Category: Leadership
This is what I have learned and try to practise – Admitting my mistakes

PhD research identified 10 key leadership practices that engender trust, paving the way to compelling leadership. Admitting mistakes is one of them.

If you are my age you might remember the TV sitcom “Happy Days”. The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler, was the guy everyone wanted to be. People idolised him. But his flaw was his inability to utter the word, “sorry”. He could never get the word out. Why is admitting a mistake so difficult? What actually is at risk?

I have seen the darkest side of life. For the past three years I have been involved in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Each week I sit with at least one victim of abuse as they share their story. Every story is the same in what the victim seeks: answers and an apology. They will accept nothing but a full and frank admission of guilt.

So why is it so difficult for a leader to admit their mistakes? Why is it that people in power can never confess? Because it takes incredible courage. No one in position of power and responsibility wants to be wrong. An admission of fault could be viewed as incompetence or guilt. In their mind, at risk is a loss of face, a loss of pride, humiliation.

But the reality is that we are all human. We are fallible. Even the very best leader makes mistakes. However, contrary to our rational thought, people won’t think less of us if we acknowledge our errors. They will actually think more of us because humility and honesty are qualities admired far more highly than arrogance.

People see through a facade of pride or political spin. Remember Bill Clinton, “I have never had sexual relations with that woman”. We all knew he did. People don’t care as much for the mistake you make as they do for your honesty. Honesty makes us real.

The very best leaders are never focused on his or her own ego. They are solely focused on the needs of the people they serve, no matter the cost or sacrifice. If the other person truly matters more than you, if you truly are a servant leader, you will put aside your pride, apologise and seek to repair what is damaged.

The act of admitting mistakes requires incredible humility. Humility and honesty, the act of being vulnerable, unlocks deeper levels of trust, paving the way to more authentic relationships and more powerful leadership. Arrogance and denial close the door on those opportunities .

What’s really at risk when we fail to admit our mistakes: real leadership and the loss of deeper relationships.

This is what I have learned and try to practise about: Coaching

PhD research identified 10 key leadership practices that engender trust. Coaching is one.

While many people would describe me as a confident leader, underneath the facade I am constantly second guessing myself. It took me years to understand what it is to coach someone else. I never felt that I had anything of value to give, and I certainly never saw, or see myself as the expert.

It has taken a long time, but I have learnt that to coach someone else does not mean that I have to be the expert. I don’t have to have all the answers. Coaching is not about giving advice or providing a person with a solution.

Coaching is about empowering the other person to find their inner confidence. Coaching is about helping the other person grow. Coaching is about unlocking his or her potential and finding their own solutions.

Everyone is different. We each have a unique personality. Who we are is shaped by the experiences we have in life, and we all live different lives. The same applies to leadership. There are basic principles and practices, but we will all bring our own style to the role. If I was ever tempted to give advice it is possible that that advice wouldn’t be as effective for the person if they took my approach for themselves. Good coaches don’t try and create a ‘mini me’.

Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their growth (Whitemore)

A coach asks great questions, firstly to help the person reflect deeply. Questions help the person cut to the heart of the problem they are dealing with. Great questioning helps identify what is a risk.

A coach then provokes the person to brainstorm solutions, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each. A coach then helps the person pick their preferred solution and encourages them to set it in motion.

A good coach rarely, if ever, suggests solutions. They listen carefully. They help the person articulate how they are feeling. They help the person understand themselves better, to see themselves from a different position. They encourage the person to find their own inner strength, courage and confidence, and to believe in themselves.

A good coach doesn’t have to be an expert at a job, but does have to be an expert listener and questioner. This is what I have learnt and try to practice about coaching.

This is what I have learned and try to practise about: Listening

The role of any leader is just two-fold: to provide a compelling vision of the future that people aspire to attain and, to build trust so those people will be willing to take the journey with you.

Research has identified 10 key practices that build trust in a leader. One of those is listening.

