The 7 leadership blog posts of 2017

As part of our 12 leadership days of Christmas campaign, we are pleased to release our 7 leadership blog posts of the year.

Take some time out this festive season to read some of your colleagues’ favourite blogs of the year and take the opportunity to start thinking about the next steps in your leadership development.

You can follow the campaign by using the hastag #LF12Days 

1. Top 12 things those new to higher education need to know

Rita Walters, marketing and communications coordinator, Leadership Foundation shares the insights from colleagues at the Leadership Foundation on what they believe are the key messages for those new to higher education.

2. Connected leadership: connecting people with purpose
Doug Parkin and Rebecca Nestor explore connected leadership and its applications to the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme.

3. 8 ways to be a better role model

We asked our Aurora facilitation team: Vijaya Nath, Phyllida Hancock, Rosemary Stamp, Rebecca Nestor, Jenny Garrett and Maeve Lankford how to be a good role model. Based on their experience of facilitating Aurora these insights will help you make the most of your experience and be the best role model you can be.

4. Our mentorship journey: Karen Twomey and Val Cummins
Karen Twomey is a Researcher at Tyndall National Institute, Cork who took part in Aurora in Dublin in 2014-15. Karen chose, Val Cummins, Senior Lecturer at University College Cork to be her mentor for the duration of the programme and the relationship continues to this day. We asked Karen and Val to reflect on their relationship as a mentee and mentor.

5. Coaching: The advice I would give my younger self
Jean Chandler, programme director of Transition to Leadership, shares her thoughts on coaching as a skill set, approaches to leading others, and her own leadership lessons.

6. Reflections from Leadership Matters

Rachael Ross is the course director of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation programme for senior women in higher education. Two years on from its inception, Rachael reflects on why the programme is needed and how it was developed.

7. Up for a challenge: self-directed group learning for leaders

If our role as educators of adults is to enhance their capacity for self-directed learning, how does that apply to leadership development training? Doug Parkin, director of the Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors programme, reflects on his experience of designing transformational self-directed group learning activities for leaders.

Let us know your favourite via Twitter #LF12Days or in the comments below.


You can read more of the Leadership Foundation blogs here. 

The full list of programmes at the Leadership Foundation can be found here. 

Being hefty

Dr Jennifer Leigh is a lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Practice at the University of Kent who is taking part in Aurora during 2017-18. Here, she reflects on how her own research and background in embodiment and somatic movement can help Aurorans present themselves as leaders.

When I attended the first Aurora day on Identity, Impact and Voice I was struck by how the facilitator, Phyllida Hancock, spoke about the need to be ‘hefty’. One of the exercises was to stand up and take on the physical presence of a role model whose characteristics we wished to emulate. This idea, that our bodies portray and instil us with certain traits is not a new one. It resonated with me because of my work on embodiment and creative approaches to research and I wanted to share with the Aurora community how to bring this idea of changing your physicality and movement into your everyday work life.

Before becoming an academic, I qualified as an accredited somatic movement therapist and educator and registered yoga teacher, and I used embodied anatomy, developmental play and movement patterns in order to work in private practice. Movement work can be used educationally, therapeutically, for research and just because it makes you feel good. Somatic movement therapy can be used therapeutically to deal with trauma or injury or it can be used creatively to stimulate material for choreography, improvisation or composition. Our bodies can incorporate and store all kinds of information that can tell us and others about what we are thinking and feeling, and how we might go about handling different situations.

What is somatic movement?

Whilst many people might be familiar with yoga, somatic movement therapy is a little different.  Somatic movement covers a wide range of different practices, but all focus on developing a sense of self-awareness and presence in the embodied self. That is, an awareness of the moving, breathing, sensing, feeling body and an awareness of the thoughts, feelings, emotions and projections that flow through our minds.

