This is a series where I explore what a HR leader should be looking for when they seek to bring in a leadership keynote speaker or training partner to address leadership. It seeks to define what leadership is (as opposed to resilience, burnout, mental health and well being) and what great looks like in this space. 

 

There is a reason that not everyone is a leader, and it’s the same reason that anyone can assume leadership. It’s about doing what is difficult in service to a greater good. As we speak, Russia is encircling Ukraine in the largest conflict seen in Europe since World War 2.  This is the story of leadership at its worst, Vladimir Putin embodying a cynical, thuggish, style of rule. It’s not the only story of leadership on display. Again and again, we hear the clarion call to do what is difficult but necessary. This is evident in the more hidden story of Western leadership: its complacency about Russia and whether it has the mettle to deter a regime that is largely immune to economic sanctions.

 

When I worked as a scenario planner to the British Foreign Office, the annexing of ex-soviet states and the renewal of a ‘new Cold War’ was one of our primary scenarios. Putin invaded Ukraine because the chess game with the west (apart from the of Donald Trump) is predictable. He knew the West would do everything but stand and fight with Ukraine. In this unfolding drama, we see another lesson of leadership: that extraordinary circumstances call forth in some extraordinary acts of leadership. In our daily lives, under the calculus of long term self preservation, we tend to seek the easy option. As I write this, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy, allegedly number 1 on the Russian kill list, is refusing sage passage, encouraging ordinary citizens to stand against the advancing Russian forces with Molotov cocktails and anything at their disposal.  Russian grandmothers are berating armed Russian soldiers. A proud history is being called upon. Ukraine will not go quietly into the night. 

 

Beyond the battlefield, in the boardroom, we see the same dynamics at play. As a leadership keynote speaker, I remind senior leaders that you have risen to a level of power that affords many opportunities to choose a life of comfort and ease. Yet your legacy will only be forged through difficult and often thankless acts of service. Simon Sineck typified this idea in his memo that ‘leaders eat last.’ 

 

Talks and trainings are replete with advice on what leaders ‘should’ do. The reason they don’t have a lasting effect is because they don’t invite the leader into a deeper diagnosis about why we default toward self-regarding behaviour. This work is about identifying and changing unconscious competing commitments and mindsets, often shaped in our early years. One of the most common mindsets is a victim mindset where the leader sees themselves at the effect of circumstances beyond their control. They readily go into blaming themselves or others, unable to see how they are at least partly co-creating the situation they are stuck in. Another is a scarcity mindset where they don’t believe they have enough of everything. They don’t have enough money, time, health, power. When it comes their way their tendency is to hoard power, obsessively control their teams and evade transparency .

 

As a leadership keynote speaker, The best way I can illustrate this is to share my personal journey to identify these competing commitments in myself. In October 2019, It’s arguable I was in one of the most influential leadership positions in the UK. I was leading the political strategy {https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=818263121966279} for the Global Environmental Movement, Extinction Rebellion, which at the time was at the height of its cultural and political power. Every day of the second major Rebellion, I was influencing the unfolding media narrative, taking on Boris Johnson publicly {https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/extinction-rebellion-boris-johnson-climate-change-protest-london-carrie-symonds-stanley-a9147136.html}. While I was externally presenting as a servant leader, there was an unintegrated shadow at play. I had a desperate need for attention, which would mean I would put myself forward for spokesperson opportunities even though I knew as a white, middle class, Irish man there were other people much better suited to speak. People who the British public would more readily see themselves in. I was also engaging in my own machiavellian power plays, constantly trying to grow my position in the movement at the expense of others. I was playing a zero-sum game, and it was based on insecurity and scarcity. Its roots like in the tragic death of my brother in a car accident when I was four. I have on some level been in a life long struggle to prove myself, seeking any morsel of validation. Having finally arrived at a place of power, I was worried I would never get it again, and so channelled much of my energies to advancing project Ronan, rather than see it as once in a lifetime opportunity to serve. Power is very intoxicating, especially if it is placed on insecure foundations. The takeaway here if you are bringing in a leadership keynote speaker, is that real leadership involves doing significant transformative healing work on yourself. This takes you into the world of therapy which organisations are naturally queasy about. We are unsure what will come up if we scratch the surface. Best let sleeping dogs lie. 

 

This is why when organisations bring in a leadership keynote speaker in, they usually go for someone who’s climbed Mount Everest or has sailed around the world. These feats are inspiring, but what we actually need is stories of leadership grounded in failure, so we can identify what’s stopping us from stepping up. This cannot be a once off. The corporate training world is replete with what we should do, and must instead shift toward formats where leaders, through practice and mutual accountability, are slowing changing their mindsets and behaviour. The best format I have found is ongoing peer to peer coaching work, for one hour every two weeks, where leaders in an organisation can share openly about their challenges and shadows and be supported and held to account. 

 

When I facilitate coaching crews with leaders, I typically give a group of six leaders five minutes each to share what’s going on for them. They don’t just tell a neat story, instead the use the inquiry method, where they are presenting what sensations, thoughts and emotions are there, and using that as a spring board intro identifying what exactly is going on for them. This takes courage. We have all inherited a legacy story of leadership where to admit we are confused and not in control is damaging to our reputation. The reality is that we are always in complex, ambiguous situations that are unfolding in real time, where we oscillate between confusion and clarity. Admitting our confusion, and the difficult emotions of fear and anxiety, is part of coming back into clarity about how to move forward. Overtime, the groups develop a level of psychological safety where they can real and vulnerable with each other. This is where the real change happens.  

 

As for me, I only really succeeded in letting go of the instinctive drive to advance myself having scratched the itch to get to the top. On some level, my ego needed to express that desire to get it out of its system. Much of the real change would come later, when a health crisis  (now three years in the making), would strip away much of what was small minded and ungenerous in me. This is a lesson of leadership for another day. If you don’t proactively seek out the work that is yours to do, it will come looking for you. As we see with Ukraine.