What is leadership?

Many of us recognise that new ways of doing things are emerging in the world. Traditionally leadership involved a corner office, a nice view, a position in the hierarchy which meant the people were meant to do what this person said. Maybe once upon a time this worked – the world was simpler, the underlings were full of fear and programmed to jump when told to. This is not how things get achieved in 21st century democracies. People have other choices – other places to go and work, social media to expose issues to, etc., etc.

There is another, very different type of leadership out there – people like Greta Thunberg who have no positional power whatsoever. There are all sorts of YouTubers influencing people in a wide variety of ways (Mark Rober, former NASA engineer who produces very entertaining science and engineering videos is a favourite in our house amongst kids and adults alike).

Within the public and social realm, leadership is about inspiring people across organisations to do things differently. Reflecting on leadership, I did a quick online search to find some definitions:

  1. The art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal
  2. Leadership is the ability to inspire a team to achieve a certain goal
  3. Leadership is the ability to adapt the setting so everyone feels empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problems
  4. Leadership is an ability

Note that none of these are about position in an organisation. They are all about creating the conditions and/or enabling people to do things.

At Surrey Youth Focus we often receive feedback from colleagues that we are playing a leadership role. Yet as a very small charity we have very little positional power aside from chairing some groups.  Definitely no corner offices with great views for us. Personally, I think the third definition works best for our work around complex systems. The first two may work well for single organisations with simple goals, but don’t really translate to bigger missions such as the desire for all children to have good mental health, because who are the ‘people’ or ‘team’ in this instance.

So, what type of leadership skills are needed to make change in complex systems? Here are a few that I know about:

  • Relationships – have high quality relationships across the system, at all levels. This isn’t just about hob-nobbing with people in traditional positions of power. It’s also about knowing where you can gain rich insights and who has influence in different places – front-line practitioners, data analysts and personal assistants.
  • Convening power – having a reputation for delivering useful workshops and events brings convening power – people want to come again and when you need to achieve something, people will turn up to help.
  • System knowledge – know your system really well. Know the people and know how it fits together. Most likely it will constantly be evolving, so expect to keep finding out!
  • On a quest to learn and grow – assume that you are going to learn something new every day. Be on a constant quest to revise your opinions.
  • Humour and humility – these often go together. Take the mickey out of yourself when you make a mistake. Make people laugh. Be pleasant to be around.

What have I missed? What would you include in your leadership skills list?

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