I have learnt much about the skill of listening over the years. Had I been born later than I was I might have been diagnosed with ADHD. My mind is going at a million miles an hour, processing the next task, generating new ideas, thinking about the next thing.

I used to be easily distracted when someone was speaking to me. I’d discretely try and look at the time. I’d get an idea and have to repeat it over and over in my mind so as not to forget it while I waited for the conversation to be over. I didn’t hear what the person sharing their life with me was trying to say. I was ignoring them.

Many of us, including me, listen in order to prepare our response. While the other person is speaking we are ‘patiently’ waiting for our turn to impart our opinion, our argument, our justification, or our ‘wisdom’. After all, leaders are meant to have the answers, aren’t they?

If you were to reflect on the last conversation you had with a person, what percentage of the time were you listening compared to speaking?

Over the years of being a leader I have learnt to minimise what I say. As the leader I don’t have to have all the answers. I have had to work hard at it but great listeners rarely speak. When they do they are primarily asking clarifying questions to gain a better understanding of what the person has said, or, they summarise what they have heard and identified the emotions the person has tried to express. Good listeners speak for less than 20% of the conversation.

Seek first to understand… then to be understood (Covey)

For me this has been really hard, but I have come to realise that more often than not, the other person simply wants to be valued and respected for who they are, for what their reality is and how they feel. They want to be heard. They don’t necessarily want answers or advice, they want to be acknowledged. No one can change how they feel. For them their ‘truth’ is their reality, even if it isn’t my ‘truth’ or reality.

Perhaps my most profound learning has been to realise the healing power of listening. It is an enormous privilege when people share with you their suffering, pain and isolation, their story. To truly listen to another person is to put your existing beliefs at risk. What if the other person is right? What if I have to change my mind? What if I have no answer to this, or I have to apologise?

In Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote:

If you really understand another person, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgements, you run the risk of being changed yourself. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us face.

The experience of really listening, truly listening has changed me. This is what I have learnt. I try and practise this in every conversation I have.

Rogers C (1961) Becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy; 1995 edition. Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin; page 333.

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Lessons learned from a Royal Commission

This piece was also published in the Independence Journal

HOW does one recognise a pedophile?

It can be tempting today – in our neat world of exhaustive policies and water tight (or so we think) procedures and police checks – to believe we have ticked the boxes when it comes to protecting our students/children against sexual predators. After living through what is known as Case Study 34 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, I have learned how monsters can masquerade behind an apparently benign façade. Would I recognise a pedophile? It is just one of the many questions that now haunts me.

Case Study 34 investigated historical cases (1980s and early 1990s) at St Paul’s, when two monsters were allowed unfettered access to innocence. The horrendous crimes of the fathers were laid bare. Boys were sent to the counsellor – the man meant to be the most trusted person at the School – for solace, care and support, only to find themselves embraced by the devil himself.

Face to face with suffering

I cannot express what I have been told, what I have seen, what I have felt as countless victims exposed their lives before me. Abuse beyond imagination. Suffering endless. Men telling me of their drug addictions, how their family had tossed them onto the streets. Relationships broken. Lives ruined. Lives taken.

I have heard things I wasn’t prepared to hear. I have seen anger beyond what you can imagine. Decades of pent up pain exploding before my eyes. Drug-fueled emotion seeking revenge and justice.

For the first few days after the public hearings of the Royal Commission, the pain of the survivors affected me physically. Cramps in my stomach were so bad I had difficulty walking. My teeth felt as if they were filled with holes. I lost my appetite. My dreams were filled with the stories I had heard. I’d wake in the early hours of the morning and relive the Royal Commission drama all over again.

Man after man took the stand, tears streaming down their faces as they recounted their boyhood experience of having been drugged and raped. Testimonies so vile that you felt your stomach churning and cramping. So many lives that could have been so different if only the voices of the boys had been heard, if the signs were noticed and the students believed.

One survivor could barely get the words out. Each time he tried to speak the words didn’t come. Everyone sat silently, giving him the respect he had waited so long for. His testimony, only 14 pages long, took nearly two hours to read. His abuser had become like a father to him. The bullying had become so bad at the School that he preferred the arms of a monster.

