John Clayton . . . Profiles in Leadership, No. 1

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
~John Quincy Adams

I was at a client meeting the other day where we were discussing leadership and how even though the experts don’t agree on the definition of leadership, we all know it when we see it!  It was a good discussion but I found my mind drifting off to land on someone from my past, who died a few years ago, that to me was the poster-child for unassuming, understated, yet highly effective leadership.

I first met John Clayton in the Atlanta Airport at the Continental Airlines President’s Lounge.  I’m not great with dates but it must have been in the early to mid 1980’s.  He came highly recommended by a client based in Richmond, Virginia, where John and his family lived.  My client, who was very grateful for the consulting work we did to help align his senior team, kept telling me over and over that I had to hire John Clayton as he would be perfect for our type of “people sensitive” team consulting.  So, since I was running a growing consulting firm and always on the lookout for exceptional talent, I flew in to Atlanta to meet with John.

One of the things that first struck me when we met was that John and I were very different, in just about every way.  John was smooth, quiet spoken, appreciative, optimistic and extremely kind.  A very nice man.  On the other hand I was younger (about 10 years), brasher, less polished, more blunt and direct.  Basically John was a facilitator and happy to guide things along to the intended outcome.  I wanted to blast through and find the short cuts.  I think at first we both wondered what the hell we had gotten ourselves into.

But the more I listened to John and learned about his life, his successes (in politics,as a sportscaster, general manager of a minor-league hockey team) the more I could see the ingredients (I call it the “right stuff”) of an exceptional leadership consultant.

John agreed to come on board our small consulting firm and quickly became a senior consultant, then a Vice President and sold and ran one of our largest culture change programmes ever, for British Gas in the UK.  Eventually John became the Head of our UK firm for a couple of years after I retired.

Sadly one day about eight years ago I received a call from a former colleague that John had suffered a heart attack and died that evening.  I was shocked, since I had always assumed the active, frequent golfer was in good health.  But most of all I was saddened.  The world had lost one of the most unsung, unassuming, yet highly effective leadership consultants I had ever had the privilege to know and work with.

Many people thought that John and I didn’t get along and that I was always criticizing his “laid back” style of working with clients.  And on the surface that was the case, but if there ever was a tricky client engagement that needed real leadership and relationship building to get the job done, I always chose John Clayton.  That was the case when he was chosen for the Ford Halewood transformation project, which has since become an INSEAD case study in successful business transformation.

Seth Godin says it best when defining leadership.  “Leaders lead.”  John Clayton was in my mind a great leader because he did just that, he led.  He didn’t talk about it, he didn’t flash his successes about, he just led.  And people follow and respond to leaders who lead, not leaders who talk.

Next time you see someone who is different from your mental image of how a successful leader should look or behave, remember John Clayton.  You may discover a real leader if you take the time.  I’m glad I did.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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