Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!


David Landsman is a rare hybrid in the world of leadership – a career diplomat who went on to become a senior executive for a major multinational corporation. And he credits a big part of his success as the latter with the lessons he learned as the former.

“I think there is an awful lot that is similar,” says Landsman, who served as British ambassador to both Greece and Albania before becoming executive director of Tata Limited and representative of the Tata Group in the U.K. “People are people. Everybody is motivated by something and incentives matter. That is true in diplomacy and in business.”

Landsman believes business leaders could be more successful if they acted more like diplomats – and that means learning to observe before acting.

“Don’t just do something, sit there!” he advises.

Landsman isn’t advocating idleness, but rather taking the time to understand the situation before reacting to it.

“What you’ve got to do is to listen, learn, try to understand, but remember which side you are on and remember what your objectives are – because if you don’t try to understand what is going on, on the other side, you’re not going to get very far,” he says. “There is no point in charging in and saying, ‘Well, we’re always right. We’re the good guys. You’re the bad guys. I know what I think. I know the answers.’ If you do that, you may as well sit back at home and read the Financial Times – at least then you might learn something.”

Too often, business executives feel the need to shoot first and ask questions later.

“There is an old saying about strategies failing on first contact with the enemy. Well, if you try and understand the enemy a bit more first, maybe your strategy will be flexed in some way so that it doesn’t collapse on first contact,” Landsman explains. “It’s the idea of not just thinking about what you want to do, and what you want to achieve, and how you want to achieve it, but what is the likely reaction when you throw the pebble into the pond with a view to achieving your outcome? How will it ripple off, and who will it hit, and who will throw it back at you?”

This is important, because it is very easy to send the wrong signal – particularly when you are dealing with people from other cultures.

Today, Landsman continues to apply the lessons he learned as a diplomat as chairman of Digital Cognate and the British-Serbian Chamber of Commerce. He also serves as an advisor to The D Group, The British Foreign Policy Group, and The India Business Group.

“I think one of the lessons in diplomacy is that I may think I know what is in your interests, but if I don’t actually think hard and try and work out what you think is in your own interests, I may cause a problem,” Landsman says. “However, I might be able to persuade you to do something differently if I understand what success looks like for you and present you with an alternative route to success or an alternative vision of the world, which somehow moves you in the right direction.”

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