A mother rang. She called to tell me that she was praying for me because it wasn’t my fault. But she went on to tell me that she had only just met her eight-year-old grandchild. She had been estranged from her son for years. He was drug dependent, an alcoholic. He, too, had closed the door on the relationships that mattered.

Years of abuse have spawned aeons of suffering. It is impossible, as a fellow human, not to respond with outrage, compassion and pity. As a school leader, it is impossible not to feel regret, shame and a burning determination that this should never, ever happen again.

Lessons learned

The experience of the Royal Commission has changed me. It has left deep wounds that will eventually heal. But my wounds are only flesh deep; I will be become a better man, a better leader, for the experience. The wounds of those who survived the horrors of abuse are taking decades to heal; lives irrevocably changed. The experiences of the boy may forever cripple the man.

Pedophiles prey on the most vulnerable. I know now to be vigilant at all times, and to watch most carefully over those young people who come from broken homes, who have an absent father, or whose parents are not able to provide the love and tenderness that they rightly deserve.

Pedophiles are opportunistic. I know now not to underestimate the importance of good policies, procedures and staff training. I know to train staff members to identify grooming behaviours or risk situations and create a safe way for them to report it. Is a student seeing a counsellor too many times or for long periods of time? Are there staff members, under the guise of charity and compassion, accessing a student in one-on-one situations?

If you think it would never happen in your school, think again. Complacency is not an option. Statistically, between five and 10 per cent of girls and up to five per cent of boys are exposed to penetrative sexual abuse. Up to three times this number are exposed to any type of sexual abuse.1 Pedophilia exists in every socio-economic group, and 94 per cent of all abuse occurs in the home. This means, statistically, that several staff at your school might be pedophiles and that many of the children in your school are being abused in their homes.

Pedophiles are those people you might least suspect. We think we are good judges of character, but research has shown we can often get it wrong. We want to believe a colleague. We naturally trust someone we have developed a relationship with.

This particular lesson has been a hard one for me to bear as I am a great believer in the power and importance of trust. Now, I feel that I am fast being drawn into a world of mistrust and suspicion. I have to fight this. I have to get the balance right, but in doing so, I have to constantly remind myself that my first priority is the young people entrusted to my care.

As soon as a human feels threatened, or that they may be trouble, they go into a defensive mode. People rarely, if ever, truly apologise and take responsibility for their actions. Our legal system is designed to discourage repentance, reconciliation and healing. A traumatic event, however, is burned into the memory of the victim, who plays it in their mind over and over again. Victims of sexual abuse will therefore never be fully satisfied with a formal institutional apology that offers anything less than a full and frank admission of guilt, and convincing expressions of shame and remorse.2

The power of listening

Perhaps my most profound learning from the Royal Commission investigation has been to realise the healing power of listening. Our School, and others, found itself in this mess because the prevailing belief at the time the abuse occurred was that the testimony of a troubled boy was not reliable, not to be trusted. Worse still, he was chastised and punished for making up such terrible allegations against a respected adult. No consideration was given as to why the boy was troubled, why his behaviour was poor, what was happening to him to create such unhappiness and defiance. His voice should have been taken seriously. Poor behaviour is almost always a warning sign of something deep beneath the surface.

It is an enormous privilege, and truly humbling experience when people share with you their suffering, pain and isolation. But to truly listen to another person is to put your existing beliefs at risk. What if the other person is right? What if I have to change my mind? What if I have no answer to this, or I have to apologise? For leaders, in particular, it may represent the challenge to fight for what is right, do what is right, no matter the stakes. This course may demand enormous humility and courage.

In Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers3 wrote:

If you really understand another person, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgements, you run the risk of being changed yourself. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us face.

We can learn to recognise the anger, the scars and signs that go with the pain of abuse or bullying, of trust broken and relationships destroyed. We can learn to listen to what isn’t said, and seek to understand the person who desperately wants to be understood.