It is then important to bring that awareness into consciousness and to accept where we are and who we are in any given moment. From an educational or therapeutic point of view it is only when we have that acceptance that it is possible to facilitate change. By developing an awareness of ourselves, we are able to see the options we have, and choose how we want to move forward. This might be something very body based, such as the way that we hold our head, or move our arm. Rather than moving purely by habit in a way that might be causing tension and pain in our joints, by reacting to stimuli, we can choose how we respond. Perhaps we choose how to sit, maybe to use our internal organs to support our spines and to free our necks and shoulders to move gracefully and lightly, or to initiate a movement from the periphery or the core. Gaining access to these choices starts with awareness and acceptance of where we are. Interrogation into why we have developed habitual patterns that limit our movement or thoughts can release trauma, and shed light on past experiences. Somatic movement therapy and education can help us to increase our embodied self-awareness and give us freedom to choose about how we act.

How does this relate to leadership, academia, or research?   

Anything that increases our self-awareness can help us to develop our reflexivity. Reflexivity and reflective practice are vital to leadership, teaching, and research. We need to be aware of how we hold ourselves and present to others and consciously choose how we act in response to people or events rather than blindly reacting out of habitual patterns. Learning to reflect isn’t easy, as it is not something that can be done in isolation.  Somatic or embodied practices give us material to reflect on, which allows us to then change what we do and consequently to progress (Leigh & Bailey, 2013).

On a purely practical level, this work can also help us day-to-day. First to notice and to become aware. For example: how are you breathing? Is it smooth, even, or less so? Where are your shoulders? Without judging, notice where they are and then choose where you want them to be. Be aware of your feet, of the points of contact with the earth. How does your body react to the people around you? What thoughts, feelings or images do you have in response to them? Can you unpick why or where they come from? Only once you are aware can you begin to change.

Our bodies, our meaty, breathy, visceral bodies, also inform our language and how we talk.  We speak of people getting under our skin, feeling touchy or sensitive, listening to ‘gut feelings’ or Phyllida’s idea of being hefty. What does this mean or feel like?

My own research takes a particularly embodied stance in that I use my background and perspective as a practitioner to ask and to answer embodied research questions. Rather than asking participants to answer surveys, or interviews, I have recently conducted a study funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education exploring embodied academic identity, where I met academics in studio spaces and used creative methods including film and visual materials to encourage them to share elements around their identity. These methods allow for a deep process of reflection, but do raise many questions, particularly around where the boundaries of this work are with respect to research and therapy, and where the resulting data fit on the line between art and outputs for analysis.

As someone new to Aurora I look forward to attending the next days as part of the London Autumn cohort. I’d love to meet fellow Aurorans who are interested in my research so please do get in touch. I would love to bring these embodied research ideas into collaboration with someone to explore how leadership is developed, using embodied research methods to ask embodied research questions.


About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

Dr Jennifer Leigh
You can follow Jennifer’s blog here and also learn more via her Twitter.

Dates, location and booking
Aurora will take place in Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dublin and London in 2017-18. Book a place here.

Onwards and Upwards study
The first year summary of the five-year longitudinal study of Aurora can be accessed here: Onwards and Upwards year one summary.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference focusing on learning from others – examining what others outside higher education are doing, and what we can learn from them to support women in leadership within the sector.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

  • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
  •  Aurora champions
  • Aurora role models
  • Aurora mentors
  • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and apply

Demystifying Finance for Aurorans- Wednesday 18 April 2018
Is for women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and apply.

Contact us
If you would like to know more about Aurora please get in touch at aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.

Coaching: The advice I would give my younger self

In advance of the Transition to Leadership programme, which commences this December,  Jean Chandler, programme director, shares her thoughts on coaching as a skill set, approaches to leading others, and her own leadership lessons.

As a young manager in the NHS in the late 1980s, I recall conversations with my late father (who was also a trade union representative), about the challenges I faced early in my management career. Although I felt confident that I had the answers to the challenges my team was facing, I did not have that same confidence addressing those senior to me with solutions, even though they were without the benefit of ‘proper’ management training scheme.

My dad tried to convince me of the benefit of listening first to ensure I understood the challenges of my senior colleagues, before wading in with my advice and latest management thinking. Unfortunately, my dad was up against it, I was on a mission and determined change the face of management and leadership in Support Services in the NHS.

Since that time in my early management career, and now in my role as programme director of Transition to Leadership, I understand the importance of having a coach when you are making the transition to leading and managing others like I had my dad. Coaching is therefore a key programme component as it is a really practical and useable skill, which has earned its place in my management & leadership toolkit.

