10 Leadership Lessons

By Caroline Hampson | Key

10 Leadership lessons...

Observations from working with Outstanding Leaders across the world over the last ten years.

It was 10 years ago today that I set off on this journey as a self-employed coach and facilitator working with individuals and teams across the world. It is proving to be an incredible journey of discovery and learning - the biggest of which is the impact that outstanding leadership can have. Having worked with 100’s of leaders and teams across the world there are 10 key leadership learnings that will fuel my next decade and I hope they will help you too.

  1. It’s all about the conversation
  2. Leadership is a mindset not a role
  3. High performance = high freedom
  4. It can be learnt
  5. The world needs more leadership, less followership
  6. Time to lead should never be the question
  7. Who am I if your eyes aren’t shining
  8. It’s all about balance
  9. Belief beats direction
  10. Be you​

In many organisations the support to develop Leadership skills is fighting for investment with many other business priorities, and often loosing. That is why Leadership Spark was born, a focus for my next decade, to provide thought provoking proven activities that can be downloaded by anyone at a fraction of the cost of an external coach and facilitator.

Lesson 1 - it’s all about the conversation

Can you remember a conversation you had with someone where they left you feeling excited by possibilities, feeling more capable than you thought you were, or simply happy that someone had helped you face into a difficult situation?
Now think about a time when you were feeling a little lost and unclear about what to do next, or how to approach something, you couldn’t find anyone to talk to, or perhaps you did and you left the conversation feeling you wish you’d not bothered?

Both of those scenarios happen to most of us multiple times every week and both are examples of Leadership conversations, just with very different outcomes. With all the huge benefits that our ever advancing technology brings it will not replace the power of conversation. It may help us to have more conversations, to cross time zones and geographies but it won’t replace them.

If you think about the conversations you’ve had this week at work which ones stand out? I’d guess it’s likely be the ones that had a significant impact, either for better or worse. They could be conversations with colleagues, with line managers and even with ourselves. Some may be the result of significant planning, others spontaneous, some may cause you to reflect and others hold you to account. Some create large shifts in your thinking others simply make you realise someone cares.

It can help to think of conversations as taking us along a path where progress moves us from left to right. [Some conversations move us forwards, to the right; others can take us backwards, to the left. My experience over the last 10 years has evidenced that outstanding leadership always moves people to the right... even if the conversation has been tough and feels like you’re going backwards at times. It enables everyone to move forward, however small the step may be.

  • What are the conversations you want or need to have this week? 
  • How are you going to have them so that you shift right? 

Outstanding leadership happens one conversation at a time...

Lesson 2 - Leadership is a mindset not a role 

I frequently hear the phrase “we want them to step up their leadership” when talking through what success looks like from either individual or team coaching.
When you explore further to understand what that looks like it can vary enormously but usually has something to do with making decisions, developing new ways of working or becoming more strategic and less involved in the doing. Those could all be seen as functional skills that form part of the role, skills that need to be developed to meet the level required in that role.

The other side of leadership which in my opinion is more impactful, is the emotional side of leadership, the mindset you have about the decisions you chose to make, the choices you take on your ways of working, how you choose to prioritise your time.

I have seen people show outstanding leadership through being brave enough to ask the questions no one else would ask without first thinking “ do I have the authority to ask this question” or “what will my boss say”. They just ask the question.

I have seen individuals change the opinion in the room because they have a compelling story to share and know how to inspire a group of people, not because they are the CEO or senior leader.

I have also seen senior leaders who have the “position” but lack either the belief in themselves or the messages they are delivering and frequently have little impact or influence with their teams.

Without doubt there are numerous skills you can and should develop as a leader but to deliver outstanding leadership comes from a mindset of wanting to drive progress, believing you can make a difference and not waiting for permission to lead

Lesson 3 High performance = High freedom

There is much written today about the pressures we put on ourselves, or others put on us, to continually raise the bar on performance and the impact that can have on our health and well-being. Frequently these writings focus on the negative impact. There is another side, a hugely positive impact, and that’s the learning I want to share today. The recognition that high performance brings with it high levels of freedom and that can be both exhilarating, inspiring and very rewarding.