The experience of the Royal Commission has changed me. No longer am I seeking to be right, but seeking to understand, to see the world through other people’s lives. No longer am I blinded, ignorant to the truth, ignorant to the suffering of others. My role as an educator has changed, too. I seek now not just to teach and protect, but to heal.

 

1 Ronken C & Johnston H (2014) Child sexual assault: Facts and statistics. Brave Hearts; accessed at http://www.bravehearts.org.au/files/pdf/Research%20and%20Position%20Papers/Facts-and-Stats_030615.pdf.

2 Mackay H (2013) The Good Life; Pan Macmillan, Australia

3 Rogers C (1961) Becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy; 1995 edition. Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin; page 333.

Broken Trust

The relationship between two colleagues is on the brink of all-out war. It once was a productive and mutually respectful relationship. Both worked collaboratively on projects. The conversations extended to each other’s personal lives. It isn’t like that now.

Trust can be broken in an instant, fracturing what was a healthy relationship. Tensions emerge. These tensions may be subtle, but they can spiral rapidly into toxicity.

We often only notice trust when it is missing. What is certain is that once trust is damaged it has a negative impact on work ethic, output and people’s wellbeing.

Trust can be broken in many ways. I have experienced broken trust. I am struggling to trust someone because I know that they really don’t care for me. I am a means to an end for them. For others trust is broken when confidences are breached, if they aren’t consulted on matters that impact their work, or they know their views are really listened to.

Having experienced broken trust from both sides of the fence I have been reflecting on how it can be restored. In his book, “The Speed of Trust”, Covey argues that you can regain trust once it is lost. I agree with him but it is exceedingly hard.

Once trust is lost our natural instinct is to sever all ties, if that is possible. We vow never to trust that person again. Sometimes our instinct is more spiteful, we want revenge. We seek ways to get back at the person, to make them to feel the same humiliation we have. Sadly, this path, while seemingly the easiest, leads to bitterness, pain and destruction.

Unfortunately we believe that the path back to trust is the one where the culprit apologises. In the case of broken trust in a leadership relationship this entails the leader genuinely owning their actions, taking responsibility for them, apologising and seeking to make right what they did wrong.

It takes enormous humility for a leader to admit their mistakes. It requires the leader to forgo some of their power, their status and acknowledge that they were wrong. This rarely happens in leadership but Collins (Good to Great, 2001) asserts that it is possible to be humble, iron-willed and successful.

“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” Hebrews 9:22

But, to restore trust this action, as noble as it is, isn’t enough. Trust is a socially constructed phenomenon. It only occurs when a relationship exists between people.

Both parties bring something to a trusting relationship. The leader has to act in a trustworthy manner, and the follower has to accept their actions and give them their trust. It is a mutual agreement.

The same reciprocal agreement has to occur for trust to be restored. There has to be repentance on the part of the leader, but if there isn’t forgiveness the desire to see a person apologise is just another form of vengeance, one that seeks to make the culprit feel the same level of humiliation as you did. For trust to be restored there has to be repentance and forgiveness.

Forgiveness is equally difficult to do, particularly when there has been deep pain caused. It also takes great humility. But trust will never be restored unless the other party is willing to accept the apology and let go of their pain. While a much harder road than retribution, this path does lead to healing and peace.

Only with effort on the part of both parties can trust be restored.

The greatest mistake a leader can ever make

The greatest mistake you can make as a leader is believing that you are better than anyone else; better than you really are.

All too often I have seen leaders falling into this trap. Even I have from time-to-time. I have to fight against it, my ego wanting to be fed. They think that because they are the leader they have to be the font of all knowledge, the wisest person in the room, the judge, jury and executioner. They fall into the trap of believing in their own abilities rather than drawing on the collective wisdom and experience of those around them.

We would describe this trait as arrogance. Sometimes it can be identified in the words the leader uses: “my school, my staff, my School Board, my… ”

Rather than calling it ‘arrogance’, as arrogance is easy to identify and all of us would repel the idea of being called arrogant, I would call it ‘having a fixed mindset’. Leaders who have a fixed mindset are doomed to failure at their own hands.

