A lot of friends, family & clients have asked for my thoughts on these challenging times. As someone who talks for a living it’s been interesting these last few weeks, having the chance to work on both my listening & observational skills. There are so many opinions out there from how to stay safe to what to do with ourselves during lockdown or isolation. Some of it has been good (I’ve done a lot of walking which is great for the body and the mind) but I’ve also heard, read & seen a lot of things I disagree with and dislike. As an example LinkedIn seems to have evolved into a political soapbox, which feels strange to me.
From an observational viewpoint I think a lot of us are people-watchers at heart, so just sitting back and witnessing people’s behaviour & comments has been fascinating and it got me thinking about something I teach and that numerous delegates I’ve had the pleasure of training over the last 20 years have an opinion on – what is leadership?
As part of my Management/Leadership Development Programme, I ask ‘what are the characteristics & attributes of a leader’ followed by asking the group for their examples of great leadership.
The obvious names are often put forward first, established figures from history e.g. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Churchill, Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, Rosa Parks.
I am always keen to encourage people on the training to look further afield as well e.g. for leaders in sport, the arts, inventors.
So again more obvious names come through like Alex Ferguson, Michelangelo & Tesla.
Then what about film or tv – actors/writers/directors?
Or, on my personal favourite subject – music. Who are the great leaders with regard to singers/songwriters/producers/solo artists/groups?
At first people find it hard or incongruous to name leaders in sport, film or music. How could being a great football captain or a maker of amazing music compare to someone who has stood up against oppression or been wrongly imprisoned, tortured or killed for their beliefs?
For me that’s the key to all of this. Leadership isn’t about status, position or hierarchy. It’s about being bold, leading by example, taking chances, moving in one direction when everyone else is saying it can’t be done that way, inspiring others to follow you without demanding followers.
I believe we can admire leadership in many different walks of life without expecting they be on the same level of magnitude but to just be powerful and inspirational in their own way. Let me try and use a couple of personal examples.
When Nelson Mandela was on trial at Rivonia in South Africa in 1964 he took the opportunity to defend himself. The judges guessed he might use the opportunity to disrespect the government. What they could never have expected was what he said in the dock in his closing statement. It was a very long speech (over 3 hours) but it still blows me away today:-
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised but, my Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Let’s be clear here, Mandela was on trial for treason. The likely sentence when found guilty (which he was) was death. This was a time before social media, before the internet, before 24hr news channels. Who was he hoping were writing down his words? It was the international journalists from all over the world he was trying to reach, yet he must have also known they couldn’t save him.
My use of Mandela as a leader is deliberate even though some people are quick to point out his faults. The strongest accusation against him being that he was supposedly a terrorist or that he did not fulfil his dream to make South Africa the utopia he had hoped for.
His faults are crucial in my definition of the make up of a leader. Give me any of the leadership names who you would think of and they would all have their faults. None of us are perfect. That is why leadership has to be subjective.
The second example I wanted to use, from a different field, is Bob Dylan. Those that know me well, will be aware of how important Dylan is to me but more importantly is what he has done for popular music. When he started out he was a liberal, a folkie, a protest singer for the workers and the downtrodden. It could be argued even if Dylan only made songs like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ & ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ then we would still be talking about him today. As those songs became anthems for bodies like the civil rights movement and the changes that were happening in the 60’s all over the world.
However at the peak of his initial popularity, Dylan significantly changed direction – he went electric. In just a 16 months period in 1965 & 1966 he made 3 albums that changed the face of music forever. He broke the mould of the 3-min single by releasing the 6-min masterpiece ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.
I could write endlessly about his impact, his legacy, his influence but what’s unarguable is Dylan is a leader in the world of music because he inspired others to change. He is still releasing amazing music today. He has just released ‘Murder Most Foul’ a staggering, 17-min rumination on the assassination of JFK and its lasting effect on him to this day.
Linking to my point about Mandela above, Dylan as a man clearly has faults. He can be a moody so & so and he can be cruel in his put downs but that can’t detract from his achievements.
In comparison to someone like Mandela’s success or reach, Dylan can seem insignificant to some but he inspired thousands of musicians to change the way they write and perform, change how we see and hear music and how we are only confined by our own self-imposed limitations. That to me is leadership. Worth remembering in these reflective, isolated days!
If we can stretch our thinking to register that leaders can come in all shapes, sizes, colours, class, sexuality, the more I believe it gives us a chance to learn the attributes required for us to be leaders ourselves. Some of our personal leaders would be unknown to the rest of us. They haven’t had the books or films made about them but if they have inspired even one of us to change & to learn a new way of thinking or being and to appreciate a different perspective, then surely that is leadership?
If learning more about leadership appeals to you then please get in touch to find out how you or the people you know (in your business or personal life) can book on one of my modular Development Programmes. I deliver a management/leadership programme for business that covers an amazing range of subjects from self-awareness, developing yourself, improving teams, coaching, feedback, communication skills and how to deal with change. So relevant for these times.
I’m also launching this year my first ever Self-Belief Programme for individuals looking to improve their confidence, so more about how to cope with life.
Post-lockdown I’m really looking forward to continuing to deliver these amazing Programmes personally all over the UK!