Many of us aspire to be good leaders and know in theory what that should look like, yet struggle when it comes to managing teams and thinking about different levels of leadership and our opportunities to influence change.
This week in particular I have spoken with many individuals about leadership, especially as I finished our Manager as a Coach program led by the legendary intuition guru Mary Saunders and our own organisational psychologist Craig Camamile.
What has in particular struck me is how each of us has a very different understanding what our leadership style is and can be, and how that perceived by us and others.
But to be a great remarkable leader, we need to master something different and something even uncomfortable: we have to open ourselves up and use courage to lead.
Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead is a captivating book about leadership with courage based on seven years of solid research.
Brené succeeds in where many academics fail: she presents her research clearly and offers deep reflections from her own personal life but also backed up sound empirical research that she and her team have undertaken on leadership.
In the first pages of the book (p. 4) Brené provides the most insightful and beautiful definition I have ever read of what real leadership is about:
This to me really hits at the core as to what leadership is about.
Leadership in so many ways is not about a position, but is about people seeing potential in others and helping them to excel.
Of course we have hierarchies within companies and organisations where being a leader is recognised both by the responsibilities and pay check, where people have performance measures set for their official leadership responsibilities.
But when it comes to everyday leadership that does not stem from a position, I think Brené’s definition truly uncovers the prevailing attitude of leadership where the desire to assist stems from the heart and not only from a position of authority.
This definition is a permission to lead, to take on leadership roles where we see opportunities to assist others to excel; not because we need to tick a box in our performance review but because we genuinely see a gap of opportunity and take action.
Because we are courageous enough to say that I see you and your potential and I am honoured if I can in any way enable you to succeed.
Leading with courage and inclusivity
Some of the key examples in the book that are outright practical are based on Brené’s own insights from leading her company and team, and in particular how she has learned these from having first failed in for example communications.
These lessons have to do with difficult conversations but most of all valuing openness in speech and behaviour: being transparent and honest about your own assumptions and perceptions how a task should be undertaken, in what timeframe and how.
Too often these assumptions are like an elephant in the room where everyone acknowledges there are different views but people rarely voice them in a reflective and open manner.
Brené for example developed a practice “Turn and Learn” with her own team where everyone who is in a meeting has to write down first their assumptions about how long a task is likely to take and why.
Everyone then shows at the same time to the whole team what they have written so all the different assumptions and perceptions are out on the table straight away, and where even the most junior members are asked to contribute.
By mastering the art of being real, leaders can face upfront all the different views that exist within the team, including their own, about priorities and possibilities.
This pays off because having the full knowledge is actually more helpful than not understanding those things that remain unsaid:
“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour” (p. 67).
A leader who wants to lead with integrity and courage is inclusive, and is not afraid to admit they don’t know something and are totally ok to also apologise:
“while some leaders consider apologising to be a sign of weakness, we teach it as a skill and frame the willingness to apologise and make amends as brave leadership” (p. 58).
Brave leadership in other words is daring to be open about what we think and feel, face up to our own fears and hopes, while also recognising others’ views and values.
It is not about oversharing (boundaries are hugely important) but it is about learning to recognise different points of view and navigating decision making processes in an inclusive manner.
Brave climate leadership
It is somewhat bitter sweet to write all of this a day after Australia’s Federal elections.
What we saw was a surprise win for the party that is very far from being brave on climate and keeps talking about opening a new coal mine because it could bring jobs.
The impacts of climate change will not go away because a political party decides to ignore or not to take it seriously.
Climate change is not a feeling but a scientific fact.
Unfortunately the decisions that are made at the national level in Australia play also into the global level given that we all share the same climate.
Australia’s actions today will have far reaching ramifications to generations of Australians to come and in many ways decisions made today about opening new coalmines are direct legacies that these leaders leave for their children and grandchildren.
I understand that the links between climate change and the very real consequences of inaction remain elusive to those not investigating the topic even if we are already seeing increases in major disasters in Australia.
The bushfire seasons are shifting across states, becoming more intense and more difficult and unpredictable to manage, droughts are occurring more often and at a larger scale, and the reef is bleaching.
These are some of the everyday impacts that are already seen in Australia.
So have we failed to communicate the urgency?
Or is it simply that the majority of Australians living for example in the State of Queensland and the region of South East Queensland in particular are in a situation where they vote for whoever seems to respond to their everyday concerns (like more jobs)?
Part of the problem I think is that climate change continues to be seen as a polarising issue, an all-of-nothing stance that one cannot keep the economy going, cannot increase jobs and health services, offer free schooling, if one decides to act on climate change.
It’s then peculiar to look at other countries like New Zealand or European countries that demonstrate on daily basis that such choices can be made and are being made; where brave leadership is possible because the leaders push on and choose to do so and where people are voting for climate action.
Adaptation in the national agenda
The lack of leadership on climate change adaptation in this election is a worry given that current policy decisions favour emission intensive pathways.
Ironically the “good” news is that the more we put out pollution to the atmosphere, the more we will need to adapt.
We cannot adapt our way of everything however, and just because humanity has been clever in dealing with change for centuries, this climate change is unlike something we have ever seen before.
So while adaptation is something that we can certainly look for in terms of how we deal with an unpredictable changing environment and context, that alone is unlikely to save any of us.
But perhaps now more than ever before we need daring leadership; leadership that is not afraid to say how things are, to say that we don’t have all the answers but we are actually mature enough to admit that.
Leadership to also to understand the long-term ramifications of actions, and how we will need more strategic insight into how we are going to assist Australians to adapt to what impacts they are being locked in for.
But most of all, what we need is brave leadership and those daring leaders who understand the linkages between national action and global consequences, who act as role models for our young people, and who prove to us that we can do better.
Yet, as noted, leadership exists at all levels and is about creating opportunities for good.
Using Brené’s leadership definition means that none of us are off the hook: we all have the capacity and right for leadership.
Let’s use that capacity and right wisely.