Niall Fitzgerald: The Man Behind the Chairman

In this perceptive profile of the chairman of Unilever, Kamini Banga discovers the qualities a leader needs, as well as the man behind one of the world’s largest companies. This Irishman who was recently awarded an English knighthood, is, by his own admission obsessed with “not letting people down”.

  • A five year old boy goes knocking on every door around the house his family has just moved into. He is looking for friends to play with.
  • He then puts together a football team that goes on to win all junior championships and two of the boys become national level players.
  • A ten year old is delighted to have his twenty year old brother, a brother he hardly knew, come back home and teach him all the games elder brothers teach younger siblings. After six months, he dies. The young boy is told that his brother had been sick all this while and had come back to spend his last few months at home.
  • A young teenager discovers that his father is overly fond of his drink. And just when he needs a hero his father fails him and his mother.
  • A young man in university buys his first car. He drives back to take his girl friend for a spin but fails to visit his mother. The next day she dies, unexpectedly, leaving behind a note for him. She was unable to understand why he had not visited her on his last trip to his hometown.
  • A man, unable to face a break up with his wife, is reminded by his daughter that the pain and anguish he is causing his dear ones will keep him from achieving whatever he may want to do in life. In mid career, a man is responsible for one of the biggest marketing disasters in the history of his company. He sticks by his team and goes on to become the Unilever Chairman.

Niall Fitzgerald: The man behind the chairman

These are some pages from the life of an Irishman who dares to be different and is leading the $50 billion Unilever plc. The incidents mentioned above are not unusual and are the kind of stuff that makes up all our lives, in some measure. But what we do with these milestones and traumas is what separates leaders from ordinary beings. Listening to his story, one really wonders whether leadership can be taught in classrooms or in boardrooms. There is nothing more powerful than life itself if you are quick and smart enough to learn.

Having spent a little time with Niall, both in the UK and in the salubrious environs of a relaxed weekend in Goa, his ability to work between paragliding and banana boat rides leaves one a bit breathless. Work and leisure come together seamlessly in his life. However, to call him a workaholic would be doing him injustice. He can put in sixteen hours a day without any effort and be ready for dinner after his daily jog. He takes as much pleasure in wine and opera as he does in restructuring, branding and corporate strategy. He wants to do things, meet people and will not allow his title to stand in the way of living a life that spans many dimensions.


The turns his life have taken seem to have woven themselves into the man he is. They have also left deep scars that are unlikely to heal. He shrugs, as if to say “everybody has his crosses to bear.” He is passionate about what stood him in good stead or let him down as he was growing up and that is where his confidence and strength to walk uncharted territories comes from. So during the journey, what are the lessons he has learnt, discoveries he has made, and strengths within himself that he has realized.

truth is his lodestar. It is not an abstract concept of truth. He calls it being his true self at all times, both in his professional and personal relationships. By his own admission, his departures from ‘truth’ have only served to reinforce its significance. “Whenever I have departed from it, I have blundered and made mistakes.” Truth, or the lack of it, also translates into not having the courage to face up to issues and allowing them to drag on. It is almost as if his professional life mirrors his personal life. Lessons learnt outside the office are what really help him in the corner office in Blackfriars.

injustice arouses passion in a seemingly relaxed Niall who is basically a socialist at heart. He believes strongly in opportunities being made available to all and a level start in education and health for every individual. One can see what draws him to India: so much inequality. He dreams of a workplace where everybody has had a chance to realize his full potential. Did he ever consider a career in politics? Early on in life, a mentor, an Irish communist, advised him to keep away from politics as he felt Niall lacked the necessary patience. He further advised him to use his skill to reach a position of power and use that to do what he really cares about. No twenty year old wants to hear about his Achilles’ heels and Niall was no different, but this was probably the best advice he got. It is, perhaps, comforting to know that at the helm of a $50 billion empire sits a man who believes in social justice, equality and in equitable distribution of wealth.

letting people down: The more strongly Niall felt about this, the more often he encountered it in his personal and professional life. The past haunted him; he had let his mother down when he did not visit her just a day before she died, his brother had let him down when he died on him without any warning, his father let his mother and him down with his over fondness for drink. Young Niall was determined never to let anybody down as long as he lived. But then there were problems in his marriage. The only option was to leave, which meant letting down his wife and children.

