Following on from speaking at the Aurora Adaptive Leadership Skills day in Cardiff in May 2017, Louise Fowler shares some key learnings from her 25 year + career in senior marketing roles.
So to save you the trouble of reading all the way to the bottom, I’m going to give you the punch-line right upfront: What’s the recipe for perfect leadership? Well, you probably already know the answer: there isn’t one.
But that doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t things we can all do to improve our leadership skills and capabilities. All leaders get it wrong, all of the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not leading, so what are they doing that inspires others to get behind them?
Someone once told me that leadership is being yourself only with more skill, and I think that’s a wonderful thought.
Human beings are innately expert at sniffing out insincerity. The authentic leader hones and develops qualities they already have and builds on the things they are already good at.
I first found myself in a position of leadership over 25 years ago. I was offered my dream job being appointed the youngest, and first female, Regional Director for British Airways in Africa, based in Johannesburg. It was scary, but also very rewarding. Since then, I’ve held numerous leadership roles, mainly in the private sector working for consumer service businesses, but also in the public and not-for-profit sectors where I sit on several boards.
I’m no expert: I make mistakes on a daily basis, but what I have learned in all the years of trying to lead well is that there is no recipe for successful leadership and what works for one situation may not help you in different circumstances. It also doesn’t matter whether you think you’re leading or not: that’s an assessment for other people to make, not you.
That said, there are some key qualities I think successful leaders draw on time and again and I’ve found there are some personal resources I have repeatedly come back to on my leadership journey:
Leaders need courage. Courage is about not knowing what the “right” answer is, but being prepared to make a decision anyway. Great leaders are prepared to make a decision when a decision is what’s needed and to deal with the consequences later if they’ve got it wrong, which quite often, they have.
But courage on its own is risky: I’ve seen, even worked for, the odd “maverick” whose courage has out-stripped their other qualities and although it might be fun for a while it’s a risky way to operate, and can be destructive. Leadership relies also on credibility. This is a really important quality because it comprises two elements: it’s about not only your capability and competence as a leader, but also about how others see you.
This, I think, is particularly important for those of us who may not conform to the more “traditional” view of a leader. Although, thankfully, this image is changing, too often people still expect a leader to be an experienced gentleman of a certain age, probably wearing a suit. If you are a woman, or a young person, or anyone who doesn’t fit that stereotype for any reason, there is a risk you are starting with a credibility gap. Not your fault, and certainly not fair, but there are things you can do about it.
Remember what I said, though, about authentic leadership. Trying to conform to what peoples’ mental images are is not the way to go: trying to be something or someone you’re not is a recipe for stress and disaster. Being clear about what you’re good at, the strengths you bring to the party and the value you add is the best way to disarm any potential discrimination or prejudice based on others’ perceptions. This is where the “skill” in being yourself comes in.
There are two other qualities great leaders have in my experience, and they fall firmly on the emotional, rather than the rational end of the spectrum. They are curiosity, and care.
Curiosity is something we are all born with but learn at an early age to curb. How many of us remember an adult answering our youthful question “Why?” with the rather impatient “because I said so!”? Leadership is born out of curiosity; about the world, about the art of the possible (and not-so possible) and about people. Great leaders are driven by this and it’s in part what inspires us to get up and follow them.
The final quality is perhaps the most important: Care. Leadership is always founded on a deep-seated, sincere care, not just for the people in the organisation but for the organisation overall. The leader who cares solely for status, power, position or themselves is quickly found out. Too many “managers” go through the motions, working for organisations or causes that no longer light the fire in their belly. These are not leaders. True leaders can’t help but be driven by a care for what they’re working on and who they’re working with. And that’s infectious.
So don’t go looking for a recipe or a prescription or even advice on how to be a great leader. Don’t try to copy others, although you can learn from them, but be yourself. Be courageous, credible, curious and full of care; be the best version of you that you can be and you will find yourself leading. Enjoy it!
Louise Fowler is a marketing and brand specialist and founded Davenport Strategy in 2012. Prior to this, Louise has held senior marketing roles at organisations as diverse as British Airways, Barclays and First Direct. Louise has worked in organisations within the private sector, the mutual sector and not-for-profit.
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.