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2nd - 4th July 2018
The Barbican

Why good leadership doesn’t mean racing ahead of the pack

: Sarah Carter

In the second of a 5-part blog series on mindful leadership and organisational culture, Sarah Carter, Director of Wisdom Fish, questions our understanding of the concept of leadership and how a more unified, self-aware approach is important to develop positive behaviours across the team.

The word leadership conjures up visions of a strong individual standing in front of others, a shepherd and his sheep, chieftain of his tribe. But, in an organisational context, we have to understand that successful leadership requires positive and strong behaviour across the group. Leaders need to embody the positive behaviours and influences that they want to see throughout the organisation.

As a leader, if you walk in front of others, can you really see those following behind? What are their influences? What are their strengths and weaknesses? And can they really understand what behaviours you want from them; their role and impact within the organisation as a whole? Great leadership is not about stepping ahead of the pack, but about positively influencing and shaping those around you and helping develop their leadership potential.


When good leadership goes wrong

Many of us will have worked for managers in the past that seemed to be barriers to the success of the team or organisation. And yet, because they are in a leadership position, the people around them edit their feedback. Honesty becomes a rarity in favour of keeping the peace and stroking egos. The boss is always funny, their ideas ground breaking, their passion for the cause unrivalled. Reality becomes distorted for the leader as those around them are keen to please and get on.

This is where leadership and whole organisational cultures - can start to go very wrong. Built around deeply emotive causes, it may well be that charities are more at risk of attracting passionate leaders that stand apart from the rest of the workforce than any other sector, with ‘Founder’s Syndrome’ a very real concern for some.

Good leaders understand that good ideas, creativity and innovation can come from anywhere in an organisation. The leader’s role is to create the culture that will enable individual talents and skills to flourish.


Leading from the heart of the organisation

Leadership shouldn’t be practiced from an elevated position at the top – the ‘untouchables’ - but rather from the centre, as an active part of the team where the leader models the desirable behaviours for the group, rather than dictating to others what to do.

I don’t mean that there isn’t hierarchy. Every organisation needs strong individuals to direct and mould the organisation, and to help individuals develop and achieve their potential. But those leaders should not operate on a different plain.

Essentially, Wisdom Fish see the best leaders as what the psychotherapy world describes as ‘Unifying Centres. They are the unifying force for their team; the stable, reliable, supporting centre of the group which has a ripple effect on all those around them.

When habits, behaviours, values and attitudes are modelled positively by leaders, people are inspired, motivated and engaged to perpetuate those same positive behaviours and attitudes throughout the team. They buy into the leader and the organisation. They want to stick with the person – and with the organisation, going on to develop the same positive leadership skills that they have seen modelled around them.

Essentially the group character becomes a reflection of the leader’s character. As a ‘unifying centre’, the leader recognises the role they have to play in the group dynamic; the relationships they have with everyone around them, their influence on people’s buy-in and passion, their care for the outcomes, their recognition of what behaviours they’re modelling consciously and unconsciously, and how their decisions fit into the bigger picture.

From CEOs and Chairs to department heads, office managers and leaders of cross-departmental fundraising campaigns or projects, ‘unifying centres’ are needed at all levels of the organisation.


So how can you develop a more unified approach to leadership?

Good leadership requires self-awareness and openness to listen to feedback from those around us. It means understanding the positive behaviours and values that we want to encourage, as well as the negative ones that need to be reined in.

The best way to start is by looking at the current state, attitudes, moods, productivity and focus of our teams and notice what works well and what problems there are.

Be aware that what you see may be a reflection of your own behaviours, so be prepared to be honest with yourself. Try not to use it as an opportunity to blame others and externalise the problem, looking first at yourself. Ask what you can change to positively influence the team and its outcomes. What do you need to do more of or do differently?

A more self-aware approach to leadership, where you see the ripple effect of your actions on those around you, can have a surprisingly big impact on your working groups and inspire a cultural change. Be a strong leader, but avoid the temptation to walk too far ahead of the pack and lose track of what might be lurking in the shadows.

Sarah Carter, Wisdom Fish

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Mindful leadership series by Wisdom Fish