According to Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset”, fixed mindset leaders live in a world where some people are superior and some are inferior. They must repeatedly affirm that they are superior.

This not you? Then why do we seek to wear the brands we do, drive the cars we drive, and look for affirmation and thanks for the work we do?

Leaders with a fixed mindset do not admit or correct their mistakes or deficiencies. They’re constantly trying to prove they’re better than others. Fixed mindset leaders don’t want teams. They want to be the only ‘big fish’ so that when they compare themselves with others they can feel a cut above the rest. They try to intimidate people with their brilliance.

This not you? Then why do we only seek the counsel of those we know will agree with us? Why do we shift the blame and never say sorry?

“Sadly, most managers and even CEOs become bosses, not leaders. They wield power instead of transforming themselves, their workers, and their organisation.” (Dweck)

When the boss has a fixed mindset a change comes over the place. Everything starts revolving around the boss. When this occurs everyone takes on a fixed mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged—trust disappears.

This not you? How often do you think about how your decision will impact on the trust people have in you? When was the last time you elevated a person above you when it came to praise and acknowledgement?

In contrast, wise leaders with a growth mindset seek out the counsel of others, seeking to hear different points of view before making a decision. They have the humility to hand over decisions that really aren’t in their expertise or ability.

Growth mindset leaders don’t define themselves by their position or the organisation they work for. They don’t fall into the trap that so many of us do, of focusing on the institution itself rather than the very purpose for its existence, with the institution and our position within it becoming a reflection of our reputation, something to protect at all costs.

True self-confidence is the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.

Ultimately truly great leaders possess and attribute that they few of us can truly claim: humility.

Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Robinson.

Cultural change: Is it possible?

I recently read about a fascinating experiment from way back in 1966.

Five monkeys were placed in a large cage. In the middle of the cage was placed a set of steps, the top of which was a bunch of bananas.

Every time one of the five monkeys went for the steps the experimenters sprayed all five with freezing water. Pretty soon the five learnt that touching the steps resulted in everyone being hosed. The bananas stayed where they were.

The experimenter then turned off the water and replaced one of the monkeys. Upon seeing the bananas the new monkey rushed for the steps. But before he could reach them the remaining four monkeys set upon him: they didn’t want to be hosed with freezing water. The bananas remained untouched.

One-by-one all five monkeys were replaced until none of the monkeys who had been hosed remained, and yet, none touched the steps. None of the new monkeys had been hosed, and yet they knew they weren’t to touch the steps and reach for the bananas.

Even though this was almost 50 years ago, and there is some conjecture as to whether or not this experiment happened as described, it is a great analogy that speaks into how organisational cultures are formed and set.

A person’s values and beliefs cut to the heart of their identity. These values and beliefs are shaped by his/her parenting and life experiences. Typically these set at a young age. It becomes part of their ‘DNA’. It shapes how they act and behave—what others see of them. A person will rarely waver from this position.

The same is true for an organisation. An organisation’s cultural identity is shaped by the parenting, that is, leadership style imposed upon it and the events it experiences. The subsequent norms and values are set as a result. Once set, it is very hard to change.

Comments such as, “we have always done it this way” will be uttered to any new employee when they arrive at the organisation for the first time. Often people don’t even understand why something is done in a particularly way, they just do it anyway.

Group behaviour comes into play. Individuals desire to fit in and belong. Before long they fall into line and, “do it how it has always been done”, perpetuating the culture much in the same way the new five new monkeys did. The culture is embedded and becomes the organisation’s DNA—its identity.

Trying to break, or shift a deeply embedded culture is like trying to shift a person’s character—nigh on impossible. A person has to want to change for any lasting effect to be experienced. In the same way an organisation has to want to change. A start for any new leader is to ask countless questions:

“Why do we do it this way?”

“What is the reason for it?”