It all starts from being clear on what awesome performance looks like. Unless you know what you’re aiming for and have some measure of success that feeling of continually driving for more isn’t connected to a clear purpose or set of outcomes. In some cases this can be very personal, it can require deep reflections on what we want out of our lives, what does awesome look like for us. In other instances it may be far more functional, for example getting under the skin of what are all the steps in our customer’s journey and how do we make each and everyone of those 10/10; or aligning on our priorities for the next 6 months, what are the steps to success and what does awesome look like in each of those.

Taking the time to get clear on the performance you want to see drives productive and sometimes provocative, conversations as you share ideas, perspectives, opinions and frustrations.

It also builds trust and relationships and it is that trust and those relationships that contribute to a greater freedom. The freedom to make decisions, the freedom to take risks, to try new things, the feeling of freedom that comes from pursuing something you are passionate about and feel lucky to be a part of. That can bring a huge sense of emotional freedom.

From a functional perspective if you are delivering high performance it usually means that brings with it high rewards, whether that is financially in terms of profit into the organisation or recognition in terms of achievement, for example medals in the sporting environment or awards of other description. All of these provide us with the means to pursue further ideas and the freedom to choose where we want to focus next.

The role of leadership in this equation is pivotal;

  • What are the conversations you are having that build clarity on what high performance looks like?
  • How do you react when performance falls short so that people want to pick themselves up and try again?
  • How well do you let go and encourage people to find the freedom to fly?

Outstanding Leadership grows one conversation at a time.

Lesson 4 - It can be learnt 

There are many well-worn phrases that suggest, in one way or another, that leaders are born not made. And without doubt you can go into any classroom, any meeting, anywhere where there are a group of people together and you will be able to see very quickly who are the leaders in the group. However, I firmly believe that leadership can be learnt. Simon Sinek has a great video on You-tube “do you love your wife?” which captures in his ever-engaging way the fact that leadership grows as a result of many small things, repeated consistently over time.

Next time you recognize outstanding leadership in someone else take a moment to reflect and work through what was it that made you feel that way;

  • Was it the way they made you feel? ….they were truly interested and curious to know what was going on for you, they demonstrated that they really understood what was important to you
  • Was it the impact their message had on you?... they told a great story, they created a vision that you could easily buy into, which they told with ease and authenticity
  • Was it the clarity they gave as to what needed to be achieved?... they set a clear sense of direction, they helped you work out what your contribution was and how it fit into the bigger picture, you walked away knowing exactly what was expected of you?
  • Was it the fact that they said hardly anything at all, but left you walking away feeling you could take on the world?.... they made it all about you, not them, giving you the challenge and support you needed to work things out for yourself knowing that you had someone who would always have your back

These are just some of the ways that Leadership shines through. All of them require practice, whether that is honing skills and talents you already have or developing new ones that develop your leadership to a higher level.

Can everyone do it? Absolutely not. I’m sure you’ve experienced times with people who have made you feel the exact opposite of the 4 examples above, and unfortunately that happens all too often.

Could you do it?

Absolutely yes…. 

  • How do you want your Leadership to make others feel?
  • What’s the one conversations you need to have this week?

Outstanding Leadership grows one conversation at a time.

Lesson 5 - The world needs more leadership, less followership 

More often than not when you look for answer on what is leadership it is frequently connected to being a leader. The Oxford English Dictionary classifies both Leader and Leadership as nouns. My experience leads me to suggest that Leadership is also a verb, it is a behaviour. In the words used frequently with young children in language grammar lessons “it is a doing word”. In the same way followership is a doing word. A word that describes people in an organization who wait to be told what to do; people who are not confident to put their head above the parapet nor ask the difficult questions that need to be asked; people who rarely step up and take on additional responsibility or take the initiative.