Why coaching and what can it offer?

What is coaching?
Jonathan Passmore defines coaching as “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

It is also about future potential and building self-awareness, responsibility and self-belief.  As a leader, building the self-belief of others has the potential to transform the relationship you have with that individual and their performance.

When is coaching useful?
Coaching is particularly useful for people when they are transitioning from one role to another. As coaching can help individuals (coachees) to be more aware of themselves and their impact on others. Coachees become more willing to take responsibility for and be able to respond to situations, and be better able to learn from their experience and increase their self-motivation.

As part of Transition to Leadership, participants also learn about a coaching approach to leading via Daniel Goleman’s research on the six distinct leadership styles and, why a coaching leadership style is recognised as one of the most positive leadership styles. Participants also have the chance to practice coaching skills face-to-face and as part of the programme’s online peer coaching groups.

Once you understand the fundamental principles of what coaching is and, adopt a framework for a coaching discussion, it becomes essentially an exercise in attending to and listening deeply to the coachee to better understand them. To learn to not advise or give answers but to acknowledge that people are inherently resourceful and have the knowledge, insight and motivation within to make a decision.

This is something that we don’t always deploy as we have been schooled to believe we should have and that we must be the expert given our role or status.

I came to coaching quite late in my career, in my mid-40s but how I wish that as a young manager and leader I had listened to the advice of my dad or others to understand there is a better way to do this. I would have then learnt to develop key leadership attributes including listening deeply through asking helpful questions and attending to and allowing others in my team to personally develop while feeling supported with their particular challenges.

I also realise that as a young manager the challenges I found in trying to better connect and understand those I managed, could have been solved by adopting a more coaching approach to leading. This is something I hope that Transition to Leadership, with its focus on coaching and a coaching approach to leading, can help develop for others.

Personally, I apply the skills I have gained through coaching in many aspects of my working and personal life whether it be my ongoing challenges with my teenage son and his life choices about education and the future, or a close friend facing a personal crisis, I ask myself how can I help here? Is it to be in the moment and attend to their issue primarily or what question might help to reframe this or help to look at things a bit differently? I really try not to be the expert or give advice. It invariably does help both them and myself feel that we have made some progress and that they are choosing the best option for themselves.

So, the one piece of advice I would have given my younger self, apart from my dad was probably right about “that guy,” would have been to take his advice and listen hard, seek to understand and ask helpful questions to unearth the inner resourcefulness that we all possess when it comes to our challenges at work and elsewhere in life; to keep myself out of the way and support and enable others to find their own answers.

Jean Chandler is the associate director for membership in Scotland and contributes to a number of other Leadership Foundation programmes. Jean is also a qualified Institute of Leadership and Management level 7 executive coach with coaching experience both within and outside higher education. Get in touch with Jean, jean.chandler@lfhe.ac.uk 

Transition to Leadership is our blended leadership development programme for those who are new to leadership and looking to influence change. The next run of Transition to Leadership will run from Wednesday 6 December 2017 – Wednesday 11 April 2018 with face to face sessions taking place in Manchester.

Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ttl

Our mentorship journey: Cathie Barnett and Simon Chandler-Wilde

Catherine (Cathie) Barnett is a senior research fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading who took part in Aurora London in 2016-17. Following advice from a role model she decided to ask for a mentor outside of her discipline and was matched with Simon Chandler-Wilde, dean of diversity and inclusion and professor of applied mathematics at the University of Reading. Here they reflect on their relationship as mentee and mentor

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself

Cathie: My original background was in both environmental and archaeological sciences and I worked in management of environmental impact assessments for an engineering company before coming to Reading. After completing my PhD I worked in a commercial archaeological unit as the Senior Geoarchaeologist then Principal Archaeological Scientist before returning to Reading in 2014 to take up this position. Not a traditional academic and research path by any means.

My current role is split between archaeological science research and project management of a large Iron Age Landscape project named Silchester Environs. I also line manage an excellent team of archaeologists and specialists who work on a series of Silchester excavation and post-excavation projects, and report in turn to the Principal Investigator Prof. Mike Fulford.

