Why every business needs a maniac and a minder

PART 10: As a social entrepreneur, you need to be a bit of a maniac to think your unreasonable ideas will succeed. Just as vital, though, is an “inner minder”, who can tend to the boring but vital stuff – and tell the maniac to slow down sometimes. The final extract in our serialisation of Liam Black's book, How to lead with purpose: Lessons in life and work from the gloves-off mentor.

‘So, Matt, when did you last make love with your wife?’

Long pause.

‘Dunno. Last August. Something like that.’

‘Nearly a year ago?’

‘Shit, yeah. A year ago. That’s not good is it?’

I don’t make a habit of straying into the bedrooms of those I mentor but with Matt* I had to go there. He had been telling me about his chaotic, over-scheduled life, running a sustainability tech firm, trying and failing to manage a staff of 20 and raise his next round of funding. He was loved by his clients, who found his ‘all over the place’ radical behaviours charming, alongside his undoubted talent and passionate drive. So far he had always delivered for his clients but the price he and those closest to him were paying, especially his wife, was getting too much. Things were so bad that he got over his pride to get in touch with me and ask for help.

The mind map I got him to draw about the shape of his life and commitments was the messiest I’ve seen and included a house with a little girl in it – his daughter – with a sad face.

‘Why’s she sad?’ I asked.

‘Because she doesn’t see enough of her dad.’

‘How would you describe you work/life balance,’ I asked sarcastically.

‘I don’t have a life.’ He had tears in his eyes now. 

Matt was an extreme case of what I call the ‘severely gifted’, his desire to change the world, and sense of time running out to do it, his guilt about his ‘privilege’, and his wild talent, combined to corrode his life with a toxic drivenness which had alienated him from the woman he loved most in the world.

My first piece of advice to Matt was that he book a hotel and go away for a long weekend, leaving his phone in Dalston, and just let the world get on with itself whilst he, ahem, reconnected with his wife. A month later I got a photo of two sets of feet entwined at the end of a bubble bath.

In Bleak House Charles Dickens created the very memorable character of Mrs Jellyby who is so obsessed with her charity work in Africa that she can’t see that her own family is falling apart around her. Dickens coined the brilliant phrase ‘telescopic philanthropy’ and it is something that today’s purpose-driven leaders need to be very wary of. Matt had an acute case of Mrs Jellyby Syndrome and our mentoring work became mainly about how he could continue to devote his working life to addressing the climate emergency without losing those he loved.

Charles Dickens coined the brilliant phrase ‘telescopic philanthropy’, something that today’s purpose-driven leaders need to be very wary of

Stephen Lloyd – my mate and lawyer until his untimely death in 2014 – once told me, ‘Every business needs a maniac and a minder.’ Without the maniac nothing innovative or surprising would get created in the face of naysayers and vested interests. Without the minder, brilliant ideas will not survive for long if the dull but important work of systems and process-building doesn’t happen.

Matt was the maniac but he needed a minder – someone to take on the dull but important stuff – to enable him to focus on what he loves and is so good at and what brings him alive.


‘This work of change is addictive’

If you think you can end homelessness, or stop climate change, or you have the solution to a problem which has eluded everyone else, you have to have something of the maniac in you – driven, not willing to hear ‘no’, pushing on when others have had enough, obsessive, unreasonable, sometimes a real pain in the neck for those around you.

But – sounding like a very old man now – I have seen scores of these sorts of social entrepreneurs and leaders over the decades who burn bright for a few years and then – poof! – gone, leaving not much behind them, except lots of resentment, disappointed investors and unpaid bills.

Don’t be that leader.

Karen Lynch, who spent 10 years turning around the fortunes of Belu Water, is now a sought-after mentor and speaker about leadership and social change: ‘This work of change is addictive and I have to watch that in myself. I am driven by a fear of failure and am attracted to solving other people’s problems. You can become obsessed and that hurts you and those around you.’

This work of change is addictive and I have to watch that... You can become obsessed and that hurts you and those around you - Karen Lynch

If you want to change the world, you want to make a lasting difference through your work, then you do really need to look after yourself. Not only are driven, ‘look at me I’m saving the world, I’m so exhausted’ leaders very boring, they tend not to last the course and drive support away.

