Leadership Part 3: Leadership and the Self

From the Camp Fire to the Kitchen Table: a six part blog series on leadership and change practice. 

In part two of the From the Camp Fire to the Kitchen Table blog series, we looked at Tomorrow’s Leadership Skills. Today the focus is on the individual.

In my leadership and change workshops, I never spend long on the Self, as too much of this gets in the way of focussing on purpose and collaboration. However, we do spend some time on the Self, as having a good understanding our abilities, skills, passions, purpose and time are crucial if we are going to help create action that is regenerative for people and planet.  In Leadership and the Self, I teach five elements of leadership that relate to ourselves. And then I quickly more on to connection and community, where the real stuff happens!

So let’s go deep inside and look at what we can develop as individuals. Here are five ways to improve yourself as a leader:  

  1. Become “leaderful” not ego-full


We have already established that the “mostly old, mostly white, mostly male standing on a hill telling others what to do” leadership model doesn’t work. So where does that leave those of us who want to develop the skills to be a leader?  What does that mean for personal development?   The answer is that we an still develop ourselves, but we need to shift our focus from developing our ego, to building our skills. This shift is better for us and our health and our personal development anyway.

We spend far too much time thinking about and worrying about our self image and how we are viewed by others. Social media has confounded this further by showcasing the curated Facebook and Instagram lives of others as we scroll down. The self help sections of bookshops are not a nice place to find ourselves either, offering ways for us to maximise, fix and win.  And the content stream of white male “leaders” in politics and business give the impression that unless we are like them we cannot change the world. Many people, once confronted with the climate crisis, feel like they need to grab a lance, jump on a horse, give a Mel Gibson as William Wallace style battle speech and ride off at the head of an army.  But as we’ve learned, tomorrow’s leaders will be flexible, selfless and collaborative. How do we develop these leaders leadership skills? 

We can do it by leaving our ego at the door and working with others as equals. The late Frank Ryan used say that the key is to step off our pedestals and to recognise that we are all teachers and all learners. That we all have much to give and that true learning and change occurs via two way relationships. Our focus should not be on becoming the one true leader (which is a medieval idea), but on realising that we all need to be “leaderful”.  To be leaderful is to be full of the characteristics of tomorrow’s leaders. To become leaderful we need to understand what skills we have and what talents, time, purpose, resilience and courage we can contribute to leading change. Leaderful leaders know when to step up, and the know when to step back and give space for other leaders. A leaderful leader is always focussed on what’s best for the end goal, it’s never about their own ego or self recognition.

2. Focus on purpose

Driven by purpose, not leadership training …

Driven by purpose, not leadership training …

Too many leadership courses focus on the individual task of “becoming a leader” rather than helping individuals to identify and work towards achieving their purpose. Being clear about purpose helps us step up when a moment requiring leadership arises. 

Malala Yousafzai had no leadership training, but she is now a global leader. Her story is of course, inspirational but she did not become a leader by becoming more confident, or leaning in. She had a clear purpose, to go to school, and her parents backed her in. When the Taliban shot her in the face, she did not disappear but rose up and led change. As she says herself, the day she was shot, “weakness, fear and hopelessness died; strength, power and courage were born.” Malala stepped up because her upbringing and her community bought her to a deep sense of purpose, and so she was ready.

Each of us faces many of moments in our lives when we can step up and lead if we are ready and if we choose to. Think of the time at school when another kid was being bullied and you watched, or the meeting at work when you let a sexist comment go, or when you were walking the dog and someone said that climate change wasn’t real because their uncle said it was also hot when he was a kid and you nodded. We need to be clear about our purpose and our selves so that we are ready to step up and lead when moments like these arise. 

3. Understand that failure is the best teacher

All failures …

All failures …

The third lesson is that leaders must be prepared to fail, a lot. Failure is looked down on in our instagrammed, success driven society. When we fail, we feel like a loser. We feel like others are successful, because we don’t see them fail. But great changes have always come from failed and varied attempts. The research on failure shows that we learn far more from failure than from winning straight away. 

