Growing up, we’re told that leaders are people who give direction. They tell others what to do, where to go, and how to do something. Leaders are seen in the media as politicians, old men in business suits, people who 'fight their way to the top'.
This image of leadership as cold, emotionless, ruthless, and bossy made me never want to be a leader.
After all, I wanted people to like me.
We are taught that to be liked, we need to sit down, be quiet, and listen. We are taught to listen to the 'experts', people who have lived life a lot longer than we have. This traditional, conservative view of leadership reinforces power dynamics, and I’ve never been a fan of power dynamics.
A shift in perception of leadership
The first time I actually reflected on the people who influence me – the people I consider role models, was when my perception of leadership changed.
I realised that leaders were the people who I actually wanted to listen to, I trusted them to guide me in the right direction, I supported their decisions, and I believed in their values. I started seeing leadership in a different light. Leaders weren’t just people who had climbed their way to the top of the ladder and were now above the rest of us.
Of course, leadership still means having to make decisions, guide people in the right direction, holding a higher level of responsibility or accountability. But leadership doesn’t have to mean bossy or controlling.
What leadership means to me
I started to see leaders as people who knew themselves. They had explored and reflected on their own identity, their own strengths, and challenges. They knew what they were good at and they knew what they believed in. They were courageous, took chances on themselves, and challenged themselves.
But they were also people who stayed true to their values – they were guided by their sense of what was right. They were confident in their leadership without being arrogant.
Although, this alone doesn’t make someone a good leader. I think everyone knows of leaders who have these qualities, but still don’t work for the greater good.
The key to good leadership is recognising that leaders are part of a team. Whether this is a small team at your school or workplace, or whether your ‘team’ is the country you are leading. Leaders are one part of a bigger picture, and that bigger picture needs to serve everyone.
What I’ve learnt about being a good leader
The best leaders I know are the ones who recognise the strengths and contributions of every person in their team. They are curious, open-minded, and learn about the diversity of experiences of the people they are leading. They value different perspectives and identities. They don’t just talk, they listen. They make others feel heard. They make others feel like they belong.
They don’t act alone or only focus on the benefit of certain people. They make decisions with the people their decisions will affect. They focus on what is good for everyone. They provide the resources and skills which allow everyone to thrive, grow, and become leaders themselves.
But aren’t leaders supposed to make sure their team is successful? How is there room for all of this when there is a goal to be achieved? Leadership research shows that being inclusive drives performance and success. This means, when a leader is inclusive, the whole team will do better (again, this can be applied to small teams and big teams – classrooms and countries).
There is said to be five mindsets a leader should possess to be effective and inclusive:
Flexible and Agile
Open and Curious
We can all be leaders
To become an inclusive leader, you first must believe that you can be an inclusive leader.
Like I said, I never wanted to be known as a leader, because being bossy, arrogant, and controlling isn’t who I am. But when I learnt that leadership also requires kindness, compassion, and curiosity, I realised that was something I could do. I started to believe in myself.
It is important to know that leaders come in many shapes and forms – different people have different qualities and different people will thrive in different environments. That’s the whole point.
Now that I know my strengths and values, now that I know what I believe in and what I stand for, I know that I can lead in these spaces. I also know what I’m not as great at – that’s where having a diverse community around me helps. Because we can lift each other up and work collaboratively.
Leadership to me is no longer about power dynamics. Trying to remove those power dynamics and empower others around me to lead in their communities too, is what makes me a leader.
We need to redefine what leadership means. You can be a strong leader and not be bossy, ruthless, and controlling. In fact, you’ll probably be a stronger leader if you aren’t!
To quote one of my favourite leaders, Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”