I’m married to a land manager for the Wildlife Trust and we have 3 boisterous little boys so the outdoors features heavily in my life. They are wonderful and exhausting, so I’m fortunate to have negotiated an unusual working pattern which allows me to balance home life with them and still deliver on a busy work schedule.

Simon: I’ve worked in a number of universities – Bradford, Coventry, Brunel, and I joined Reading in 2003. In my role as dean for diversity and inclusion I job share with my colleague Professor Ellie Highwood, the rest of the time I am an academic. My role as dean is a fairly new university role which we took up 2 years ago.

I’m married – my wife has a senior role at Buckinghamshire New University – and have two daughters; one has just finished university and is now a journalist, the other is in her last year at school.

How did your approach the process of mentorship?

Simon: Cathie and I hadn’t met before, we were paired up by Susan Thornton, our Leadership and Talent Development Manager and Aurora Champion, and then we got in contact by email and had a first meet up. Helpfully we were provided with a pro forma that Cathie completed and we discussed, where Cathie wrote down what she hoped to get out of Aurora and having a mentor. This was really helpful to set the scene initially, and to refer back to in order to focus subsequent discussions.

We met four or five times, about monthly, from about Christmas through to May, meeting about an hour each time. There was no huge structure to the meetings, except that the initial pro forma provided a continuing point of reference, and that we would agree at most of these meetings follow-on actions that Cathie would report back on. Also, I continued to ask what had happened on the Aurora front since the previous meeting, and what outcomes/impact that had had. But we also talked about other things, for example we found out that Cathie was going on holiday in Shropshire just a few miles away from where I go for holiday most years, so we discussed holiday activities too!

My approach to being a mentor is to be interested, encouraging and supportive, and to ask open questions, to get a sense of my mentee’s environment, career, aspirations and issues that she/he wants to tackle. I’m also wanting to explore my mentee’s understanding of the next steps ahead, and to ask questions to expand that understanding. As a more experienced mentor I can make my mentee aware of possibilities, and how stuff works, that they just haven’t been exposed to. And it’s really satisfying to seek to build confidence, for example to challenge and support my mentee to have new conversations with colleagues in her environment.

Cathie: One tip given by one of the role models on the first Aurora day was to aim for a senior mentor outside your own department. Good advice!

Simon has been very encouraging and supportive, I’ve enjoyed our meetings and having another in the diary focuses my mind. I have found it particularly useful to talk to someone so familiar with the university procedures and who could take an objective view of how I fit in the system. I particularly value that he asked and let me find my way to answers rather than leading with advice straight away, it’s a lesson I’m going to try and apply when talking to colleagues and students myself.

Simon, what inspired you to become a mentor?

Simon: Firstly I’ve had great mentors myself, people senior to me who have offered advice, encouraged me to stretch myself, and acted as sounding boards. Secondly, in the leadership and people management roles I have had, for example as head of department and head of school, but also at a lower level, e.g. as line manager for research staff working for me, I’ve enjoyed supporting staff in their development. This has included: personal development reviews, supporting applications for promotion, for research grants, and for new jobs. I think it’s a really important part of our role as any sort of people manager to support the staff we work with and help them to grow and develop (and move up to the next level), and it’s a part of the job that gives me great satisfaction.

Has the mentoring relationship continued?

Cathie: Yes it has, both informally, I know Simon will be there with a listening ear and good advice if and when I need him, and we have a more formal follow-up meeting in the diary. He has also kept me informed of further leadership training which he felt I might be interested in, and which I recently took advantage of.

What has been your biggest learning from the process?

Cathie: I’ve learnt a great deal in our discussions and of course through Aurora as a whole. One of my key aims for doing this was to grow in confidence and to gain more of a voice. By nature I’m rather reticent, awkward and apologetic in putting myself forward in areas such as progression and promotion or in challenging ideas with senior colleagues, although I suspect my colleagues don’t realise it. Speaking with my mentor has helped me be a little braver, I have had conversations in the last 6 months I would have shied away from before and have had some really positive outcomes including further leadership training and setting objectives for further progression within the university. I’ve also learnt that there are gaps in the current system which, when discussed openly, the University are keen to tackle and that there’s a great deal of support and encouragement available if you ask.

