AFTER the rumpus over Sir Martin Sorrell's ginormous pay packet, I find myself admiring the man more than I did before. It's not that I think he deserves his £6,7m pay packet: obviously he doesn't.
Instead, what I admire about the media magnate is his skin. His largest organ turns out to most unusually thin. Sorrell's was deeply hurt by shareholders hostile to his huge pay rise, and wrote in the Financial Times: "The most wounding comment, made anonymously, is that I deserve a 'bloody nose'."
I can't remember the last time I heard a powerful person admit to being wounded by anything, let alone by an anonymous comment.
Compare the ad man's thin skin to that of two other business leaders, who were also in the papers last week: Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. Dimon displayed the hide of a rhino as he walked past protesters shouting, "This man is a crook!" on his way to explaining to a Senate committee how come JPMorgan just lost more than $2bn. More rhino hide was flashed by Blankfein, when he rose above recent attacks on his leadership style to joke in public that he would go on running Goldman Sachs until he died.
The Dimon-Blankfein skin tone is meant to be the desir able one for all successful people. To be impervious to attack is thought to be powerful and dignified. Every executive coach tells every aspiring person who has to deal with criticism the same thing: don't take it personally.
But I'm starting to think the thinner skin tone suits CEOs better. It's not just that it's more honest and natural to feel pain when you get stabbed. It's more effective too.
Even though Sorrell's attempt to fight off his critics didn't work this time, it still showed a commendable willing ness to engage. If you are CEO, it is your job to take things very personally indeed. It is your job to be hurt by much of what critics say. A thick skin means attacks don't draw blood. It means it's easier to dismiss anything painful. It means complacency is just around the corner.
Think of successful actors. It's no accident that so many of them have such excessively thin skins that they go mental every time a bad word is written about them.
It's essential to the job. The thinness is what makes them try so hard to give their best performance night after night.
Left to its own devices, skin naturally thickens with age. My own has got more leathery as time passes. I still remember how hurt I was when I started this column 18 years ago, and a colleague told me I was occupying valuable space in the newspaper that could be used for important news. I felt quite sick. I redoubled my efforts to do better.
Now I hardly ever take criticism to heart. This state of minding less has been vital for my mental health, especially given how the internet furnishes a never-ending stream of beastly stuff. My new-look, thick skin has made me altogether happier and much easier to live with. But I fear it has also made me less good at my job.
Last week, I gave a speech that didn't go very well. Ten years ago, I would have been mortified, but this time I shrugged and thought: win a few, lose a few. I didn't take it personally. The trouble with not taking it personally is that I am taking no steps to ensure that I do better next time.
Sorrell is one of the few business people I've written about who yells in pain when something hurtful is said about him.
Almost every time I've mentioned him I've received a message back, usually faux-jokey in tone, but still showing some signs of pain. Today I look forward to receiving another.
I remember once, after doing a personality interview with him, I rec eived a letter in which he wondered how it was that I appeared to have liked Gerry Robinson, another interviewee, more than I seemed to have liked him. At the time, I thought this a bit undignified, but I've now changed my mind. It's this "what does he have that I haven't? attitude that makes Sorrell go on being so successful. It is this very thing that made 98% of shareholders vote, despite the pay rise, to keep him on last week.
Instead of telling successful people to grow thicker skins - which time will help them grow anyway - we should be urging them to look after their skin and keep it as thin as it always was. The ideal is to have a skin as thin as an earthworm's but a constitution like an ox. There is also a need for a clotting mechanism efficient enough to ensure that a scab forms on all wounds and the victim does bleed to death. ©2012 The Financial Times Limited