“Please explain why we cannot change this?”

Challenging, and hopefully changing the narrative of the stories that have shaped an organisation to help people see that there are alternatives takes persistence and courage. Many people will want to cling to the original narrative. Bonding to the experiences and stories, particularly traumatic ones, provides connection. The Stockholm syndrome can even come into play where, to neutralise a threat, others accept and normalise the values of the aggressor (the aggressor being the leader).

I have had the immense privilege as a leader to set the norms and culture of one organisation before being given the privilege of leading an organisation that has a deeply embedded history. I was the founding Head of a School that grew from 24 students to one that enrols over 1500 today. Shaping its culture and embedding the norms was immensely satisfying.

Moving to a School that has a long history and seeking to understand how my actions as a leader can effectively change culture has been an incredible learning experience. According to Daniel Goleman, leadership style has a 70% impact on organisational climate. But when you come into a school which has had a long history of an opposing leadership style, I have come to appreciate that it takes time, considerable time, along with persistence, courage and constant questioning to shift the norms. Ultimately though, the organisation, which is a living breathing community, has to collectively want to shed its old cloak and embrace new values and beliefs. Helping it to see this and then supporting it to do so is not easy.

The most compelling example of leadership and challenge to the prevailing culture of the time (and now) is the story of Jesus. He consistently challenged the cultural norms of the day, seeking to change the narrative. His actions and the parables he told were an outward demonstration of his courage:

  • the host washing the guests’ feet—unheard of;
  • you have heard is said, “an eye for an eye,” I tell you turn the other cheek –remarkable teaching;
  • a rabbi eating and socialising with the outcasts: tax collectors and prostitutes—never done;
  • A Samaritan coming to the aid of a Jew—preposterous!

He demonstrated that there was another way and supported and taught those who wished to change. Well worth looking at how he did it.

Work life balance is a myth

The term work-life balance is such a clique. To ensue our wellbeing we are all encouraged to ‘get the balance right’. But when a colleague was bold enough to say that the whole notion is a myth it really resonated with me. What exactly is a ‘work-life balance’ anyway?

I have been a principal for 17 years. My typical day starts at 6:30am. I check my emails and Twitter account. I then have breakfast while reading the news. I get into the office at 7:30am. Each day is different, but most days are filled with appointments. I haven’t had a lunch break in all of those 17 years, I work through. I usually leave the office at 5pm. Have dinner with my family and then might put in another hour or two before relaxing. I find myself checking emails until 10pm, but that is a bad habit.

Being an independent school principal I am out for work, on average, three nights a week on top of Saturday sport. Some weeks it is up to six nights a week. I try to have Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon off but settle in for a few hours of work on a Sunday afternoon. Most weekends I am reading for professional development. I would normally read a book a week.

A typical work week amounts to 60 to 70 hours. School holidays are a bit slower, my hours are more flexible. They are a time when I can catch up on work and there are no nights out, thankfully.

Being a Head is an extremely demanding job. There are studies that suggest that the role of Head of an independent school is amongst the top 10 most stressful jobs a person can take on. So work life balance, what does that look like for me? I certainly don’t have time for hobbies, and I struggle to make time for exercise.

“Do you live to work, or do you work to live,” is a question that does the rounds. “Is your life defined by who you are or what you do,” is another of those questions challenging you to think about work-life balance. For me, my purpose in life is encapsulated in what I do; and the benefit is that I get paid for it! I live to fulfil my purpose, and that purpose is to make a difference in the lives of those people I meet and the communities in which I work: schools.

Work-life balance will be different for everyone because we are all different. What works for me won’t necessary work for you. I certainly don’t endorse working as much as I do (and I know that there are others who put in far more hours than I do). So what exactly is it for me?

Work-life balance for me is about ensuring I look after myself and I look after the relationships that are important to me. If I don’t listen to my body when it tells me it is time for rest, or I work so much that I ignore the people who matter most to me (my wife and my family), then what do I have, and what will I become? Useless, no good to anyone.