Simon: I’ve been an Aurora mentor more than once, and certainly I have played a more informal role as mentor on many other occasions. But I am continuing to learn through practice, and continuing to gain confidence as a mentor. Regarding confidence, it is becoming clearer to me – but really this is pretty obvious – that having done a lot of different things in a lot of roles, and having held senior positions where you are forced to understand how the university (and universities generally) work, I do have a lot that I can pass on, and I am well-equipped to know the right questions to ask to get Cathie (and other mentees) reflecting on what they are doing and what might be possible in the future.

Cathie, have you ever been a mentor yourself and would you consider being one in the future?

I have been, and am now a line manager and try to be an advocate and to encourage my colleagues to take up learning opportunities, to stretch themselves and become more personally visible, but I have not been a mentor to someone beyond my immediate team. I would like to offer that in the future, and have recently let my department know I would be happy to contribute by acting as one. I have a better idea now of what would be useful to mentees having gone through the process myself and having had such a positive experience.

Cathie, what was the best piece of advice you received from your mentor?

I’ve had lots of great discussions with Simon but one of the key things I’ve taken from him has been to take stock, to stand back to look at all I have already achieved and how that has already equipped me for leadership roles. On a practical level, that has led to me recording everyday activities more often and considering how these tasks provide direct evidence for my capability in specific research and leadership areas key to progression.

Simon, what piece of advice would you give other aspiring women leaders?

My advice is to stretch and challenge yourself; to develop confidence through stretching yourself and trying new leadership roles; and to remember that the people more senior to you are only slightly (if at all) different, were at your level rather recently, and are much less confident (and competent) than they may come across.

Talk and ask questions about how everything works and what is possible. Get into the habit of saying: “I could do that”.

Finally, good employers should develop their staff and provides routes and opportunities for promotion and development and taking on new roles – and certainly universities are large enough organisations that this should be possible – but do think also about moving employers as a route to progression, and as a means to reinvent yourself. My own last move – 15 miles down the road from Brunel in 2003 – had a huge impact on my career.

And finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?

Cathie: My primary female role model is an absolute cliché, being my mother. She retrained from being a GP to become a consultant psychiatrist while I was a toddler specifically so that she could take on part time roles and juggle home life with a successful and meaningful career. It taught me that it can be very healthy for children to see the women in their lives following their chosen profession without being absent. I hope I’m achieving the same balance with my boys.

Simon: There are many women that I’ve encountered who have inspired and impressed me, and that I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside, or working for them as my boss.

Let me kick off – maybe a good place to start– with my wife , Dr Rebecca Chandler-Wilde, who is director of Enterprise at Buckinghamshire New University. I admire her judgement, not least in managing people and relationships, her enthusiasm and sense of fun at work and can-do attitude – this coupled with a large dose of realism – and her attitudes to work-life balance, not least her scorn for presenteeism.

I admire hugely my job share Prof Ellie Highwood, who is a leader in her Dean role and, in the rest of her time, is an eminent climate physicist and President of the Royal Meteorological Society. Moreover she does this working part-time (about four days a week), and so is a great role model for flexible working arrangements at the highest levels.

I’m also a great fan, having contributed to her Wikipedia page, of another former President of the Royal Meteorological Society, Professor Dame Julia Slingo FRS, who until recently was the Met Office Chief Scientist, leading a team of many hundreds of first-rate scientists, developing some of the best weather and climate models in the world.


Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

How effective are simulation experiences for leadership development?

One of the most effective techniques we use in our leadership development interventions is to provide leaders with a simulated environment. This challenges them to confront complex, highly interwoven performance management and operational issues. But how effective is this in practice? We spoke with Paul Hessey, Leadership Foundation associate, who leads on this activity on our Leading Departments programme for new heads of department.

How does a simulated environment work?
Based on a very realistic university scenario, this usually involves the programme participants working in groups of six along with three actors who take on the roles of stakeholders and the dean. The simulation is designed to present participants with realistic scenarios they might encounter in their day-to-day work as a head of department. This gives the facilitators the opportunity to help participants’ identify their weaknesses and strengths and enables us to offer guidance and best practice on how to approach difficult situations.

