Leadership demystified

Whether we like it or not, one of the biggest impacts on our health, happiness and wellbeing is where many of us will spend around 10,000 days of our lives: work.

And what has the biggest influence on that experience? The leadership we experience, and practice.

Still not convinced? Well, think for a moment about the worst job and the worst leader you’ve experienced. And your life at that time; how you felt, and how it impacted the people and parts of your life well away from work.

Yes, the impact and reach of leadership is huge.  

But leadership is also complex?

Well, it would certainly seem so from the number of different definitions out there about ‘great leadership’, and all those new theories and models that seem to continually emerge as a the next best thing. And what about all of those ‘must read’ leadership books? Well, there are almost 2,000 new ones published every year- so this must surely be a very complex subject, right?

Wrong. Because, working with a team that has provided leadership development to 1000s of leaders through over 250 engagements to over 75 different clients in 9 countries, I have a slightly different view to share.

Firstly, no matter what certain supposed experts will tell you, the essence of great leadership can be hugely simplified. It’s purely the ability to both direct and inspire, through focusing on being not doing.  And here at Inspire Group, we have a simple way to express that:

So how do you develop great leaders?

Well, it’s important to first understand that a great deal of leadership development is unnecessarily complicated, and doesn’t make a real impact where it needs to- on the lives of the leaders themselves and those around them.

With any organisation and individual, time and money is precious. No more so than in the fundraising and non-profits (having been a CE in this sector both here and in the UK).  Put plainly, every dollar spent on developing your leaders is a dollar that could be spent on beneficiaries, so it’s important that this investment pays off.

So, before you embark on any form of leadership development, you really should understand the four most important factors in making leadership development effective:

Context is key: Context is a critical component of successful leadership.  A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another.

Keep it real: tie leadership development to real on the-job projects that have a business impact and improve learning.

Mindset first: Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behaviour, but this also means adjusting underlying mindsets, too.

Measure results: When businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that these initiatives won’t be taken seriously.

Maybe present the above as a table?

And if I had to choose just one? It would to focus on context, and making sure that whatever you are doing to develop yourself as a leader, and those around you, it is relevant to your current challenges and culture.

So, what can I do today?

Having worked in leadership roles in many different countries, and now in leadership development across many different locations, cultures and environments, I am also asked about the leadership and career development advice I would offer.  And in particular, what approaches and mindsets can leaders develop to progress their journey as a leader, and those around them.

So, to close, here are a few low cost but high impact ideas well worth considering…

Apply anyway:  I so nearly missed out on my first leadership role- simply because I didn’t think I was worthy of it, and wouldn’t get an interview. A much wiser and older colleague simply said ‘for the price of a stamp (yes, it was 20 years ago), you can let them make that decision’. I did, they did- and I found myself in a very senior role at age 27, leading people twice my age. Which leads me onto…

Embrace imposter syndrome:  I’ve really struggled with this over the years- and even last week was convinced I’d get ‘found out’ at a presentation. But here’s the thing- we ALL have this to some degree, and it’s a perfectly natural (and perhaps essential) aspect of wanting to strive, perform and develop. And, as we learn best when outside our comfort zone, we’re pretty much stuck with it. So, gamify it ‘yep, got away with it again- ha!’

Whether you think you can, or can’t- you’re probably right:  not my quote (but I wish it was), but actually from Henry Ford. Who we also have to thank for the idea that the working day should be 8 hours. But that’s another story; and speaking of which…

Learn how you learn:  you will be bombarded with advice (read this, watch this, listen to this) throughout your early leadership career on ‘amazing leadership stuff that changed my life’. But, don’t force it- if books aren’t your thing (and they weren’t mine for years- I barely struggled through a book a year on holiday, and it certainly wasn’t about leadership!), simply find your thing. And that may be as simple as having a great mentor, friend, or coach that you can turn to.

Do what needs to be done:   great leaders see opportunity, step up and take the lead when that action is needed. Don’t wait for someone else to do it (they probably won’t), or hold back because you’re not good enough (you are). I took this bold move a few years back and ended up travelling the world as the Chairman of a global voluntary body on parks. What an adventure!

Watch and listen carefully-  and there are two really important aspects to this. Firstly, learn quickly to ‘read the terrain’- your effectiveness as a leader rapidly accelerates when you can adapt your style and communication to those around you.  Secondly, become a master of observation. Watch and listen to other leaders you encounter- good and bad. Steal their phrases (the good ones, that is!), and make them your own.  It’s what we all do.

Scan the horizon: a great leader can describe the future with as much clarity and conviction as others describe the past.  Do not assume that someone else is looking ahead to see the opportunities and challenges that await your team and environment.  Be constantly scanning ahead- days, weeks, months. And do this through…

Make time to think: when I stepped up into my first ‘big’ leadership role in the non profit sector, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful, kind and inspiring Chair.  Sadly, he’s no longer around, but his advice guides me daily- particularly this gem, ‘James, my dream is that one day I will visit your office and find you with your feet up, gazing out of the window. I’ll ask you what you are doing, and you will simply reply: I’m thinking.’ As a leader, you have to design in the time to think. And this means delegating, and taking on less yourself. That ‘stuff’ is not yours anymore.

Have counterbalance and be proud: true work/life balance is a myth. It’s a shifting balance, just like riding a bike- where you are constantly making adjustments to your balance (often without even knowing it) to stay upright and to keep moving forward. This is how it really is. So, keep checking your momentum, and making those counterbalances.

Consult, but it’s not a democracy:  some great coaching advice I had early on was to consult widely, and then take bold action- being at peace with the fact that some people will not like what you are doing, or agree with it.  You are the leader. So, lead.

And finally, think impact not effort: as my dad often reminds me ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’. And it’s true- but I’ve learnt the hard way that it is impact, not effort that really matters.  If you can achieve the same results, or better, and have more time and energy to do the (other) things you love, happy days!

Because, after all, that’s what really matters.