You can’t however outsource it all. You have to manage the struggle between the maniac and the minder within you. Your inner minder who notices when you’re out of flow, anxious, running on empty. Who knows that taking a holiday and switching off the phone is every bit as important as that next meeting with a funder or potential partner. Who knows indeed that your chances of landing that new investor or attracting that world-class CFO you need so badly are increased if you are taking care of yourself because the best of you turns up to the meeting, not the driven, sleep-deprived maniac!

Build teams which mix the maniac and minder mindsets. Good minders can help maniacs to flourish long term rather than crashing and burning. But be careful. As Martin Narey who ran the prison service told me, ‘I worked with an ex-army Chief Officer in a tough prison who was brave enough to promote an unusually bright but occasionally manic prison officer Alan to a key post. He got the prison-workshop to make a little wooden sign for Alan’s desk on which were the letters WWFFSW. He told Alan to read that sign every day that he, the Chief, wasn’t at work. It stood for Whoa, Whoa, For Fuck’s Sake Whoa.’


No easy answers

Let me be clear. I have no magic solution for you. If you commit yourself to something that is really important, that matters deeply to you, to something much bigger than earning a salary or pulling down dividends, then that comes with a price in terms of cognitive and emotional load and will put extra strain on your wellbeing and the relationships which matter to you. There’s no getting away from that.

It’s harder to switch off if your job involves supporting refugees or finding the money to keep a women’s refuge open. If you are deeply involved in developing technology which may have a large-scale impact on how we deal with the effects of climate heating then you don’t just clock off at 6pm and go to the pub. There will always be what looks like a good reason to cancel that two weeks in France camping with the kids.

Donna – who rose to senior authority in child safeguarding work – put it very bluntly to me after her bitter divorce. ‘I was too busy saving kids, I couldn’t save my marriage.’

Donna put it very bluntly to me after her bitter divorce. ‘I was too busy saving kids, I couldn’t save my marriage’

I too often got the balance wrong in my own life and I regret not being more available for my young children in my thirties when I was trying to figure out how to lead a purpose-driven business. As a recovering Catholic, I am pretty good at guilt.

When I was a CEO with Jamie Oliver I travelled a lot and was often away from home and pretty much every day, late home. Walking in the house one night my daughter walked towards me ignoring my ‘good evening’, brushed past and went upstairs in silence. I suddenly realised that I had completely forgotten about the parents’ meeting at her school earlier that evening which I had promised to attend. As I trotted out my pathetic excuses (again) to my wife Maggie – ‘something really important came up at work’ type of thing – she interrupted me.

‘Do you know the problem with you, Liam? You’re never here and when you are here you’re never really fucking here!’

Karen Lynch again: ‘As a social entrepreneur you obsess about your social mission. But the rest of the world around you isn’t obsessed with you, they’re worrying about what to put in their kids’ sandwiches for lunch and can they pay their electricity bills this month.’ You are obsessing about the world and its problems but the world is not obsessing about you and your purpose.

Karen advises to watch out for the ‘superhero syndrome’ because that will really do your head in. ‘It’s hard. Being able to find some kind of serenity whilst pushing to the limits what’s in your control but accepting many things are not within your control. When you have a team – and you have to have a great team – that brings challenge too because you must accept a loss of perfection, people won’t always do it the way you would, but you have to get out of the detail and that means giving up some control. That’s hard for those who want to change the world because we think we know best!’


The good news

Opting to make a difference in your work by tackling messy, complex, fast-changing social problems can be thrilling and deeply satisfying. But it should only be done with your eyes wide open and fully accepting the downsides.

But here’s the good news, the more you build your resilience, the more you work on understanding what really drives you, the more you understand what gives you energy and life, the more effective you’ll be and the more people will listen and follow you.

Resilience is not just about good mental attitude and taking your significant other off to a posh hotel once a year. It is about getting the basics right. Managing your time and energy well, building robust businesses with high-performing teams, with well-constructed boards offering you the right blend of support, encouragement, accountability and challenge. A great board will be of much more use to you when you really need them – and trust me you will – than your ability to get through 15-hour days on little sleep.

A great board will be of much more use to you than your ability to get through 15-hour days on little sleep

With Matt, we started with the basics. We looked at how his diary got filled with appointments and meetings. Turns out his PA was mirroring his chaotic approach and stuffing his week with activity leaving no time for reflection, falling in knackered late on a Friday night, neither use nor ornament for his family. Use of time and who has control over the diary is something you must constantly monitor. If you are lucky enough to have a PA or secretary, brief them regularly about what is important and who gets straight into the diary and who will have to wait.

