On Purpose Fellow Kat Davis’ (April 13) blog was first posted on Relume’s website. It was written in response to the provocation “I don’t want to be led by a leader who hasn’t done their work” and in reflection of her experience of attending Relume’s leadership development Challenger Week.
A great leader, in my mind, possesses the ability to split from norms and express or be guided by their own contrasting convictions. Perhaps more importantly, they are able to do this for others too. Open-mindedness relates to the way in which we approach the views and knowledge of others, and even ourselves. Though it is natural to make assumptions and form strong opinions, suspending these behaviours takes willpower and practice or ‘unlearning’. It takes work.
Why did I get thinking about this? I attended Relume’s Challenger Week in November of last year, an experience through which I came to understand that for most of my life I’ve had an unshakable feeling, and I guess a fear, of my ‘difference’. The irony is, that seeing and wanting to do things differently has shaped a number of the key decisions in my life.
As for my backstory, I trained as an architect and spent the early part of my career working as an urban designer on community participation and placemaking projects. It has always mattered to me that I believe in the work I do and many of the projects I was part of sought to amplify the voice of communities in the process of urban regeneration. Five years in, I still loved designing but found myself increasingly frustrated by the hierarchies and common practices that I felt to be outmoded. It was also getting harder to ignore my growing belief that the solutions to the significant social and environmental challenges we face today lie in transdisciplinary working and unlikely collaborations. Coming up to two years ago, I applied to On Purpose and gained a place on their leadership development programme for professionals seeking to make a transition into the social enterprise space and harness business levers for good. I now work with a range of organisations that put the creation of social value or positive environmental impact at the heart of their operations.
During the Challenger Week we examined the behaviours, mindsets and pervading beliefs that underpin many businesses and institutions and, learning from others, what setting out to change them takes. Both collectively and individually, we challenged ourselves to do the hard ‘internal’ work – deepening our awareness and practice of emotional resilience, relational skills, challenge and compassion – to recognise our own anxieties and surface the change to the ‘external’ status quo that we believe we can influence.
My own challenge of difference, that I came to understand and face through the week, is of course not unique to me. When a fellow attendee used the words of Marianne Williamson to share that “it is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us […] as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same”, a penny dropped and they keep dropping.
The Challenger Week enabled me to also understand that for a long time I’ve been accompanied by a lot of unnecessary clutter that, probably for a fear of difference, I’ve felt a need to surround myself with. I’ve come to liken it to there having been too much noise over the airwaves causing interference with what I’m really trying to broadcast; blocking people from hearing my actual voice and thereby detecting that I think in pictures, pretty vivid ones at that. I now appreciate that thinking in this way is how I spot patterns and incongruences, make sense of complexity and synthesise new ideas. It’s an integral part of who I am and by not sharing it, I’m holding back on a number of things.
Since the week, I’ve been practicing ‘tuning in’ in order to use these pictures of mine in a range of ways and in a variety of different settings. I’ve come to see it as a process of experimentation and iteration where there is no right or wrong, allowing myself to celebrate when the pictures work and acknowledging the good things that result from that, as well as trying not to move quickly to self-judgement when they don’t, looking instead at what I can take from the experiment and what I could try the next time. It’s helping and I’ve noticed that when I’m tuned in, I’ve done some of my best work with people and organisations, the conversations taking on a clarity that was not there before.
Some research I recently carried out for a client on the business case for diversity brought to my attention the latest and, for me personally, the most insightful thinking on the matter. New findings call for organisations to re-define what they mean by diversity and broaden traditional definitions to incorporate the diversity in how people think and feel. Indeed, if not valued, difference or a feeling of ‘otherness’ can have a measurable negative impact on the performance of individuals and businesses. In contrast, a widened view of diversity coupled with the active nurturing of a culture of inclusion can yield tangible opportunities.
Leaders, especially those in senior positions, set the tone for their organisational culture, as well as bear a strong influence on perceptions of inclusion and the valuing of difference. I’m putting in my work to recognise and embrace the difference in both others and myself. It turns out I have been for a while; I just didn’t know it until now. I definitely “don’t want to be led by a leader who hasn’t done their work”.