One of the things I’ve been increasingly thinking about recently, in part as a specific focus of some of my Clore Fellowship training, is the personal nature of leadership. When I was asked to talk about my leadership perspective for a presentation a little while back, my first instinct was to look for examples or instances from my professional life which had influenced my understanding of leadership. But I quickly realised that it was much more personal than that – my perspective on leadership had begun to be formed much earlier on in my life through more personal encounters. So I felt a consideration of this topic would be dishonest of me if I didn’t direct my reflections to much more personal influences, foremost of which had to be my Mum.
My Mum and Dad - taken about 5 years ago
Mum has worked for about 30 years for an officially sexually discriminative organisation, an organisation whose male leaders have always forbidden female employees from rising to leadership roles. Even today, this discrimination is still enforced at the highest levels of the organisation.
As a child, I saw Mum challenge that situation every day through her work, and watched her play a very active part in the long fight against this discrimination. Eventually this culminated in a landmark court case in 1994 that, despite vociferous resistance from many colleagues, enabled her and other women finally to assume positions of leadership in the middle ranks of her organisation.
So I suppose I have to admit that something of the feminist was awoken in me from an early age, having become accustomed to seeing women struggle to assert their suitability for roles of leadership against the dominant male powers that be.
[I also now have a rather complicated and dysfunctional relationship with the church as a result, but that’s neither here nor there...]
Observing Mum’s working life at close quarters gave me a bird’s eye view on a very particular, unusual kind of leadership, and that is the leadership of voluntary communities. The kind of leadership role I saw her adopt was, I imagine, a very different one to had she been the boss of a profit-making corporation. There was nothing powerful or overtly impressive about it. In fact, as a slightly stroppy teenager it seemed to me that leadership was basically a total hassle: it seemed to involve dealing with eccentric, egomaniac nutters on a daily basis, being stuck at social gatherings for hours on end because everyone wanted to witter on at you about something or other, and you always always ended up really upsetting someone.
Leadership as I saw it through Mum’s experiences was tricky – it was something that had to be constantly negotiated with the community you were leading. There was something very politically complicated I learned from her about how to assert leadership from a position of being the only professional amongst a community of willing – sometimes overly willing – volunteers. It was, in effect, an example of what Julia Middleton has famously called ‘leadership beyond authority’ – leading from a position that doesn’t comprise hiring and firing authority over those persuaded to follow you.
Violin masterclass with Hugh Bean
As a child, the most important element of my education came in the form of one-on-one instrumental tuition: I played the violin a lot growing up and so my violin teachers were pretty significant people in my life. In a way, they were my leaders.
But, because of the nature of that sort of tuition, because of the intimacy and more familial relationship you develop with a teacher of that sort, their leadership was primarily facilitative. Of course I had my fair share of those who were dogmatic and dictatorial and frankly pretty terrifying about scale practice (or the lack of it), but in the main, my experience of their role was as leaders whose job it was to bring out the best in their pupils, so it was first and foremost a role of encouragement and support.
Incidentally, the wisest thing one of them ever said to me, and which I’ve never forgotten, was: “Don’t be afraid to get worse in order to get better.”
So if the point I’m making is that leadership is personal, that, although clear boundaries between the personal and the professional are useful, the two spheres are inextricably linked, then why have I allowed my thoughts to turn to a very public figure with whom I have no personal connection who holds the most conventionally powerful leadership role in the Western world? This man I think represents so many astonishing things about contemporary leadership because he manages to conflate the personal and the professional so apparently effortlessly. Until he came along, I didn’t think it was possible in this day and age to revere political leaders. There’s too much spin, and therefore too much cynicism. There’s too much media exposure and interrogation, revealing all the disappointing flaws and human hypocrisies that in a former age might have remained hidden. I’ve always thought of my elders who idolised President Kennedy or Winston Churchill as somewhat naive – I thought that sort of reverence and respect for political leaders was a thing of the less sophisticated past, before citizens considered themselves journalists, publishers and opinion formers. I have become accustomed, ironically, never to finding admirable leadership qualities in those who occupy the most stereotypical positions of leadership.
And so, given the aggressive, non-stop media exposure of our current era, it is astonishing to me that this man has succeeded in making so many people fall in love with him, like teenage fans smitten with a rock star.
So how does that feed into my perspective on leadership in general? I think it has taught me that leadership can be different to what you have become accustomed to expect.
And that the most important thing about it is that it is utterly devoid of pretence. Or at least that it comes across as being so.
Leadership is as much about the person as the job title, meaning that professional development is impossible without personal development.