wisdom to win

 Wisdom to Win
search bar left
search bar right

John Harvey-Jones LeadershipJohn Harvey-Jones Leadership


John Harvey-Jones (1924-2008)


Successful boss of ICI 1982-7 (pictured right) , the British chemicals company and owner of Dulux paints.

Presenter of the BBC TV series, Troubleshooter, which advised struggling businesses in the late 1980’s .


What are his tips on leadership and business success?


1. People matter

Employees make customer satisfaction possible, so they should be treated well, valued and pushed to do their best.

So a leader must be kind (i.e. sensitive to employee needs) but tough.

“If you’re too sensitive, you’re all marshmallow and ineffective, yet if you’re not sensitive enough you can’t do a thing”, he said.

 John Harvey-Jones Leadership

2. Empowerment and common aims

Action should be preceded by:

  • thinking and planning.
  • a fervent desire to be the best.
  • agreeing and understanding common objectives like customer satisfaction.

People should then be given the autonomy (or “headroom”) to carry out these aims with all the support, information and resources necessary.


3. Learning

People must continually learn and improve their performance.

So honesty, openness and tolerance of people’s views and mistakes are vital.

 John Harvey-Jones Leadership

4. Accept change

People have a natural fear of change that must be overcome, because a business must change continually to:

  • innovate.
  • take advantage of new market opportunities.

“The task of leadership is to make the status quo more dangerous than launching into the unknown”, he said.

Employees who can’t accept change must be sacked but treated with compassion, because unfair treatment will demotivate the remaining employees.

People can be encouraged to accept change through:

  • small actions (like his closure of ICI’s huge headquarters in London).
  •  “judo management” (i.e. turning the potentially negative into something positive).

But the biggest problem is to get people to change themselves.

“Change is an attitude of mind and the place to start is within ourselves”, he said.


5. Flexibility

Different situations require different styles of leadership or management.

To be quick and decisive, tell people what to do.

To motivate and empower people, give them the power to make decisions.


6. Speed

Leaders must act quickly to beat competitors.

So Harvey-Jones cut bureaucracy (e.g. reducing the size of ICI’s head office and halving the size of the board of directors) “to reduce the number of those who can say no and increase the motivation of those who can say yes”.


 John Harvey-Jones Leadership7. Self-improvement

Harvey-Jones (pictured right in 1980) constantly tried to develop his talents and “try every day to do a little better”.



8. Go global

He always saw ICI as an international company that needed to be successful in all the major world markets: America, Europe and Asia.


9. Lead by example

Bad leaders make bad people.

So Harvey-Jones was always visible, openly showing his concern for people’s problems. They were inspired by his integrity and compassion.

“People want to work for an identifiable person and the values of that person are very, very important”, he says.



Successful people find the right balance between work and leisure, making them more creative and effective at work.

So he always kept his weekends work free and gave up his naval career to give more time to his polio stricken daughter, Gaby.

His wife, Betty, was the foundation of his success:

  • giving him emotional support.
  • looking after their daughter.
  • tolerating his commitment to ICI.

She once joked that if you cut him in two, he would have the letters ICI running down him like a stick of rock!


Key quotes on leadership

Bad leaders invariably blame the people.

The task of leadership is to make the status quo more dangerous than launching into the unknown.


Key quote on change

Change is an attitude of mind and the place to start is within ourselves.


Key quote on empowerment

Problems can only be solved by the people who have them. You have to try and coax them...into seeing ways in which they can help themselves.


Key quote on management

When you know something’s wrong, nine times out of ten it’s the management – in truth because people aren’t being led right.


Key quote on business success

Our companies can only win if the individuals in them are winning.

Free Newsletter
Enter your name and e-mail address to receive our free newsletter with analysis of business issues and new business books