Over the last ten years I have seen many organisations move from a traditional structure of one leader + a team of direct reports, to increasingly flatter structures with more of a matrix in terms of ownership and responsibility. This means that any one individual could be part of a number of teams for different parts of their role. They may work in a different country to their line manager, they may work remotely.

As a result of the growth of this more matrixed structure organisations need their people to develop greater levels of leadership; to have the confidence to make quality decisions; to be able to inspire other people to collaborate because they see the benefit not because they are being asked to by their Leader; to be clear and give direction when required; to know when listening is far more effective than talking. Followership has its place without doubt, but it is Leadership that is in shorter supply.

  • Where do you see followership in yourself when Leadership would be more valuable?
  • Where do you see it in the people you lead?
  • What’s the conversations you need to have this week that will help develop the right balance?

Outstanding Leadership grows one conversation at a time 

Lesson 6 - Time to lead should never be the question

“It’s just been so busy recently we’ve not had time to do the things we said we’d do”.  This is a phrase I’ve heard so many times when teams or individuals are reflecting on the leadership behaviours they have said they want to develop just a few weeks previously.

We live in a world where there will always be a to do list that is longer than the hours we have to complete it.  Therefore, we have to make choices. Very often those choices lead us to prioritise on the functionally focused tasks before the people focused tasks.  If it’s a choice between getting a presentation completed, or attending a meeting that someone has put in your diary that will frequently take priority, and you will delay the 1:1 catch up you had in the diary with one of your team because you can always do that another day. To a certain degree that is true, and business critical actions will frequently need to take priority, but there is a way to make those choices with impact.

I remember an occasion over 12 years ago now when a senior leader in the organization I was then working for, who was also my mentor at the time, came to me in person and asked the question;  “Fiona (the then MD) has asked me for a meeting which falls at the same time as our next session together.  I have told her I will need to check with you first to see if we can re-schedule our session together…”. Let’s face it, I wasn’t going to say no was I!  More importantly the impact of being asked the question in the first place made me feel that he was giving me the time, and it has stayed with me all these years.

It’s only on reflection that I now realise that this was a great example of outstanding leadership.  That message could have been delivered so differently; by email vs having the conversation; as a change request in the diary without any explanation.  Very often taking time to show outstanding leadership doesn’t actually take much time at all – it simply needs to show you care, that people matter.

  • Where did the choices you made last week suggest you didn’t have time to lead?
  • How could you have made different choices?
  • What are the conversations you will have this week that show you do choose to take the time to lead?

    …..Outstanding Leadership grows one conversation at a time

Lesson 7 - Who am I being if your eyes aren’t shining

This was one of the most powerful Ted talks I have listened to. It’s Benjamin Zander – The transformative power of classical music and his summary at the end includes the phrase “who am I being if your eyes aren’t shining”. Do find the time to listen to it – he is an amazing speaker with an inspiring story.

The leadership lesson that connects Zanders story to Outstanding Leadership comes from working with leaders who take the engagement of their people seriously.  When I say engagement I don’t mean do they focus on ensuring their teams give the top marks in whatever engagement survey the organization happens to use. The survey is simply an output measure at a point on time. It’s the input that counts.

The leaders I see delivering outstanding leadership are “being” a number of different things;

  • They make you feel that you really do matter…. And not only when it’s convenient
  • They value the diversity you bring…. not just accept that diversity
  • They celebrate your successes AND they encourage you to take risks…working with you to understand what went wrong when the risk didn’t work out
  • They don’t hold back from the difficult conversations… they stay in them long enough to get you both to the other side
  • They notice when your eyes aren’t shining…. And find the time to help you get the shine back

I realised as I read back this blog that I have fallen into the easy trap of referring to “leaders” in the context of this leadership lesson. In reality this responsibility falls to all of us to show true leadership

Outstanding Leadership grows one conversation at a time

Lesson 8 - It’s all about balance

Balance “a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions”. This definition sums up this leadership learning beautifully in that balance in terms of all the elements we juggle in service of outstanding leadership are not always equal but they do need to be in the correct proportions.

