Leadership maxims I try (and fail) to live by

Before leaving Save the Children, I wrote down some of the leadership lessons I’d learned. Many of these were inspired by my amazing colleagues, as well as the resources I shared last week.

Six months on, I wanted to revisit them – both to see whether they hold-up, and to check whether I am heeding my own advice.

The good news is, I feel more confident than ever that this is the right way to show-up. The bad news is, I’m not sure I live these values as consistently as I’d like in my new role (skip to the bottom for a possible explanation as to why…!).

To challenge myself to be better, I’m sharing them here.

It is relatively straightforward to identify how we should behave – but much harder to live this way every day. I hope by providing a referral point, I can help keep myself on track – and inspire others to do the same.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Admitting you need help is a sign of strength. Not only does it set a positive example for your team, it enables you to be the best version of yourself. And when you do ask for help, people are usually caring and generous. Your colleagues aren’t mind readers – if you don’t tell them, they won’t know you’re struggling!
  2. Remember that people are people. There is no point designing structures or ways of working without considering how people will react. As campaigners, we know this – so let’s live this audience-led approach internally as well as externally. Think about what motivates your colleagues and then plan outwards. It is a cliché, but culture really does eat structure for breakfast.
  3. Plurality equals performance. Set a positive culture, clear direction, and clear expectations – but then give people the autonomy to deliver in their own way, bringing their perspectives and opinions to the fore. This makes for a happier team, a more creative workplace, and better results. But this is only possible if people feel genuinely able to contribute and take risks, so take the time to build psychological safety.
  4. Be the change. Key to setting a positive culture is living the values you want your team or organization to embody. Take the time to reflect on whether you’re doing this.
  5. Take personal responsibility. Being a leader or manager isn’t about prestige or power for its own sake. When you are part of a formal hierarchy, your position is largely about responsibility. It is up to you to set direction, ensure delivery and make the tough calls. But this is hard – and rarely straightforward – so refer to point one regularly.
  6. Set high expectations and have confidence they’ll be met. This is a fantastic motivator – and most people are amazing; they rise to the challenge when given the opportunity. 
  7. But don’t overwhelm. To avoid burnout and stress, make sure you complement this with a culture that enables your team to let you know if something is too much. And then work with them to find a solution.
  8. Communicate honestly and treat people like adults. There is always confidential information you can’t share, but where possible give your team the benefit of the doubt and be honest about what is going on. This will build trust and ensure you’re making decisions that are well informed and reflective of people’s needs.
  9. Be cruel to be kind. We often dodge tough conversations or tough feedback because it feels so uncomfortable, but this isn’t fair on your team or colleagues. Be kind, but be honest – in the long run, this is much better for everyone.
  10. Don’t ‘armour up’. Have empathy and be wise, but don’t assume you understand people’s motives – this will only lead to you putting on an amour and prejudging the outcome of a conversation, a recipe for poor relations. Instead, act with integrity and honesty and maintain your focus on the end goal. This leads to better conversations and more sustainable relationships.
  11. Say sorry. Be the first to own up when you’ve got something wrong. Not only does this set a positive example, it is disarming – immediately diffusing a situation and helping to build trust.
  12. Listen. Being a leader is sometimes about sitting quietly at the back of the room. Don’t feel under pressure to command every meeting – and by giving yourself permission to sit back, you learn more and your perspective shifts. 
  13. Remember, YOU’VE GOT THIS. Insecurity and a lack of confidence are the worst, and immediately kill our capacity to do the above. If your confidence is low, find a way to get it back – but don’t beat yourself up about feeling a bit rubbish now and again!

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