What are the three main benefits of using a simulated environment on a leadership development programme?

  1. Participants are reminded of some simple, robust and powerful theory of influence and learn the skills they need to put that theory into practice in a safe environment.
  2. Reflect and receive tailored feedback on strengths and development opportunities.
  3. Be part of a rich and diverse range of colleagues from both professional service and academic roles, and benefit from observing a wide range of approaches to influencing in action.

Have participants ever surprised you with how they reacted to this type of role playing style activity?
Our approach is more ‘real play’ than ‘role play’ because essentially the participants are experimenting with being themselves in the scenario, rather than taking on a character. In terms of being surprised by how participants react to these activities I am always taken aback by the way participants are committed to a mythical department. They really immerse themselves into the activity and come up with creative ideas and solutions. During a programme’s coaching sessions I found that many participants realised that they want and need to take a more strategic view of their role; in particular delegating more so they can take a step back to better develop and promote their own department through running events and engaging with a pool of stakeholders. These scenarios also increase their awareness of the importance of owning their professional profile and reputation.

What would you say to those who are sceptical about real playing on a leadership development programme?
Real play has an interactive approach which means participants can take a very practical look at how people communicate and influence, and then experiment with different approaches. Real play gives participants the chance to safely assess and practice an expanded range of influencing, management and leadership techniques to help them better engage their own diverse stakeholder base.

Higher education is a very unique sector. In your years of experience of working in different sectors, do you notice any similarities?
Many! People face the same challenges other sectors do in terms of politics and culture. However, in higher education people are perhaps more motivated by their desire to achieve their professional objectives rather than financial incentives. In higher education environments in particular, I’ve noticed that leaders may have less access to organisational benefits and consequences to motivate those around them. They are therefore often seeking to achieve action in their institutions by influencing others without any direct authority or power to demand action. Instead they must find a way to overcome resistance and challenge and encourage staff to buy-in and commit to the mission in a positive way. Many participants have said that they leave the Leading Departments programme feeling more equipped and confident to do exactly that.

Paul Hessey is the programme director for the Leading Departments programme, designed to develop the leadership skills of heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 6 October, to find out more about Paul or to book onto the programme visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/leaddepts

He is also a facilitator on the Introduction to Head of Department programme for new and aspiring heads of department. The booking deadline is Friday 27 October, to find out more and book visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

Other Leadership Foundation programmes that use simulated learning environments include:

Top Management Programme: www.lfhe.ac.uk/tmp

Future Professional Directors: www.lfhe.ac.uk/fpd

The power of the decision

In her second blog post, based on her Vision Workshop at the Aurora Conference in June 2017, Maeve Lankford, Aurora Ambassador, looks at how we can commit to our vision to be more successful. Maeve’s first blog post is available here.

Once we have clarity about the life we wish to create it is essential that we commit to that vision.  We do that by making a decision that yes, this is the life I want to live and we commit to making it happen.

What happens in the absence of a decision?

In the absence of a decision, we have ongoing deliberation and hesitation.  This causes stagnation and ultimately, in my experience, can have quite a depressive effect.  We want something but we are no closer to getting it.  We wish we had the qualification or ran the marathon or achieved the weight loss, but we’ve done nothing to achieve it so we feel even worse than before we set a goal in the first place.  Now we experience both the desire for it AND the disappointment of not having done anything about it!

The power of the decision

You must make a firm decision for what it is you want in order to be able to bring your vision to fruition.  Napoleon Hill, author of the book “Think and Grow Rich” concluded after studying 25,000 men and women that highly successful people formed the habit of making decisions quickly and changing them seldom, if ever, while unsuccessful people made decisions slowly and changed them frequently.

Making the decision therefore is the next requirement for setting in motion everything you want to achieve and it completely changes the game.  While it may feel daunting, the good news is that it is actually the hardest part!  As Robyn Davidson shares:

“The two important things I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor (sic) is taking the first step, making the first decision.”

Ultimately, it’s the decisions we are willing to make that shape our lives.

Articulating the decision:

You can literally use the phrase “I have decided… “  eg.

