Speakers Corner, partner for our International Women’s Day 2023 event, shares its insights on leadership…
Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. Some people are natural leaders in the classic sense — they take the reins with ease and seem immune to the pressures of being at the top. Others lead from the back, allowing those around them to take control while offering guidance and reassurance where it’s needed.
But regardless of style, there’s a longstanding pressure for leaders to somehow be perfect. This is especially true in times of economic uncertainty, as people look to leaders for support. And the pressure for perfection is even higher for women in leadership, who typically have more barriers and biases to overcome.
But aiming for perfection is setting yourself up for failure. For one thing, it’s impossible to define. For another, leadership can be a thankless task, no matter how good you are. So instead of seeking perfection — from yourself or from others — focus on holding yourself to account, encourage others to discover and own their priorities, and foster a supportive culture for the people around you.
The changing face of leadership
Once upon a time, boardrooms were almost exclusively filled with white men. While businesses now know how important it is to encourage diversity and inclusivity at the highest levels, there’s still a bias towards this demographic. In the US, 68.5% of CEOs are men. 76% are white.
This won’t change overnight. Leadership bias is a structural problem that starts with government and society. For decades, women’s careers have stalled as they take time out to start a family, while men’s careers remain relatively unaffected. Even now, UK parental leave laws perpetuate this: statutory maternity rules give mums 39 weeks’ paid leave, while dads can take just 2 weeks off.
Men have had more chances to claim recognition in the workplace: to work hard, generate opportunities, and reach those leadership roles. This can’t be held against them. And let’s be honest — nobody wants to be promoted to a leadership position simply because of their gender or race. We want to be recognised for our skills, experiences, and abilities.
So, it’s not just a question of promoting more women or fewer men. As a society, we need to change the rules. We must place more value on developing leadership skills and create the foundations to allow those who want to reach leadership roles to do so — regardless of their unique priorities and imperfections. After all, we all have them.
The hallmarks of great leadership
Leaders used to be seen as alpha figures: people who lead from the front and tell everyone else what to do. But now, we’ve started to recognise good leadership as a much quieter affair. We’ve learned that those who shout loudest aren’t always the best leaders.
Take Greta Thunberg. When she rose to prominence, she was a 15-year-old girl on a school strike. She wasn’t loud, but she made an impression. Her solo strike to increase climate change awareness stoked a global debate. Now, when she speaks, people listen.
The best leaders are those who:
- Stay calm and in control, even when the pressure starts to build
- Give clear direction, make informed decisions, and have confidence in their ability to do so
- Own the mistakes, and credit others with the wins.
Not many people have these natural instincts and learning them is difficult. So true leadership is a rare skill. And it’s a skill we tend to undervalue and overlook.
Recognising the true value of leadership
Historically, people were promoted into leadership roles because they were good at their jobs. But it’s often those people who aren’t the best at their jobs that make the most effective leaders.
Football captains aren’t necessarily the best players on the team. Lionel Messi doesn’t captain PSG. Harry Kane doesn’t captain Spurs. Managers aren’t looking for perfection — they’re looking for leadership qualities. And it should work the same way in business.
Great leaders defer to those who are the best. They can bring them on board and help them reach their own goals, rather than pushing them into leadership or management positions they’re not ready or suited for.
At Speakers Corner, I remember having a conversation with a staff member who didn’t want to be a leader. She loved helping customers — and that was what she was good at. So instead of sticking her in a management role, we created a progression path that would give her the most valuable rewards.
If you see leadership potential in someone, you have two options. The first is to offer them formal leadership training and gradually enhance their responsibilities, supporting them to develop the skills required to become a good leader. The second is to accept that they don’t want to be a formal leader and create a career development path that better suits their skills and ambitions.
Choosing your path to fulfilment
Many people only discover that leadership isn’t right for them when they’ve taken the first step up the ladder. My wife, a social worker, decided to step down from her management position because she preferred working directly with people, rather than managing them. Unfortunately, the company was disdainful of her decision, even though it was the right choice for her.
When I started Speakers Corner, I wanted to make sure everyone who wanted to be a leader had the platform to do so. But I also wanted to create opportunities for those seeking to progress in other ways. Our workforce is dynamic and ever-changing, so we need people who love what they do and strive to be the best in their field.
But we also need confident leaders. Historically, society has driven men into these positions — but this is changing. Anyone with the emotional intelligence and experience it takes to be a good leader has a natural advantage in the modern world of work. And by resisting the pressure for perfection, we can accelerate this change by owning our decisions, accepting the choices of others, and continually learning to be better leaders ourselves.