Impact – Overcoming a toxic fantasy: the UK’s leadership challenge

David Williams started Impact in 1980 with the intention of using adventure as a catalyst for individual development. Since then, they have helped young offenders to turn themselves around, trained deputies at the National Coal Board and, in 1984, were approached by the Post Office to equip civil servants with the leadership skills required to privatise British Telecom. Their work began to capture the attention of the media and, after a couple of TV appearances, Impact were commissioned by Apple, Marks and Spencer and many other well-known British and international companies. David tells the Parliamentary Review how simply doing what he loved day to day became a business and how he seeks to inspire leadership in those he works with.

We live in a world consumed by a toxic fantasy of leadership, where special people with special powers believe they have a right to tell others what to do. It’s this approach that has got us into trouble in a number of ways over the years, and it’s not going to get us out. We need a world in which leadership is not just about special people, but about the vital forms of action that come from everyone and everywhere in organisations, where problems are solved collectively – a leader’s job should be to liberate individual brilliance.

The inspiration for Impact came when I was 16 as a student on a four-week Outward Bound course in Wales. It was the first time I’d been away from my family and friends, and it changed my life. In that month, I achieved things I never thought I was capable of – physically, socially and emotionally. I grew in confidence, and I learnt how to engage with others and influence them positively.

Travelling home, I felt a mixture of elation because of the experience and a growing sense of desperation because it was over. I got off the train in tears, but at that moment, I made a promise to myself: whatever had happened to me, I wanted others to experience the same thing. I’ve felt driven to help people achieve their potential ever since.

Experiential learning with Impact

Forty years on, we have 17 global offices, with bases across Asia-Pacific, the Americas and Europe, and our headquarters are located near Windermere in the Lake District. We employ 250 people and have a further 200 associates. Our roots in adventure and experiential learning have been developed into sophisticated methodologies for leadership skills, empowering change and creating sustainable enterprise. We put people in situations where they feel what it’s like to lead and be led.

It isn’t always comfortable, and feedback is immediate and powerful. Those who participate in our programmes learn to behave differently, solve problems, make important decisions and bring out the best in others. They reflect on their experiences with colleagues to discover humility, courage, vulnerability, respect and real human connection. Our leadership development programmes are delivered to 300 client organisations across 40 countries every year.

Solving the challenge

Much credence is given to those in authority who have a great wealth of knowledge; in volatile and complex times, however, leaders no longer have all the answers and struggle to know what the future holds. In an uncertain world, a command and control style does not help us to discover the best way forward. We are working with generations who have greater access to knowledge than ever before, and who are pushing for involvement far earlier in their careers. We also have complex and unprecedented problems to solve, with technology and market disruption moving ahead apace.

Our global expansion has been led by entrepreneurial individuals who have been set free to pursue their collective vision for growth. I never say no to anyone who comes to me with an idea if it’s in service of our fundamental goal: to build organisations worth working for. To achieve our potential, we have to take risks and learn from our mistakes.

I believe that leadership is about moving towards a consensus-driven approach where people are willing to travel in the same direction. It’s about listening and understanding, giving people time to realise where they have come from, to recognise where they are now and to build a picture of where they are going next – all in the context of a call to action. My job as the leader at Impact is to help other leaders to emerge, to galvanise their passions and to develop colleagues worth working with.

Therefore, as a leader, it’s not what you know that matters – it’s what you do with what you know. People hold themselves back for all manner of reasons: a lack of confidence to speak out, a reluctance to openly challenge what’s going on or a perception that it’s somebody else’s responsibility. Culturally, that is a huge issue for us in the UK; we feel safe watching somebody else make mistakes and then criticising them for it rather than taking action.

Change is needed

Something needs to change if we are to tackle the complex and potentially dangerous issues of our time. I started Impact because I was passionate about helping other people to become the best versions of themselves. I spend a lot of time talking to people about where their inspiration comes from and what they’re passionate about.

When you harness your passion to exercise leadership, you become able to tackle and solve challenges across all sectors of society. I know that there are thousands of people out there trying to bring about a more sustainable future. The same can be said of individuals looking to influence politics and business.

These people, those who have an idea and are motivated to pursue it, need support if they are to make it happen. Unfortunately, these are often people who are seen as challenging or demanding – troublemakers – and this is a real issue. We need to change perceptions so that the leaders of tomorrow become recognised, not marginalised. The good news is that leadership can be learned, honed and developed.

At Impact, we’ve built a business around helping people to become more personally aware, curious, open to feedback, reflective and appropriately equipped to make informed decisions about what to do next.

Leadership can and should flourish at every level in an organisation, and we are committed to fostering that elsewhere. We want to develop leaders who have the mindfulness to notice when leadership is needed, the intelligence to decide what to do and the courage to act. Only then can we dissolve the toxic fantasy that has developed by unlocking the leadership behaviours that can lead to positive change.

This article originally appeared in the 2019 Parliamentary Review.

“I have worked closely with Rupert on a number of projects. He is an accomplished writer and captures the essence of a story in a concise but captivating manner. He approaches his interviews with a genuine curiosity, drawing out the important themes and playing them back in a compelling way. I can highly recommend him as a writer, a storyteller and a journalist.”
David Williams, founder and chief executive, Impact