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Why great leaders inspire

I recently attended Changeboard's 2018 Future Talent Conference. It was nice to be part of the crowd for a change rather than being centre stage under the spotlight. Not least because it meant that it was my turn to be inspired by some leading luminaries in the fields of diversity, inclusion and mental health. I regularly watch TED Talks, read blogs and science publications, but there is nothing more powerful than experiencing someone else’s story in person and absorbing their passion and the audience’s awe – it’s contagious.

The highlight for me was Sir Lenny Henry talking about his experiences growing up as one of the only black children in his school, as well as the discrimination he has experienced and witnessed whilst working his way to the top of show business. He was hilarious. Never have I seen humour used to such good effect to get such an important message across (although Deborah Frances-White came remarkably close slightly earlier in the conference – more on that shortly). He was quick to point out the irony of the lack of diversity on the Changeboard guest list too - something I hope the organisers address next year.

The art of winning not fighting

As part of his enthralling story, he talked about how he realised that fighting the bullies wasn’t the answer. Mindlessly entering the fray became a self-perpetuating cycle with no real winners, mostly just losers. One day, instead of standing-up to fight, he decided to use humour as a shield of armour to deflect the bully’s threat - it worked. He asked him “do you fancy me or something, because all this rolling around must mean something” and “Instead of all this fighting, maybe we should just skip to the marriage bit”. The bully never bullied him again.

I recently caught up with Si-Fu Julian Hitch, Wing Tsun Kung Fu Master and Wellbeing Guru at Leon Restaurants. He promotes the concept of life being about “winning and not fighting”. In Wing Tsun, every attack by an opponent is not seen as a negative but as a positive that can be overcome - That mantra can be applied more widely, whether that be with bullies, diversity, inclusion, or mental health. Rather than seeing challenges as a threat, we need to find the opportunity hidden within them. At a fundamental level, we need to challenge the way we think and the way we work to bolster engagement and productivity. We are so paralysed by fear most of the time that we rarely put our best foot forward.

Leading not dictating

The same philosophy holds true of Leadership. Leadership should be about inspiring not dictating. Yet most managers and leaders are not provided with the skills needed to lead. A small number may break the mould to become inspirational leaders, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. The majority merely manage and managing is not leading. Managing is directing through fear – fear of not being in control.

Humans have a bilogical need for control. As a result, leaders and managers inadvertently end up trying to control their team rather than inspiring them to do their best work. Occasionally, a leader or manager may try to inspire, but if that doesn’t work they soon revert back to control. This is primarily due to the erroneous cognitive illusion that that if we control everyone and everything around us, we are in control. We create a whole load of HR processes at work, not to inspire but to counteract our inherent fear of not being in control. Yet, we forget that our bilogical need for control, our need for certainty, is inherent in every human being. If we try to exert too much control as a leader or as an organisation, we are taking away the autonomy of those in our care. We deprive them of a fundamental basic human psychological need.

A lack of certainty, a lack of control, breeds fear. The emotion of fear is perceived by our brain as a threat to our survival, which can trigger our fight or flight response and reduce our ability to solve complex problems and come up with innovative solutions by as much as 40%. This is due, in part, to our pre-frontal cortex being flooded with cortisol, rendering it far less effective. This de-activation of the pre-frontal cortex empowers our subconscious to assume control of the situation, acting instinctively on impulse rather than careful, reasoned thought. A leader’s primarily responsibility should be to inspire others to be their best and not simply tell them to be their best. Those two approaches elicit very different outcomes.

Embracing and not fearing

Circling back to inclusivity, feeling excluded elicits a similar threat response to a lack of control. Which brings me onto Deborah Frances-White. Deborah talked about ‘Toby’, whose white, male, middle-class privilege was rendered worthless when he accidentally found himself in the middle of the jungle at the heart of a Colombian Drug Cartel. It was somewhat out of the natural corporate habitat that Toby was accustomed to and where he would freely roam the corridors as king of the jungle. Now, understandibly on edge, he found himself staring down the barrel or several semi-automatics, very much the outsider.

The Cartel’s operations had not been immune to the effects of globalisation and their operations were in decline. It just so happened that Toby had in excess of 20 years of shipping experience, which he could quite helpfully have shared with the drug cartel to help improve their operations. However, out of his natural habitat and with a gun pointing squarely at his head, he was somewhat reluctant to share his innovative ideas. He opted instead to stick with the status quo and agree with the Cartel’s current strategy. Why risk suggesting something new, which may produce far better results, when the risk of it going wrong in the short-term might result in a bullet to his head?

Thankfully, offering up new ideas at work that happen to challenge the status quo are (generally) not accompanied with the threat of being shot in the head. However, the threat of being excluded, being managed out, being fired are interpreted by our brain in a similar way. If we aren’t inclusive, if we don’t encourage diversity of thought, if we are too controlling, our organisations will stagnate and struggle to innovate. Being surrounded by people who echo our thoughts may feel comforting, but it doesn’t make those thoughts right.

Great leaders inspire. They inspire trust, they inspire vision, they inspire adherence to values. If a leader wants to inspire diversity of thought, curiosity, engagement, innovation and a sense of belonging, then they need to inspire and not seek to control or exclude. They need to lead by example and embody a company’s core values. Being a leader is not a rite of passage, it is a privilege, something that must be earned. As Simon Sinek says in his TED Talk 'Why Good Leader Make You Feel Safe': “[great leaders] choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe, protected and so that they may gain”. As leaders, we need to overcome our own inherent fears to help others thrive. We need to find the opportunities to help our people win. If they win, we win, everyone wins.

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