Talking to colleagues and friends it seems many of us have some kind of leadership epiphany in this sector. It might be the moment they realise they do or don’t want to move up the ladder, or the moment they realise “oh shit I am a boss now”. My leadership epiphany was less a “what I want to do” moment and more of a “oh hell to the no” moment. It came as I sat looking at the leadership team of the council I was working for - the CEO, COO and CFO (essentially the people who made the big decisions). They were all white, just above middle aged, and wearing almost matching Rodd and Gunn check shirts with beige chinos and boat shoes. To borrow a phrase from a friend, they were Pale, Male and Stale. I looked at them and I realised I was totally over it. I was overseeing boards and leadership teams that don’t reflect the world I work in, because the world I work in has women in it. And people of colour. And LGBTQI people. And people under the age of 50.
Political pundits say we often operate in a “bubble”, that we surround ourselves with people who have similar belief systems, and this is why we are often surprised if the political party we support does not get elected. At the timestarted thinking about leadership my work-bubble was diverse and inclusive. My workplace was made up of all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, so what shocked me was that the people at the very top, the ones with the money, were not like that at all. I realised then that if I wanted leaders to look up to I would have to find them myself. I looked both inside and outside the sector for people who embodied the kind of leadership traits I valued. I decided to actively pay attention to these people, so I could figure out how I want to move through the world. This is what I have learned.
They don’t manage you, they lead you
The leaders I have enjoyed working with the most have the vision and the strategy to guide the organisation or their team, but then they let you do your job. They are the ones who understand that the people who work for them are there to do just that - work. People are hired because they can do the job, and for the most part they will do it without needing a babysitter. It’s empowering to make your own decisions and have some autonomy.
They get shit done
Many of the leaders I find most inspiring are the ones who genuinely get the job done instead of just talking about. I’ve seen this in action in many forms, starting with a former boss once sprayed the weeds outside the building on the weekend because the council never seemed to get round to it. A good friend started her own business so she could work the way SHE wanted to and she’s thriving. They are people who do what it takes to get the job done, and that’s a great motivator.
They make mistakes and they admit it, and they’re nice to you if you do the same
Everyone makes mistakes. If it isn’t a straight up mistake, it’s a project that didn’t pan out as it was supposed to, or an idea that turned to crap in the end. The thing that stands out to me is when the person in charge can say that things have gone pear shaped, and then they sort it out, or ask you for help with it. The even better thing is when you know you can do the same, because it makes you brave to try new things knowing that it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out perfectly.
They guard their personal time fiercely
All the badass bosses I’ve met have made sure they actually have a life outside work. From flexible working hours for kid pickups through to time off for hobbies and travel, their personal time is precious. This is a lesson we all need to learn, but is particularly important for emerging professionals who often feel the pressure to prove themselves and be available 24/7.
They come in many forms
Some of them wear suits, some wear jeans, some rock vintage dresses. Some of them wear makeup, some of them don’t. Some of them have tattoos. Some of them drive flash cars, but a lot of them drive beat up oldies. They have kids. They have cats. Some of them are fat, some are skinny. Some of them are very loud, and some are unnervingly quiet. Some of them make it to the end of the day looking like a stock photo for successful business, others regularly have their clothes on inside out. Again this is important for emerging professionals. Seeing diversity in the sector is encouraging and exciting. Personally, I realised I needed to let go of my “imposter syndrome” and recognise that I can be enthusiastic and fun and still be taken seriously, pink shoes included.
Actively paying attention to leadership has meant that I now think a lot more about the way I want to work and the people I want to work with in the future. It has made me re-assess what I want to get out of my career, and the way I want to move forward in my working life. In writing this I realise I’ve come up with a Mary Poppins-esque list of what a leader should or shouldn’t’t be, as if I am going to suddenly become a boss and fly into your institution with my umbrella to save you all. My picture of a leader is more like a collage of different people and the ways that their personal qualities and working styles have had an impact on me. It has provided my blueprint for the way I want to carry on in my career, and the motivation for me to keep working in the sector for a long time to come.