What Unconventional Leaders Can Learn From J.G. Ballard

An awol CEO taking up residence in a derelict swimming pool. Thistle-infested motorway flyovers. Former-employees ransacking a bare-shelved, hyper-indebted supermarket. Ballard wrote his persona of the neo-apocalyptic revolutionary from the dining room of his suburban semi-detached house, chiselled underneath the flight path of outer North London’s grass verges. Filled with fascination on one trip outside his cul-de-sac, J.G Ballard was inspired to write his revered novel High Rise after visiting Balfron Tower, a brutalist twenty-six floor housing block that bullys into the sky of London’s East End.


“She glanced at her watch, reminding herself who she was.”
― J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights



Leader LESSON One

Write your company’s novel


“I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul” ― J.G. Ballard


Ask yourself this question, leaders: Is it a boring experience, honestly, working at your company? Are you running a page-turning operation, or one of those paperback businesses that almost immediately ends up sitting on the charity shop bookshelves without earning a full read. If you’re the latter, being honest with yourself, then there’s most probably a lack of addiction factor in what you’re asking people to do for you. And I don’t mean salary addiction (that may be all you’ve got, but increasingly it’s not going to work like before). Like it or not, the naked reality right now in people’s minds, including the minds of the people you employ, is that a “good job” is one that’s entertaining. Anything else is tolerated only through gritted teeth while flickering through a mental catalogue of other plans.

The most important personal decisions happen silently, in private. Often I speak to employees who, in their brains, have already filed their employers as irrelevant. Why? Because not once does their employer, their manager, or their CEO stir their imagination. Good novels do that, and you must too.


“They’re listening to the sun, Charles. Waiting for a new kind of light” ― J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights




Leader LESSON Two

Play your way to compounding profits… or you’re a camel


“Togetherness is beating up an empty elevator” ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise


MORE PLAY = LESS SICKIES and MORE PROFIT POTENTIAL, because this way your people aren’t focussing all their ingenuity on how to evade your grasp (in bad companies people do that a lot, it’s the human survival instinct against mistreatment). For your next team building day, an open-eyed strategy is to take your team to a junk yard and let them smash things up together; it’ll be a whole lot cheaper than the usual molly-coddled option, and certainly far less patronising. Encourage your HR Director to smash the first windscreen; it’ll fill their veins with a shot of five years extra life that they can pass on with a donor-cry to the small crowd looking on. After that, it’s likely everyone will work harder for you because they’ve seen independent courage enter the scene of their daytime. Richard Branson cuts people’s ties off and he’s done well, but junk yards are the most unexplored creative corporate playgrounds for the organised fun of inviting your people outside the veneered comfort zones they’ve learned to wear for you. You taught them that, and it’s holding them back. Opportunities to undo that comfort zone are within your control too, employers. They’re the biggest untapped productivity ROI you can wet dream about. Behind those comfort zones is where the extra productivity lays wriggling, that which, once harnessed, could unlock the future uptick in profits for your business.


“People want to be surprised. And breaking your corporate rules with a baseball bat to a windscreen in some inner city junkyard that you minibus them to is just one way”


Ballard knew it, and the most unconventional tip of senior HR leaders also know it. People want to be surprised. And breaking your corporate rules with a baseball bat to a windscreen in some inner city junkyard that you minibus them to is just one way of doing it, and a pretty effective one in the context of human history. And you can’t quibble or heckle that until your retention rate is higher than Robin Hood’s team was. Heckling down to boring old safety is for camels. And camels don’t have the ammonia smile, the blow of abandon, that it takes to play in the junk yard. Ballard said that “unhappy parents teach you a lesson that lasts a lifetime.” And the same goes for employers. Whatever you do then, make every effort not to treat your people badly; because an employer who treats people badly is affecting the new generation of the human race – no pressure.



Pirate Leadership

Ballard’s work, rooted in the strata of society and how they work together, shows that as a leader if you can’t excite people to follow you and your baseball bat during a revolution, then you’re unlikely to be able to excite them enough to drive expectation-exceeding profits for your company. Why do people continually enjoy the cinema? Why do they get so immersed in video games? Because the leaders they encounter in real life so often disappoint them. They’re looking for revolutionaries with a voice that quivers with the metallic rattle of a future, emotionally stimulating enough that it’s worth fighting for with a wild sweat of belief-frenzied effort. Try out some revolutionary leadership in your company and you might be pleasantly surprised what life a band of hard-sweating pirates can batter into a balance sheet.


“The leaders they encounter in real life so often disappoint them. They’re looking for revolutionaries with a voice that quivers with the metallic rattle of a future”


Many job descriptions are masochistic already, but they acutely under-deliver on the stimulation front. Secretly, we want the experience of watching, working with, and being around our real life leaders to be better than the video game or that in-the-moment film you love. We want classic memories to firm up our journey through life – real things that have happened to us, not borrowed from something produced somewhere else on a film set. The secret we don’t talk about is something we fantasise about because we don’t think it will happen to us in real life. The secret is that we want to meet artists in real life, to work with them, to have them lead us. Your employees don’t want moulded corporate leaders who are pre-programmed to say the same things. No, they want artists to lead in corporations, because that’s 100% magical. Why? Because it would make their daytime be like the real life they’ve dared only imagine being possible in films. Now, are you going to disappoint them by hiring the same old leaders until your company tires out? Or are you going to start auditioning for someone frighteningly new?


Ballard’s seminal work, High Rise, shows that





They create a sense of personal meaninglessness.




Learn how to lead with a baseball bat on Skillshare! 

Up your creative skills with a free 1 month trial



Learn more about:Martin Green - HR Waterfall

Connect with Martin. Make some magic happen.

On a journey to inspire 200,000 people professionals and leaders to positively evolve our workplaces



Leave a Reply