I asked Matt, ‘If there was one thing you could drop right now and never have to do again what would it be?’

Without a second’s hesitation: ‘Managing people. I hate it.’

Over the coming months Matt, with my encouragement and challenge, reordered the ways the company works, and relieving him of the chore – as he saw it – of running senior management meetings, doing appraisals (we all hate these, don’t we?). Matt is a provocateur and fire starter who had allowed himself to drift into pretending to be a managing director, going through the motions of running a company which just drained energy and focus from him. Luckily there was a seriously talented young woman in his team who stepped up brilliantly into the vital management role freeing Matt up to do what he is great at – and the world needs.


Off the cross, please

Here’s the thing: you can’t save the world. Sorry. I can confidently urge you down from that cross. But you can do great work, make a positive lasting difference in the field of your choice, create a brilliant company, if you give equal weighting to looking after yourself as you do to the social issue you are tackling. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Your impatient anxious concern for some future better state – for the world, your start-up, your charity, your corporate – can too easily rob you of your ability to live in the present moment and be really there for yourself and others.

The inability of so many of those I mentor to be able to relish the present, dwell appropriately on achievements – in all their imperfections and incompleteness – is striking.

Recently one of my clients, Terry, a C-Suite leader in a car manufacturer, couldn’t wait to get through the opening pleasantries to get to the problem about which he wanted my point of view.

'Hold on there' I told him, 'what’s been going on since we last met, anything interesting?' He made that face one makes when trying to dredge up something from the deepest recesses of our minds and then told me,

‘Oh yeah. We signed off our electric car strategy for the next decade.’

‘Wow,’ says I, ‘that’s amazing. Hang on. You sat in the meeting where a genuinely historic decision was made that could have huge consequences for reducing emissions across the world?’


‘And we’ve been talking for three years about how you align purpose and platform and how you make a difference and you forgot to tell me that you were there at what might be the high point so far of your purpose-driven career?’

‘I ran the meeting, Liam.’

Reader, I nearly slapped him.

We then spent half an hour reflecting on the road that he had travelled to this point, the obstacles encountered and overcome, the dark moments when it seemed like he was making no progress, the late-night calls between us when he was considering quitting.

I’ve got form on this. I am terrible about inhabiting the now and enjoying the wins before rushing on to the next thing. It’s easy see it in others, quite something else to see it and sort it out in oneself. Here is the mentor’s dirty little secret: sometimes we encourage others to do that which we fail to do enough of ourselves. Don’t tell anyone, will you? It is actually one of the reasons why I like mentoring so much: it is as much a reminder to me about what’s important as it is to those I have the privilege of accompanying.


Run, rest and romance

Patrick is a deeply impressive and talented young man I mentor who came to me in 2021 with a very severe case of Social Entrepreneur Mania. We had the maniac/minder conversation and he wrote a list (he loves lists) which I share with his permission:

  • Do: stay angry at the injustices of the world 
  • Don’t: let that anger poison me and those I love and work with
  • Do: give myself permission to work really hard 
  • Don’t: expect others to match me
  • Do: let my team do what they are great at 
  • Don’t: sweat the small stuff and interfere
  • Do: put time in diary to run, rest and romance 
  • Don’t: forget to say thank you and enjoy my successes

I like the simplicity and directness of Pat’s list and it is a good stab at distilling the maniac/minder conundrum into clear actions to try and get to a healthy balance and not burn out himself or his people.


Red boxing glovesGloves-off questions

  • Are you more maniac or minder?
  • Where is your commitment to making a difference damaging you and your relationships? What will you do about that?
  • How will you get better at celebrating your wins and not allowing your desire for a better future to get in the way of living your life NOW to the full?
  • Reread Pat’s ‘Run, rest, romance’ list. What will your Do’s and Don’ts be now?


*Some names have been changed.

Extracted from chapter eight of How to lead with purpose: Lessons in life and work from the gloves-off mentor, by Liam Black. Read more in the series.

The book is available with a special 25% discount for Pioneers Post readers on both the print and e-book versions – use code GLOVESOFF25 at checkout.