  • I have decided to apply for the next leadership position in my Department or School…
  • I have decided to spend quality time with my family…
  • I have decided to eat more healthily and join a Walking Club…

Making such a statement has an immediately energising effect.   It takes the spotlight off what is lacking and puts it onto taking action.  This creates a positive emotional charge and you will feel both relieved and empowered by making the decision.  Try it out.  Notice how it feels to say to yourself and others “I have decided …”, it will instantly increase your confidence and motivation.

Taking action based on the decision

It is essential that you now reinforce your decision by taking regular, supportive action.  You can do this, as mentioned in the previous blog, by daily asking yourself, what step can I take today that takes me in the direction of my vision?  Then take that inspired step.  Sometimes it might be as simple as repeating the good habit you have set in place – choosing the healthy option, avoiding a particular person or conversation, working on rewriting your CV.  Occasionally it might be a bolder step, like submitting the CV for the leadership role you’ve been thinking about.  In general though you simply want to take consistent, small steps that incrementally, over time, deliver your vision.

Finding support in uncommon places

The act of making the decision and taking action to support that decision, also gives a clear signal to the universe about your intentions, enabling supportive situations and circumstances to come into your experience.  William H Murray, the Scottish mountaineer, was three times invited to participate on the Everest expeditions.  On the first two occasions, as he describes it himself, he was put off by the cost, believing he couldn’t afford it.  On the third occasion, knowing it was his last opportunity and wanting to be involved, and despite still not knowing how he’d afford it, he made the initial down payment.  He paid up, knowing he’d forfeit everything paid if he didn’t make all payments.  But that initial decision to make the first down payment changed everything.  This is how Murray explains it:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans, namely: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamt would have come their way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can or dream you can, begin it because boldness has magic and power and genius in it.’” (Emphasis added)

No new process can begin and no new path can be forged until a decision has been made. And once you make a firm decision, even in the absence of perfect conditions, a whole manner of things begin to occur and rush to your aid for its fulfilment.  So take your vision to the next level, make the decision to commit to it and start taking regular small steps to achieve it and you’re half way there already.

In the final blog of this series, we’ll discuss how to overcome the fears and doubts that inevitably arise when we start to make changes in our lives, sharing hints and tips for successfully working with them.


Maeve Lankford, joined the Leadership Foundation in 2015 as Aurora Ambassador to promote Aurora in the UK and Ireland, having formerly been Aurora Champion for University College Cork. 

Maeve has over 25 years’ experience of working in personal development and growth in higher education and beyond.  Having held various roles in HR, Equality, Learning and Development and Welfare, her principal expertise lies in leadership and management development, group facilitation, action learning, executive coaching, personal development, resilience and well-being.   

Details of the Aurora Conference 2018 will be available shortly, and the Aurora programme dates for 2017-18 are open for booking

Learning to lead: Experiences from Aurora

Note from Identity, Impact and Voice written by Dr Elaine Toomey, posted to her after the end of Aurora Dublin 2017.

Dr Elaine Toomey is a post-doctoral research fellow based at National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG). She took part in Aurora in Dublin during 2016-17. Here she reflects on her experience of the programme and her key learnings from each one of the four days and her action learning set day.

Fresh into my first ever postdoc (Health Research Board Interdisciplinary Capacity Enhancement (ICE) fellowship) in August 2016, I originally saw Aurora advertised through the university mailing list. I knew that a colleague had taken part in it the previous year and had found it valuable, so in my ‘apply for everything’, new postdoc mode, I decided to pop in an application. To my surprise, I was chosen along with about 20 other wonderful women from NUIG, including academic, administrative and research staff (but only one other postdoc!), to take part in Aurora and represent our university.

Before the first workshop, the vice president for Student Experience Dr Pat Morgan, who has been an Aurora role model, hosted an informal gathering (with some wonderfully festive mince pies) for the NUIG representatives. This was a chance to meet and get to know one another before heading to Dublin in December for the first workshop entitled ‘Identity, Impact and Voice’.

Identity, Impact and Voice.