In fact, most people we today recognise as successful have failed on the way. Michael Jordan was dropped from his school basketball team, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were told by their music teacher that they had no talent, Einstein didn’t speak until he was three and was too much of a dreamer for the education system, John Cleese was told at school that he wasn’t funny and Oprah was told that she wasn’t good looking enough for television. Apple sacked Steve Jobs, JK Rowling was rejected by twelve publishers, and it was only Thomas Edison’s two thousand and something-th light bulb that actually lit up.  

In our society we  fear shame. As Brene Brown puts it in her book Daring Greatly:

The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticised keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.
— Brene Brown
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If we are to lead, we must risk failure and step into the arena.  

4. Do Something (together)

A meeting that discusses the need to DO SOMETHING but doesn’t. Brilliance from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Which brings us to the fourth lesson. Leaders must actually DO SOMETHING.  Bob Brown got arrested on the Franklin and set up the Wilderness Society and the Greens. Olegus Truchanus gave photography lectures around Tasmania, Rosa Parkes sat in the wrong bus seat on purpose, Jane Goodall left the forest and began an annual 300 lecture world tour, Maxine from Bendigo Community Health Services organised a first meeting of a Green Team, Colin spent 10 years building solar panel programs and Jodi started a community project to plan a lemon tree in every street. 

No one has ever changed the world without doing something. As Lao Tzu wrote “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  In doing things, in actions, we build momentum, learn a lot, feel better, achieve more and inspire others. I put the word “together” in brackets, because every one of the people mentioned above worked together with others, had support of others, were mentored by others and acted together with others. 

5. Offer the best of You

Many people I work with think that they don’t have a lot to offer others. They are wrong. Cake bakers can really bring a group together, those with time can letterbox flyers to the neighbours, those with a large living room can host a meeting and the tech savvy can help organise everyone’s diaries. Everyone has skills they can offer a group. 

But going beyond skills, the best of you is being in your element. Finding your element should be a fairly important focus in life anyway. But in sustainability and change its crucial. You need to bring the best of you to the table. 

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Educator Sir Ken Robinson wrote the book about finding your Element, i.e. finding the link between what you love and what you are good at. He says this changes everything in your life. So when I am (often) asked by young people what they should study to help build a sustainable future I tell them to find their element. A sustainable world requires accountants, politicians, builders, teachers, nurses, business owners, workers and everyone else to help create it. 

Jane Goodall found hers at a young age and has stuck with it with the support of her mum and her mentors all the way past eighty years of age. Her book Reasons for Hope, clearly shows that she has spent her life in her element. In one story, she relates how David Greybeard the chimpanzee first permitted her to approach him:

Forty years later it is as vivid as the day it first occurred. It was just he and I in the quiet jungle by a stream. We looked at each other. David had taught me that as long as I looked into his eyes without arrogance, he did not mind. I picked up a ripe, red fruit from the ground and extended it to him. He reached out, took the fruit, dropped that but kept hold of my hand. To this day I remember the soft pressure of his fingers. I felt a bridging of the two worlds, human and animal. I felt like we shared a language of our ancient common ancestors. I felt a sense of calm, a sense of this as why I was put into this world.
— Jane Goodall
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Cathy Freeman had a different spin on finding her element. When asked about the pressure of running at the Sydney Olympics she said,

I think it comes back to the fact that I loved running. I loved it so wholeheartedly and so purely that it helped me transcend that pressure. I didn’t feel in my mind that I had a lot to cope with because I was in a euphoric space every time I ran.
— Cathy Freeman
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In my leadership work, I ask workshop participants to have a good think about what they love doing and what they are good at. If we can support people who want to lead environmental change to make the link between those two things, then world will have powerful allies.

In next week’s blog we leave the self behind and go deep into community, connection and the others. We learn just how connected to others we are and how much we influence and are influenced by others. We’ll learn from a legendary Australian sociologist, a Canadian biologist, an American network scientist, a zen buddhist philosopher and my favourite British author …