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Turning leadership on its head: Finding the leaders around you

At a time when, in my opinion, we are seeing a breathtaking lack of leadership handling the current global COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it timely to republish my article of 2017 on leadership.

I often wonder: do we get the leadership we deserve? If we have bad leadership, especially from our politicians, is it simply a reflection of us? While we are preoccupied with other things – celebrities, becoming the next billionaire, perfect bodies, social media followers, looking for ways we have been offended – others have stepped in to the void, been taking charge, and maybe taking us for a ride. Perhaps too, our values are being laid bare for what they are?

I am incredibly optimistic. As in all catastrophe, good emerges after the bumpy time, and we become stronger. Perhaps this is a time for us all to re-calibrate and re-think…

“How are you going to be a drop of pigment that will grow and be the healing colour, the tonic that perhaps your world, and the wider world, so badly needs?”



“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (people) to do nothing” –Edmund Burke

When I started this article several weeks ago, I was going to write an argument built around a business model I’ve encountered. I wanted to show that through leadership and people, with all things in a business being equal (structure, processes, systems etc), leadership was the single most important factor determining an organisation’s success, because of its impact through people. I’d planned to discuss a range of profound examples of disastrous leadership to demonstrate how all pervasive it is: the Essendon Football Club saga, the emissions missteps at Volkswagen, abuse tragedies globally with community leaders, ongoing financial services scandals, the US Presidency, what remains of the European Union, and our own never-ending political clown show here in Australia. I still believe leadership is the most influential factor, and I might just write that article at a later stage. However, a few weeks ago I went to a discussion by an expert on the topic that has inspired me to write quite a different article. The take away from this event was something I wanted to ask but did not, and is instead the basis of this article.

Leadership is one of the most critical issues of our time. Open any newspaper (yes, I still read those!) or on-line news link (those too!) and they are awash with stories characterised by poor leadership, obfuscation, and lack of accountability from every single facet of modern life. And despite all the spin and PR and verbal gymnastics, the disingenuous pre-prepared statements, expensive enquiries and “apologies” – usually well after the fact and only when something like social media melts down – we all recognise it: the absolute void of leadership. The glaring lack of authenticity. The vain self-interest driving a litany of destructive behaviour. The blaming and positioning. The absence of courage. All from supposed leaders and role models in important positions of authority. The politician taking money they know they shouldn’t although it’s within the “rules”. The football coach saying it was someone else. The community leader saying they didn’t know. The parent or youth saying they had a rough time in life. This behaviour collectively and negatively impacts all of our well-being. It affects us all through every sphere of our lives because it comes from every level – political leaders, business leaders, community leaders, our neighbours, and more. For this reason, I believe it is the single most important element leading to failure on every level – business failure, community failure, political failure, sporting failure, personal failure, and in fact, societal failure. Leadership is about taking responsibility. It is saying, “I don’t accept this, this is not the standard”, and standing up. Unfortunately, my insights in to leadership, and what has shaped my own leadership style, and what it is to be a good leader has, like for many others, been shaped from coming across terrible leaders. Happily, I’ve seen some terrific leaders too who still inspire me, but the bad examples seem to be most memorable.

At the event that discussed leadership, the attendance was overwhelming, standing room only; the speaker was motivated to share their views as were the few hundred in attendance to eagerly hear them. At one point, when asked who is a great leader today, no restrictions, the room collectively, full of thoughtful, experienced individuals, couldn’t come up with many more than one or two names with any sort of confidence. Of the two, one was deceased. Perhaps you’d like to take a moment now to pose the question to yourself? Who do you know is able to easily collaborate across an organisation? Who in a moment of crisis can calm fears and anxieties? Who can also bring a tonic that arouses hopes, and aspirations? Who in the political landscape, at your tennis club or school parent’s group; at your place of work or simply lining up at the grocery store, easily unlocks human potential, inspires positive action and unites people? Who stands up and takes responsibility?

Conventional ideas of leadership are built at their core around an enduring cultural idea that leadership is necessarily deferred to a person due to a hierarchical structure – that necessarily formal titles are imbued with status from which leadership emanates. Of course, this is partly true – the CEO, team captain, head of the organisation, the person standing up the front wearing ceremonial attire. But there is a difference between authority and leadership. And if we are to find more good leaders to inspire our lives, we might need to place this idea on its head. I’d like to challenge you and suggest most strongly that leadership does not have to come from a place of hierarchy. It can come from anywhere. It might be from the manager many levels down doing good work mentoring their team. It could be the person who does not walk past a spill on the staff room floor but takes a moment to clean it up. It might be the accounts payable person who gently speaks up when someone makes a nasty comment. Perhaps the assistant manager who thoughtfully questions misleading signage. Or it just might one day be the CEO who realises that at the end of the day they are accountable, and steps down freely and in good time when it all goes terribly, woefully wrong. A leader could be you.

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (people) to do nothing,” said Edmund Burke, 18th Century Irish philosopher. Evil might seem to be an exaggeration, but consider the high impact of poor leadership. Evil certainly arises when in a hierarchical structure the actions and inactions of poor leaders negatively affect an organisation and those lower down that hierarchy. Perhaps it results in unnecessary job losses, honest people lose money and retirement funds, or people lose their lives due to poor safety. Less dramatic and visible is when organisations become such horrible places to work or visit, that people are unhappy to the extent that mental health and livelihoods of families are at risk with immeasurable costs. Granted, evil might more fairly be interchanged in this quote for “poor leadership”, but is this simply being polite along a continuum of just plain bad?

I want to add that just as leadership does not have to come from a place vested with authority, nor does its expression necessarily come in a single major action over a major issue. A plane crash or major financial catastrophe often does not occur from a single clandestine event. The nature of poor leadership is that it can comprise a whole series of much smaller, seemingly harmless poor decisions and actions. It is often a result of a series of small misses, actions, and inactions; little things missed, details not attended to, “I’s” not quite dotted, a small concern not fully expressed, someone turning a blind eye; that in their totality over time add up to an ultimate disaster, or an ongoing and chronically negative environment.

Thankfully and happily this principle can easily be applied to increasing the presence of good leadership and a positive environment. What I’d like to suggest is that just as many small actions and inactions can lead to a catastrophic situation, multiple small actions of good leadership from many people across an organisation can also build a positive place. Each small act builds on the other, giving tacit permission to more others to act positively, as each person finds the courage and voice to be a positive leader. And as these small pockets of positive leadership grow, just like pigment added to paint, they strengthen the vibrancy, the hue and buzz of good leadership.

So, the question I wanted to pose the guest speaker but did not, and now I pose to you is this: how can we actively encourage those not vested with a formal title to be a positive leader? What are you doing to be a leader in your organisation? What is being done to cultivate these small pockets of good leadership from which more leaders will emerge? How are you going to be a drop of pigment that will grow and be the healing colour, the tonic that perhaps your world, and the wider world, so badly needs?

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Stephen Francis

An experienced leader with expertise in international brands as retail General Manager, Country and Regional Manager, in Australia and Middle East, with complete end to end business management responsibility. He has a track record of commercial success by driving business function engagement, influencing across an entire organization through a highly credible and authentic leadership style, to optimise retail and exceed financial objectives. He is experience leading transformational infrastructure and CAPEX projects with international teams.