September 2000 on the back of the novel Pay It Forward – that eventually became a movie, starring Kevin Spacey. In the story, a young boy begins a chain reaction of good deeds by paying a good deed forward three times. This foundation has already helped to fund many schools, hospitals and helped out a multitude of people in need — all, from a simple story about a boy.

How story-telling can help transform your organisation

What worked for Churchill and the Allied Forces, will work for any organisation, company – or individual. Here are some tips for getting the power of story to work for you.

Make people relate to a character

Let’s say you’re having a conversation about the benefit of medical insurance. You could present impressive-looking slides and data, with points that make a case for the product. Or, you could tell the story of a young woman, in the prime of her life, who got struck by cancer. Healthy and fit, she never thought he’d get sick. Fortunately, after months of treatment, she went into remission, but the costs were so massive she had to sell almost all her possessions—including her apartment. By telling the story of this woman, you don’t need boring slides. You’ve made the case through an example anyone can relate to—even if they were sitting around a dinner table.

Make it personal

Stories are more powerful when the person who tells it has actually experienced it. It opens the mind of the listener on a primal level because the evolutionary advantage of story-telling is that we all learn from each other how to survive. When you tell a story about how you coped with something, we are all interested to hear because somewhere in the future we may need this same information.

Enshrine story-telling in your organisation

Encourage everyone in the organisation to tell the stories about your organisation and its day-to-day activities—the good, and also the bad. And make sure that everyone can contribute. The smallest anecdote from a call-center agent can alert the management of a significant systemic failure. The bad stories are teaching moments; the good stories are reasons to celebrate.

What’s your story?

Embrace the power of story in your organisation today. Use it to shape the future. Stories can teach, inform and most importantly, inspire people to greatness. On 12 September 1962, the young American President, John F. Kennedy made a speech at the Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas in which he outlined the vision to land a man on the Moon.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And we did. We did go to the Moon. Where will you go?

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The Vulnerable Brand


Stand-up comedians are fascinating. They get up on a stage, in front of thousands of people, and they can grip each one of them in the palm of their hands, just by talking into a microphone. With their stories and jokes, they are able to control the crowds for an hour or more.

How do they do it?


If you peel away the layers, you will see the way they make a connection with their audience by talking about the imperfections in their own lives. They are brave enough to embarrass themselves or to be shown as anti-heroes. And this creates empathy and understanding. The audience nods and laughs along, because, in their inner sanctum, they are able to recognise themselves as not always being the best or the strongest. They find refuge in this universal condition.


Self-deprecation not only creates connection, it is also a sign of superior psychological well-being. This fact was recently confirmed in a study by researchers from the Mind, Brain and Behaviour Research Centre. Jorge Torres Marín, one of the researchers behind this project, says, “In particular, we have observed that a greater tendency to employ self-deprecating humour is indicative of high scores in psychological well-being dimensions such as happiness and, to a lesser extent, sociability.”

This further proves that individuals, like stand-up comedians, who use this kind of humour can create connection and display signs of happiness and confidence by showing their vulnerability.


The Vulnerable Brand

If we think of brand personalities as real human beings, and we should, what are the implications for how our brands should communicate to create stronger connections with their audiences?

Turn weakness into strength

One way to show vulnerability and create an authentic connection, is to turn a brand’s perceived weakness into strength. A great example of this happened in the car rental category during the 60s. Hertz was the undeniable leader, always followed by Avis in second place. So in 1962 Doyle Dane Bernbach developed a new positioning that simply stated:

Avis. We try harder.

Everyone instantly understood this. When you’re not the number one you have to try harder in everything to be competitive. Ordinary people could recognise the underdog spirit within themselves and therefore build a connection with Avis.

Turn crisis into opportunity

When KFC, the fried chicken fast food chain, faced widespread closure of their stores in the UK due to a chicken shortage, their agency, Mother in London, developed a newspaper ad that turned the looming crisis into an opportunity.

Instead of a long apology that nobody would be interested in reading, they simply showed the familiar KFC bucket … but with one difference. The famous three letters of the brand were jumbled to spell FCK. Anyone who read that instantly smiled. Here was a brand that felt embarrassed enough to change their logo for the sake of an apology, and display this embarrassment in very human language. People all make mistakes, and brands are driven by people. So with this brilliant ad, the brand was able to show its humanity.

Not just did they avert inflicting damage to their brand, they gained more goodwill towards KFC.

