Business Superhero: Sir David Attenborough

12 May 2016

As many of you will no doubt be aware, Sir David Attenborough celebrated his 90th birthday just the other day.

Now we all know about his amazing and inspiring nature programs, I for one was interested in the natural world as a young man. But as I’ve grown older, I find myself getting lost in the wonder that his nature programmes bring. This wonderment follows me as I look around the stunning Yorkshire landscape in which we live and that can all be traced back to David Attenborough bringing it to my attention.

But that’s not why he’s our Business SuperHero this month.

Although I knew he’d also worked for a time in the management of the BBC, I had no idea (or had forgotten) that he was tasked with getting BBC2 off the ground and then later becoming the Director of Programmes for the whole BBC. It was because of his leadership that we got programmes like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, had televised snooker and rugby league, and of course the first colour television programmes in Europe. He was a leader in every sense of the word, from his pioneering new technologies to his ability to understand and therefore manage people.

Watching the celebration of his work with Kirsty Young, I was particularly struck by the back and forth between David Attenborough and Michael Palin. Palin spoke about how Monty Python was able to grow and flourish at BBC2 as a comedy team that really grew to define the very idea of “British Humour.” He cited the reason for this to be Attenborough’s very hands-off approach to management.

Giving a talented individual or team the space they need to grow isn’t the easiest thing to do for a manager, in fact I would say that it is one of the most difficult things a manager has to do. As soon as I heard that story, I knew that David Attenborough had to be our May Business Superhero. His work as a naturalist is just the icing on the cake for me.

Working in management too often results in the desire to micro-manage and even take work off people to do yourself. There are many reasons for this, perhaps you think they won’t do as good a job or maybe their approach is so different from what yours would be, that you can’t see how it will ever work. And that’s where David Attenborough’s example should stand out as a lesson for us all to learn.

Standing back and giving your team the chance to find their own way to do a particular task will make them more confident and more skilled employees. They’ll know that they have your trust, but also that this particular job is their responsibility. If you keep swooping in to do the difficult bits or re-jig how they’re approaching it, the job won’t be “theirs” it’ll be “yours.” And, once completed, the credit and accolade won’t be theirs either.

I have a lot of respect for David Attenborough on this front. I can imagine that, at the time, with a new network and this crazy bunch of comedians, it felt like a very risky decision to take. But because he gave them the space to grow their craft, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, we ended up with what has very much become a national treasure: Monty Python.

And that’s why David Attenborough is our May Business SuperHero.