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Speaking out: why influence is as important as leadership

The FT’s chief economics commentator Martin Wolf is happiest with his own thoughts and says leaders should always follow their hearts.

Speaking out

It’s important to identify your own individual voice. I’m glad I realised that early on in my professional life. I only have to lead myself – and I only do that from time to time. Most of the time I just do what I have to do, without thinking too much about anything except the immediate task. There is also a big difference between influence and leadership. I am in a position of influence, but nobody is required to follow me. Nor am I required to follow anyone else. I am unhappy being part of a team to which I have to be loyal, even when I strongly disagree. Having my own voice, right or wrong, gives me enormous satisfaction.

I learnt from my parents not to offer advice unless asked. Their policy was that children were capable of making up their own minds, an approach I have tried to continue with my own children. My parents were the most important influence in my life. Since they were Jewish refugees from the Second World War, their experiences had a profound effect upon me. My values and interests come overwhelmingly from them. My father was a remarkable man, who wrote his first play at the age of eight and went on to become a playwright. But there wasn’t much call for Austrian-Jewish playwrights in London after the Second World War, so he worked in the BBC’s German service, became the London correspondent for German newspapers, including Die Zeit, and ended up making documentaries and plays for German television. I grew up in a household in which discussion of politics and economics was normal. And we took it for granted that politics could, quite literally, be a matter of life and death.

If you live too much in the future you are very likely to be disappointed. If, as I have been, one is fortunate enough to be able to make a choice – and of course many people in the world are not – my approach has been to take the most interesting, stimulating, fascinating job opportunity available, even if it takes you down a route you had not necessarily envisaged. Don’t do a job just because it is prestigious or pays more. I certainly hadn’t planned on becoming a journalist when Geoffrey Owen, then Editor of the FT, asked me, at the age of 41, to become a leader writer for the paper. In retrospect, though, I am very well suited to being an economics commentator. I knew I was never going to be a Nobel prize-winning economist.

Young people starting out in their careers often ask me how they can become me. I tell them it is very risky to go after just one job in the world. The chances one will end up disappointed are so high. When I was young, there were only two people doing this sort of job: Peter Jay at The Times and Samuel Brittan at the Financial Times. It never occurred to me to try to follow them. So I was an applied economist first, working at the World Bank and a think tank in London, on global trade, and only much later did I become a journalist. When I started out I expected a career in policy-making, maybe in public life. But I am not happy when subordinating my thoughts and views to those of others. That can be admirable – it is essential in politics – but I realised it was not for me.

I have been led more by the people I have read than by the people I have met. Of course, there have been people who have helped me a great deal and whom I admired; Max Corden at Nuffield College and Ernest Stern at the World Bank are two examples. In my job it’s inevitable that I also meet a vast number of people in important positions. It’s helpful for me to know what they are thinking, just as they try to influence my own thoughts. The world’s central bankers are generally intelligent, able people and it would be easy to “go native”, that is, be persuaded by them. But I try very hard to resist it and am happiest with my own thoughts and books, mostly non-fiction, of which my father would have heartily disapproved. He was always trying to get me to read fiction.

I feel my work is a permanent vacation. Of course I work hard – my wife would say that I work all the time. But I have no bureaucratic responsibilities. I think and write about the things I am most interested in and care most about. The recognition of others I respect is very important to me. Apart from the love of my family, the respect of those one respects is the most important thing in the world. It would be dishonest of me to deny that recognition matters. I feel honoured to have received it. But I recognise that in many ways my life is irresponsible: I am just a commentator. My work is also fun. And, although I didn’t plan my career, looking back on it now, it almost makes sense. It uses my abilities and interests fully.