To draw on two specific examples;

  1. how we use our time and
  2. how we engage the people we lead

The key word in both of these is “How”. All too frequently I hear the frustration that people say I am too down in the detail, I don’t have enough time to work on strategy or to spend time with my team. When you dig a little deeper you realise they are talking about “what” they do not how they do it.

Imagine you are in the midst of launching a new customer initiative or introducing a new structure or process into the business. At times like this it can require all hands-on deck as workloads increase and time seems to go by even faster than usual. But what an amazing opportunity to see at first-hand how your team pull together, how they respond to each other when things are going well or when they go wrong, who are the leaders, who are the ones that will walk through walls to get things done vs who are the people who are slowly sinking under the pressure and need some support to develop their skills ,or maybe their motivation is dipping and they are in danger of bringing others down with them.

The balance is all about getting the job done that’s needs to be done AND noticing what people need to thrive , and then providing that leadership.

Lesson 9 - Belief beats direction

In a world where we are facing continual change, a world where we’ve only just finished one re-organisation and the next one is starting or something in the landscape we work in shifts so we need to make changes to the way we work , Outstanding Leadership is essential not just desirable.

A conversation I overheard recently made me realise that there are two key characteristics that I’ve consistently seen in outstanding leaders but that one of them absolutely trumps the other. (It grieves me to feel I shouldn’t use that particular adjective now as I’m sure it has come to have multiple meanings depending on your perspective of a certain world leader)

The subject of the conversation I overheard was a new leader in the organisation…”only two weeks in and it’s clear he’s in control… he’s going to make a difference”

What was interesting was this sense of control the leader had created was not led by a presentation on the complete strategy of the business for the next 5 years, nor did it make clear the contribution that each individual could make to that vision. It was born from the impact the Leader had had, the belief they had shown in the uncertain future, the trust they had started to build.

Reflecting back on times that I’ve heard similar sentiments it got me thinking about how you create that impact in such a short time. It brought to mind the well-known phrase by Peter Drucker culture eats strategy for breakfast… and got me thinking as to what is the equivalent here. That’s when I realised that what had happened was the new leader had created belief, either in themselves and their leadership or in the business and its opportunities. They didn’t necessarily have all the answers as to what direction they were going.

Direction may provide a clear road map, but belief buys hearts, minds and guts

However, get them both and you will have truly outstanding leadership.

Lesson 10 - Be you

Leadership Spark was born out of a passion to provide a solution that would help build more outstanding leadership in our organisations today. That raises the question “What is the most important driver of outstanding leadership?”

People that know me know I’m not one to shrink from a difficult question and I can also be quite pragmatic with my answers, they are my strengths and they are two of the things that make me me. From what I have experienced over the last 10 years of working with individuals and teams across the world one thing that stands out as common wherever you see Outstanding Leadership is that the individual is being themselves. They have an authenticity that comes from knowing who they are.

The question I often ask people to reflect on in a coaching session is “Who are you?"

  • How do you see the world?
  • What makes your heart race?
  • What helps you run at pace?
  • What gets you stuck?
  • What do you need to hear when things are going well?
  • What do you need to hear when things aren’t going so well?

When you are clear and comfortable on who you are you can truly “Be you”
When you know who you are you can then see how you can drive outstanding leadership in your own unique way.

These 10 lessons have fueled my thinking and my passion for driving Outstanding Leadership in as many organisations as possible. That is why Leadership Spark was born, a focus for my next decade, to provide thought provoking proven activities that can be downloaded by anyone at a fraction of the cost of an external coach and facilitator.

Enjoy developing your Outstanding Leadership….. one conversation at a time

About the Author

Caroline is coach and facilitator who has been working with companies around the world for the past 10 years. She is passionate about helping people develop outstanding leadership.

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