It took him long to realize that what he was doing was role playing and not being true to himself. That helped resolve issues and move forward. At work, his strong sense of duty and obligation ensures that the leader leads the charge. People who label him a workaholic do not understand where he is coming from. His almost paranoid drive and obsession not to let people down, means working hard to ensure that every dimension has been examined and every aspect thought through, so when decisions are taken about people they are as fair as possible. “Ironically, quite often in doing that, you do the wrong thing anyway”- he smiles with a resigned air.

connecting with people: The leader in him became apparent during his initiation as a social democrat at the age of twenty. His mentor saw an intelligent young man with a determination to do his best at whatever he did, and most importantly, someone who cared strongly about people. Niall understands this better than he ever did, “In business you can talk about a lot of nice theories and the importance of brands and strategies but in the end it is all about people. They have to be motivated to do what you want them to do. Helping them to find in them more than they thought possible, that is the contribution a leader makes – working through people.” He admits to deriving more satisfaction out of finding a way to get others to do things rather than doing them on his own. Since he was a little boy he has been organizing teams and clubs.
Take people away from Niall and he feels vulnerable.

passion for what you do: “People are motivated only when you can convey to them that you care about what you are doing, it is not something that is academically or intellectually interesting but something you care about.” Niall knows that if he did not feel strongly about something he would not do it well.

This is a lesson his mother, one of the most important people in his life, taught him. “My mother, always told me to do what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing most because anything other than that would not interest me, therefore, I would not do it well.”

Passion, truth, justice and connecting with peoplelessons from the past that will, later, prove to be a sound foundation of leadership for Niall.

is there a hierarchy here or could there be a conflict in certain situations? He concedes that not walking out on his wife because that would mean letting her down, ended up with him not being true to himself and causing even more pain. He was compromising on truth. At the same time he was playing the role of being a chairman. This posturing at home and at work was taking its toll till he realized what was happening, “I was not being myself and that is very important to me.”

but what about the fallout of such an actwould it not mean leaving a number of people with a feeling of being let down?
Nothing is more important than being true to oneself and doing what you think is right, reiterates Niall.

Just when he was caught up in all the role play, something happened that pushed him into making a decision. A close friend of several years died. What he said to Niall left a deep impact on him and helped him understand his departures from truth and their consequences, “What I have realized is that life is not a rehearsal. It is the only performance you are going to give. So it better be the very best performance you want to give and the very best performance that you can give otherwise you will leave life unhappy and unfulfilled.” That was a moment of truth for Niall and also a moment to act.

how has all this learning been distilled? Here are some of his leadership commandments.

a leader, above all, must have courage.
Courage to set out a vision, a vision which inspires. Courage to fail. Courage to be unpopular and define the reality in which the group finds itself even though the process may be unpleasant and uncomfortable. Courage to be able to change before change is seen as necessary. Courage to set out to make the change or see the need for change when everything is going well. Courage to follow through with his vision because most of it will take long. Courage to confront his own truthfulness or lack of it. Courage to persevere. And finally, the courage to lead.

a leader must fight the sin and not the sinner. Niall admires several people and it is difficult for him to zero in on one role model. But the person he admires most is Nelson Mandela for his complete lack of bitterness after 27 years of captivity. Mandela’s goal was to lead people


and not dissipate what they had gained in a war of recriminations. “He showed such an extraordinary quality. His goodness of character and breadth of humanity comes through that, and in recognizing the need to lead people where they need to be led. He, above all, could not allow any resentment. I could never be like that. It is beyond anything that I could do. I could aspire to be like that but I know that it is such an exceptional set of characteristics that I just couldn’t get there… but I can try.”

a leader must trust his people. Lack of trust among people in business delays decisions and that makes Niall impatient. “Too much time is spent in discussions, meetings, writing reports and other conventional systems of business. This is because people do not trust each other. It is not about passing of information but a lack of trust. All great teams, and that includes sporting teams, that have been successful over a period are bound together by trust. They do not, necessarily, have to be friends but in playing the team game they trust each other to play his or her part and not let others down.” He strongly believes that trust can only come from intimate knowledge and understanding of each other.

a leader needs to listen to everybody but then give clear directions.Consensus, feels Niall is very important up to a point but there are moments when the leader has to be authoritative. The final decision must be his. “People must have an opportunity to express their views and opinions but once that has happened, people like to be told what their roles are and they have to be trusted to deliver that. Today, the younger generation is impatient with the gathering of consensus and wants very clear direction.”