Turn the convention on its head

Brands like to associate themselves with celebrities in order to appear cool. Many people can see through this strategy. They understand that famous people are paid to extoll the values of the brand that’s writing the cheques, so they take celebrity endorsement with a pinch of salt. Sprite, the soda drink, featured LeBron James in an ad in which he said: “I would never tell you to drink Sprite, even if I was in a Sprite commercial, which I am.”

By poking fun at themselves and their own category and its conventions, Sprite instantly took a leadership position.

The brand’s rule of thumb

If we think of brands as people, it becomes easier to see how powerful brands can become if they communicate in a more vulnerable ways. Imagine going to a dinner and there is one guest who is constantly boasting about how smart or strong he is. Very soon nobody would be interested in listening to this showboat and he would find himself isolated and alone.

If brands keep banging on about amazing they are, they risk the same isolation.

Brands and people who are not afraid to embrace their own vulnerabilities, weaknesses and crisis, all stand to gain from their honesty and through the power of the connections they can make.

Brands should look to a person at the table who can simply and honestly talk about their own failures. Who can look themselves in the mirror and laugh. Brands should emulate the vulnerability and perhaps then, they too can grip audiences with whatever they have to communicate.

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The Power of Human-Centred Design

Apple – a new kind of computer

When Steve Jobs briefed Jony Ive to design Apple’s first iMac, he wanted him to design a computer that would overcome the fear barrier between man and machine. The big, beige boxes of the world intimidated many people. Apple wanted a new kind of computer. A machine that would invite users to play with it.

So Jony thought of his grandmother. He asked himself what he could do to the machine’s design that would get even his grandmother to take command of it.

So he set out to design a big handle on its back. Because, he figured, if his grandmother felt at any moment she could lift it up and place it wherever she wanted, that she would be in charge of it. And not the other way round.

This is an example of a human-centred approach to product design. And it is entirely based on empathy. The ability of one human, in this case, the designer, to put themselves in the shoes of another (the end-user).

 Today, this approach to design is also used in designing the next generation of digital applications, websites and other interfaces. More and more, companies who make the things we use every day, virtual and real, are placing more emphasis on empathy.

The impact of design on our daily lives

The upside is obvious. When we think like the user, we are asking ourselves important questions and therefore avoiding pitfalls. This approach helps us to make products more meaningful and useful. When we feel like the user, like in the case of Jony Ive, who imagined the fear his grandmother had of computers, we can make iconic products.

Obvious does not mean easy

To follow the human-centred approach seems so obvious, yet every day we deal with countless products that are confusing, useless or downright impossible to use. Anyone who’s ever tried to connect a new printer, or figure out video-conferencing software can attest to this.

This is because empathy requires effort. It is far easier for us to see life from our point-of-view. And even more so for large organisations, that by their collective nature can get very entangled in their own perspective.

A human-centred approach can also make communication sharper, more engaging and more meaningful.

How to start to design

When creating any messaging, whether it is advertising, PR, a user-manual, micro-copy on an interface, putting yourself in the shoes of the user is essential. Great questions to ask include:

  • Where would I be when I get this message?
  • What else could be distracting me when I’m trying to interpret this user manual?
  • What kind of language would I like to read this product copy in?
  • How big is the screen on which I am getting this message?
  • In what state of mind am I during this user journey?

Another great example

One great example of a human-centred approach to communication can be found in the “get well” cards of Emily McDowell. She created a range of cards that are designed to convey a sense of understanding to someone who is even terminally ill. Consider some of the messaging she has used, compared to the normal cheesy copy one would normally find on a get well card:

  • Laughter is the best medicine. Until they find an actual cure for whatever you have.
  • If this is God’s plan, God’s a terrible planner.
  • Together we can find a cure for the phrase ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’

This type of communication creates a meaningful connection with the receiver. It conveys a strong sense of recognition from one person to another – a feeling of I see you.

Applying human-centered design

As in product design companies, the same challenge in knowledge-based teams is to remain empathetic towards the end receiver, and not to revert to the perspective of the organisation – the sender.

This is only possible with a sustained conscious effort that is supported from across various verticals in an organisation – especially from management. Because being human-centred often required organisations to flex and bend their internal processes and paradigms.

Think of banks, for example, who present user’s money into buckets called ‘accounts’, because that is what makes sense to the bank’s process and mainframe computers.

But, what if a bank could put itself in a user’s shoes and imagine that people like to budget into more flexible wallets and containers that can be created and deleted on the fly – without paperwork. By building this kind of metaphorical layer on top of its existing framework requires extra effort and investment, but makes it easier for users to visualise and use their money.

Human-centered design is the way of the future

The potential of a human-centred approach to communication is limitless.

 Just ask the world’s first trillion dollar company.

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