Lately I have kept thinking about what makes someone a good leader.
I keep wondering about this as I have immersed myself for the last 3 years in reading loads of books on leadership, what enabling and agile teams look like, how important good leadership is for innovation.
And yet, often I find that all of the leadership theory that I have come to know doesn’t always survive the contact with the real world.
So I’m always interested in how people lead, how they position themselves as thought leaders, and what our current situation in Australia with the bushfires tells us about leadership in extremes.
Good leaders bank on transparency and predictability
I caught up recently with one of my colleagues and mentors who, as a professor, has had a long amazing career and has led large and small teams throughout his career.
He said to me that he had just met up with some of his previous staff and that they had all expressed sincere gratitude about having been able to work with him.
So of course I posed the question: what then makes or made him a good leader; what exactly did he do that made people to feel empowered and grateful having a boss like him.
His answer was that he always banked on predictability: his staff could take decisions because they knew what he would say if they asked him.
He also instituted decision transparency with all the members of this team: he always explained why he made a particular decision and so people always knew his reasoning behind a yes or a no.
These factors of predictability and decision transparency made him the boss that people years after remember fondly.
To me, this is intriguing for a number of reasons: firstly, because I have heard comments about particular people where they say “oh he/she is amazing to work with especially if there is something in it for them” and “yes, he is amazing but it’s all about him in the end”.
This freaks me slightly out because it reminds me of the saying that people never forget how you made them feel.
Yes, we do need strong leaders but at the same time we also need people around which other people feel heard, empowered and people who fuel the confidence in others that they are able to do great things.
Stealing ideas or making a wave?
This week was pretty awesome for Griffith WonderWomen: we had a private webinar with the one and only Dorie Clark!! (Thank goodness for professional development money!)
Most of us were starstruck as she appeared on our screens and as good academics, we of course had prepared a long list of key questions that we wanted to pick her brain on relating to personal branding, starting your own business, and starting to write the first book.
One of the key questions that we asked was about thought leadership: how do you put your ideas out there and exert thought leadership even if you haven’t nailed down the idea yet completely?
For example, I have been told by older academics that an academic should never write a blog unless they have published the idea in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
But really, what are the chances of people stealing your early idea and running with it if you broadcast it “too early” and end up losing it as your intellectual property?
Luckily Dorie had some pretty sound advice on this, which was pretty much the following: by airing out your ideas (especially in the business world), you make a wave and get known for that idea.
(Disclaimer here for all academic peeps reading this: yes, I know the actual stealing of ideas happens in practice at universities so it is a legitimate question and worry).
But Dorie’s example of this was brilliant: if she came to us and said “hey, I have this really cool idea, which is around finding your why”, most of us would just say hey that’s Simon Sinek’s idea.
Because Simon Sinek now equals Finding your why; he has mastered his profile around this idea, he talks about it, probably sees dreams about it, and just breaths it.
So people foolish enough to try to highjack “finding your why” would discover pretty soon why you cannot really steal other people’s platforms and ideas.
Another insight that Dorie really honed on as well was social proof, credibility and your platform: how to start building your brand and making sure you have built a platform that for example book publishers find credible.
So in many ways we don’t suddenly emerge as a great and well-known author; it is a step by step by step process where you do need to put the hard work in and start building your platform to be able to take the lead that you aspire to.
Investing in self-awareness
But the very same ideas apply also for leadership: developing leadership skills is very much a step by step process where we are faced with multiple situations and we don’t always come out winning.
Another friend of mine said this week that leadership is rarely fun; it is very hard work in managing other people but when you see them succeeding you always know it is worth it.
But I have come to realise more and more in the last few months that you cannot lead if you don’t lead yourself first.
It is such a cliche but I think we often forget that it’s hard for us to demand others to follow our lead and aim for greatness if we don’t actually demonstrate these qualities ourselves.
This relates directly to self-awareness and knowing yourself, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, even doing a mapping exercise what you think these are (VIA Institute for Strength has free survey and Strengths Profile is awesome!).
This message has come even clearer to me this week as I have been also reading John Maxwell’s “No Limits: Blow the CAP off Your Capacity” that focuses on the different kinds of capacities and capabilities that everyone has and can develop further.
In the book, he specifically talks about ways to increase self-awareness and exploration of your own strengths so that you can lead an empowered life in a way that matters to you and to others.
Improvement only comes to those who are genuinely tracking their progress, and put in the hard work of daily reflection of what they learned about themselves on that day.
Bushfires and the leadership challenge for climate
For those who have been following what is happening in Australia, it’s pretty much beyond bizarre… We are experiencing some of the worst bushfires, with the fire season kicking off early and large areas are burning.
Even here on the coast the air has been smoky and officials have given public health warnings for people to stay indoors.
What is interesting about the debate is that most organisations, firefighters and people whose houses have been burned down have really raised the alarm of the inadequacy of the Federal government not dealing with climate change.
Central Bank of Sweden has dropped financial bonds from Australia and Canada citing both countries climate inaction and heavy emissions.
Australia has also a very narrow export base mainly reliant on coal and agriculture, both sectors which are climate-tied, and any economist would tell you that such a mix of economic options is not prudent risk management.
The fire chiefs have in particular raised alarm about the cuts to emergency services and management that have been made but also the fact that the Prime Minister has not taken the time to even meet with them to discuss the ramifications of a warmer climate.
Headlines like “The day when it forgot to rain in Australia” also tell about the seriousness of potential impacts where a whole continent larger than Europe did not receive any rain at all.
The focus is very much on the national leadership and its lack of acknowledgement of how these fires are underpinned by changing climatic trends, something scientists already noted in 1988.
But what is interesting and encouraging is that there are a range of leaders who are stepping up, from everyday heroes who are fighting the fires to community groups and not for profits, all focused on making communities safer.
And to me as as an adaptation scientist, that leadership angle is a testimony of how diverse yet fundamental leadership is, and how leadership is about taking action.
In the end, leadership should be a process of improvement: by knowing why we make particular decisions (self-awareness), being open about the reasons and outcomes we wish to achieve (transparency), and by becoming known for a leadership style and sticking to it (predictability).
Following these kinds of attributes applies equally to good and robust leadership and climate adaptation; both of which we hope to see more of.