Niall finds that, too often, it does not happen and that the courage to give clear direction is absent.

a leader’s legacy- a strong organization and confident people. Niall’s satisfaction comes from seeing others realize what they did not even know they could achieve. He would like to leave behind a business where people believe in themselves more than before he took over, and where people are better than he. A leader who allows the organization to be completely dependent on him falls short of his objective. Margaret Thatcher, he believes, will not go down in history as a great leader, “She did not allow people to realize their full potential as she could not stand having people around her who were able to carry on independently. What she did was not sustainable later and she failed the ultimate test of leadership.”

a leader must be a restless spirit. To be able to drive change successfully, the leader must constantly be dissatisfied with whatever the organization has achieved. He must continue to question the status quo and raise the bar. He has to see himself as constantly challenged and if he stops challenging his people then he needs to go.

a leader must be attuned to the world outside. Leaders need to keep in tune with the world around. There is far greater need to get involved with other businesses, world of arts, academia and interesting thinkers. In keeping with his views, Unilever has contributed to the Tate Modern, the English National Opera and schools in deeply deprived areas. If business is not connected to society, it cannot see early enough what will impact it. Most businesses are inward looking and are isolated from the pulse of society. Niall feels disappointed that people in Unilever tend not to spend time outside the business because they see that as a waste, “It is kind of macho actually. Women are much better than men because most men do not have the self confidence to rely on intuition. Therefore, they depend much more on analysis and data. And that is a lot more easily done inside the business. Women, on the contrary, work a lot more by intuition.” He wants to harness this strength in women for Unilever, a company marketing products largely for women. As a result, a conscious effort is being made to recruit more women and make the workplace more woman friendly.

a leader must gently guide people through change and transition. Niall believes that change is continuous and that it is not a criticism of the past. What was done in the past was right at that point in time and any change must be relevant for the future. If people understand that they are not being criticized for what happened in the past, they are less resistant to change. Change is hard to enforce, but he argues that people can be guided through this difficult process, “People have to be made to feel confident that they themselves can change. There should be a continuous process of self-improvement and selfawareness. This ultimately brings about change.” He cites his own example where his views, perceptions and priorities have changed over time with different inputs. Underlying the many changes, happening in Unilever, is Niall’s conviction that change is essential and the lack of it spells decline and ultimately, death of an organization. “We are seeking to grow continuously and I don’t mean growth in the sense of being big because in the process of growth you also need to strip things out. If you have a beautiful garden you have to be ruthless about pruning and cutting back what you don’t want so that the bloom you do want is more alive and can grow. Ultimately, we need to grow because growth is society’s commentary on whether or not you are relevant.”

a leader must confront his people. The biggest challenge for him is people choice. Sometimes in an attempt not to let people down, mediocrity is supported and that has disastrous consequences for the organization and its people. A leader must confront people with choices when their performance is not up to the mark. It is in their best interest to be asked to leave rather than allowing the business to get affected. Too often at Unilever, Niall has had to confront people in their forties because for years nobody had told them the truth, people were just being kind.

would this not earn the leader a reputation of being ruthless? “You can call it ruthless if you like but on certain values leaders have to be absolutely uncompromising. When you confront people with their own inadequacies, you are actually being kind. And the earlier you do that, the sooner they can correct or redirect their career.” But Niall believes this must be dealt with positively, “A combination of telling them this is where you need to improve and this is where I am going to help you. I will measure it as we go along and I will tell you when you are not making the cut. Then, I will help you find another way of life. One must err on the side of being generous with people to ensure that their self-respect is maintained. They won’t feel that they are just being cast off. An extra cost at that point is a huge amount of capital invested in goodwill and in people feeling that this is a business which is tough but feel respectful at leaving.”

what about great and failed leaders? Leaders cannot be judged as being good or bad. If one can motivate, inspire and move people to realize his vision and goals, then he is a leader. Hitler, Napoleon and Osama bin Laden are all leaders by that reckoning. But they would not go down in history as great leaders as they failed to realize their goals and did not leave behind a legacy to be proud of. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, achieved a lot but did not leave behind something that could be sustained. Maybe what he means is that both the process and the end are important. And that there can be no trade-off.

Niall’s definitive guiding principle of leadership is summed up in a quote he wishes was his own, “There is no limit to what a man can achieve so long as he does not care who gets the credit.”

Effective leaders are those who recognize that it is not position but their impact on those they lead. They must be the medium and not the message. “Mandela is the best example of such a leader because it is his very humility that makes him so effective.”

what is the price to be paid for leadership? “Being a leader is a very exhausting process. You can never ever put your feet up. There are times when you are fed up with what you are doing and you want to give up. But as long as you believe in what you are doing and where you are going, it is all right. That is why it is important to enjoy


what you are doing. You have to be constantly pushing yourself forward as there is no steady state.”

Finally, this quote from a Zen Buddhist text expresses the essence of the man beautifully – “the Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”

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