This first day gave us a sense of what to expect from the coming weeks and also to help us clarify what we wanted to take from the programme. As well as an enthralling keynote from Lynn Scarff (director of the Science Gallery Dublin), the day facilitated us to begin reflecting on our leadership styles and our own identity – who are you, who do you want to be and how can you build the leadership you would like? With these questions in my mind, the key tips I took from this day that still stay with me were:

  • The importance of being relentless in the pursuit of opportunities, but not reckless (Lynn Scarff)
  • Looking at those who inspire you and their qualities that you would like to emulate, and having them ‘on your shoulder’ to influence how you work

Power and Politics

Power and Politics focused on personal goals and how to achieve these, through discussion and debate with other Aurorans. We received another engaging keynote, this time from Professor Anne Sinnott (the executive dean of DCU Business School) who spoke to us about the importance of understanding what motivates others and how to communicate effectively. This session also introduced our Action Learning Set.

The key take-homes for me from this session were:

  • The importance of ‘authenticity’ – identifying your beliefs and values and staying true to these.
  • Developing a three minute elevator pitch to influence how other people perceive you and the importance of your work from the outset.

Action Learning Set

My action learning set was with five other women from a mixture of Irish universities. The Action Learning set chose to meet at NUIG. For this, each of us chose a specific issue or goal relevant to our own careers and development. We confidentially discussed our issues within the group, and were challenged by the group through questioning to reflect on these issues, providing different perspectives and opinions.

For me, this session was particularly valuable as it allowed me to get to know five amazing women in very different areas to me, and for my issue highlighted the value of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to develop your career.

Core Leadership Skills

This day focussed on ‘storytelling’, and being aware of the influence of bias and stereotyping in work situations. Again, there were exceptional keynotes from NUIG’s own Professor Anne Byrne (head of Political Science and Sociology), Sara Doherty (director of Eve consultation) on the power of telling your story, and how to do this well.

Key learnings from this session were in relation to improving negotiation skills using the four following tips:

  • Assess – think about whether the benefits outweigh the costs of the proposal
  • Prepare – think about what motivates the other person, and what your own interests are
  • Ask – be open and upfront, share information with the other person and engage with them
  • Package – try to demonstrate what could be achieved as a whole set of things, and think about alternative proposals

Adaptive Leadership Skills

To conclude the programme the keynote was from game designer and developer Brenda Romero, who delivered a really engaging talk to wrap up the programme. Brenda had an interesting way of looking at imposter syndrome as ‘still learning syndrome’, so recognising that you always have more to learn, not to be afraid of failure, and knowing that what matters most is what you think of yourself.

My key take-home message from this session was around taking the ‘balcony view’, i.e. the value of viewing problems from above to see inter-relationships and patterns of change, and understanding that change doesn’t have to happen in my area, but that I can still have an impact via these connected pathways.

Finally

Aurora has helped me learn a lot about myself, my future career and leadership styles. While the programme learning was definitely not gender-specific, it was lovely to take part in something aiming to improve the impact of women in higher education. A consistent highlight of the programme for me was the keynotes from five amazing, successful and inspiring women. In particular, aside from anything gender-specific, I learned a lot from these women about good communication styles and the value of engaging your audience and stakeholders fully, which I want to continue to work on.

Another massive benefit of the programme has been the mentor it provided me with, who has been invaluable to date in terms of guidance and advice.

At the start of the programme, despite being selected, I didn’t really think I was a leader – that I was too junior, too early on in my career for the programme. However, by the end of it I learned that it’s never too soon to start learning how to lead well, and that everyone can display leadership – working within a team on a project, supervising students, or even through peer mentorship. It has helped me develop connections in institutions all over Ireland, and really importantly for someone new to NUIG, has introduced me to a great bunch of women and it’s great to be able to recognise more people across the campus. I also recently received an unusual letter from someone with identical handwriting to my own – until I opened it I had forgotten that during Identity, Impact and Voice we were asked to write our future selves a note about key things to remember, which would be posted to us at the end of the programme. Embarrassingly, I’ll post it here J It’s nice to know that past Elaine is in my corner!

This is an edited version of a post originally published on the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) Health Psychology blog on 17 August 2017. The original version is available here.

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Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identifies actions that could be taken to change this. 

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here