“DON’T SAY A WORD! Let him THINK you’re stupid, instead of KNOW you’re stupid.”

These were the immortal words whispered urgently into my 23-year-old blinged ear

by the newly minted Managing Director of the ad agency where I worked in the mid-

80’s. I was about to proudly prance into the overly ostentatious boardroom of one of

Australia’s most lauded entrepreneurs, and one of the agency’s largest national

clients. I was puffed up and power dressed, with my big hair and shoulder pads on

shoulder pads, I clearly looked a little overconfident. A lot of people are horrified

when I share that story. I thought he had a particularly valid point. What could I have

possibly told this client who was building luxury resorts and marinas in Australia and

Hawaii, to standards, never seen before. I adopted a head down, bottom-up type

attitude henceforth, which served me pretty well, right up until the time I went to

tell him a year later that I felt it was time for me and my shoulder pads to head to


In hindsight, my outfit and his leadership style were pretty obnoxious. Both happily

and quickly became out-dated. (Though I have amassed quite an impressive “shame

rail” from that period.) There was of course, a far more constructive and instructive

way of delivering his point. His message, though, which I always found to be concisely

entertaining, remains with me to this day. Why take up precious airtime if you have

nothing of value or original to add? Listen more, speak less. We all know those

people who want to be the smartest in the room. Bores one and all. I’m always

desperately looking around whatever room I’m in, making sure that I’m NOT the

smartest, because I know how smart I am, and that would be frightening for the


But as society and business evolves at an ever-increasing rate, we’d be foolish to

assume any one person (except me) has all the answers. We’re both fortunate and

damned to have access to so much information and opinion. We can suffer from

analysis paralysis and an overload of either banal consensus or conflicting

information – thwarting originality, creativity, decisiveness and speed to market. As

leaders, we need to understand the zeitgeist. We need to listen to the mood of the

room, community, country and globally, for us to be able to make our businesses

more resonant, relevant, impactful and successful. We can learn so much about our

places of work by listening to all of our stakeholders. Our logistics partners,

manufacturers, environmentalists, communities, customers, team members in the

packing room and the boardroom all have powerful insights into how our businesses

can be strengthened and meaningfully improved. Listen to them all.

What excites and ignites start-ups is the glorious ability and freedom to throw

caution to the wind, and imagine something better. Everyone has a voice.

They’re not inhibited by the conformity of groupthink and nor are they slaves to

received paradigms. They’re non-conforming challengers of concepts, structures,

strictures, established ways of doing things and the establishment. By understanding

the zeitgeist, they see the opportunity to create something better. The rigidity of hierarchy has no place in the open and disruptively dynamic thought forums that are


So while I probably didn’t have much to add as a 23-year-old in that boardroom

meeting in the '80s, I think it’s beholden to us to listen to the thoughts, experiences,

feelings and opinions of a diverse and broad church of people today. Nobody wears

shoulder pads anymore, so it’s much easier to take them seriously.