Stress does weird things to my body. I have a whole range of physical symptoms ranging from terrible back pain to strange heart palpitations. When things like that are happening it is my body’s way of saying slow down, take a break.

I have come close to burn out once. I know my limits. I have been right to the edge of them a number of times and it isn’t a nice place to be. It is a dark place where I am ineffective and make poor decisions. However, I thrive under a certain level of stress and adrenaline; I work my best under a high degree of pressure.

Work-life balance for me is knowing the limits and making sure I listen to my body. It is about taking time each week to rest and switch off. I know I have to be disciplined to do this. My wife is a great help. The whole notion of a ‘sabbath day’ is a wise one.

Work-life balance is also about ensuring I take the time to foster and nourish the relationships that matter. I certainly don’t want to wake up one day to find my wife and children gone because I ignored them. No one goes to the grave wishing they worked harder.

For me getting the balance right is about ensuring I can fulfil my purpose in life in an effective way. And my lessons learned as I have sought a ‘life-balance’:

  1. discover your gifts and find your purpose, align your work with those gifts and purpose;
  2. learn to be content, no matter your circumstances, but particularly if your work doesn’t fulfil your purpose;
  3. know yourself, the conditions that help you thrive and where your limits are;
  4. take the time to care for yourself, rest and keep healthy; and,
  5. make the time to care for the people who matter to you.

Hobbies: one day it will be time to retire. I’ll need to get some hobbies before then.

A leader is at their best when…

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. Lao Tzu (604 BC – 531 BC).

This is one of my favour quotes about leadership. It epitomises for me what the essence of leadership is about: it’s not about me. One of us can never be as good as the sum of us. Together we can achieve far more, make better decisions, come up with better ideas.

The role of a leader is to bring out the best in people, to identify their gifts and align them with roles that will see them shine. Good leaders spend time coaching others, developing their capacity. They make people feel like it was their idea. They step back while others take the limelight.

Remarkable to think that this quote about leadership was written 2500 years ago. But then again, perhaps not surprising when you consider the greatest example of servant leadership, which again is not all about me, was given to us 2000 years ago in the person of Christ.

Admitting mistakes builds trust

Trust is foundational to a positive culture in any organisation, but how does a leader develop and maintain a culture trust? My PhD research uncovered 10 key practices that highly trusted transformational leaders use to build trust between them and their staff; the first of which is admitting mistakes.

Leaders are not infallible; they are human as one individual who participated in the research project described her leader:

He is very human; he displays a human error side of him… He is happy to admit when he makes mistakes (Sam, teacher).

How leaders deal with their mistakes sets the tone for the rest of the organization and is a key factor in the creation of trust (Reina & Reina, 2006). A leader’s willingness to display his/her vulnerabilities, both personally and professionally engenders a staff’s admiration and trust. Staff members view this practice not as a weakness but as a key strength of leadership, connecting them to their leader on a very human level.

The willingness to be vulnerable, to have the ability to be self-reflective and recognise one’s own strengths and weaknesses, to apologise when an error had been made or to reverse a poor decision portrays the leader’s humility. Dickson (2009) describes humility in leadership as the ability to redirect your power, to forego your status and deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.

Collins (2001) asserts that it is possible to be humble, iron-willed and successful—and many successful leaders have these qualities. These characteristics were certainly evident in one of the four highly trusted leaders studied during the research project: [Ella] was described by her staff as being very upright and professional, and even formidable or stern. Others described [Ella] as “very cut and dry,” not letting emotions sway the decisions that she makes. [Ella] said that trust “isn’t about being nice, because I am certainly not nice.” Yet, [Ella] was happy to be vulnerable and admit freely to her staff that there is much that she does not know.

When was the last time you made a mistake or made a poor decision; how did you respond? Were you willing to be vulnerable in front of the people you lead? Did you have the confidence and humility it takes to say sorry? Did you then act and fix the problem? Are you willing to accept responsibility for other people’s mistakes?

Next blog: Offering trust builds trust