What is leadership? If you Google the definition of leadership you will come up with millions of hits, varying from slightly to very different. There are hundreds of different models about leadership. Yet each of us is likely to feel we can recognise good or bad leadership when we see it. Part of the problem is that leadership has so many different aspects – it is multi dimensional and trying to explain leadership in only one to three dimensions (which is about as much as most of us can handle easily) is like trying to define a multi-coloured pompom (one of those woollen balls you often find on a wool hat) by only one or two strands of wool.

In essence, if you influence or inspire others, develop others, give others a direction or purpose, you are a leader. The way leadership looks and feels is context dependent – no one style suits all. The way I describe leadership is that at its core, it is about a relationship between a leader or leaders and followers, who are inspired around a common purpose. The nature of that relationship and leadership style is shaped by the context in which it happens, which I regard as having two layers: an out layer representing wider contexts that are not likely to be under your direct control; and an inner layer representing contexts you can directly influence in yourself and in your relationships, whether you are a leader or follower. The outer context layer could include things like the economy, technology, faith, culture – such as political or in society, or in your organisation or community group or family, and so on. The inner layer is influenced by the outer layer and could include things like the group’s attitudes, values, ethics, motivation, sense of purpose and level of trust in the relationship between leader and followers.

An effective leader is effective in context and their style needs to suit the context, particularly the wider context although their style can also influence the context within the local group. For example, Churchill was an excellent leader to keep morale high and a strong sense of purpose during the second world war, but his style didn’t suit a post-war Britain with different needs, a different purpose and different direction. We are also familiar with organisations where the culture and way of working reflect the leadership style of the CEO and perhaps other senior influencers or leaders.

I think of leadership involving two parts: “being”, which includes Emotional Intelligence, personality, interpersonal skills, responsibility and your personal beliefs, values, attitudes, ethics, motivation, purpose etc; and “doing”, which is more likely to depend on the context in which you are leading, including things like organisational functions, creating strategy, vision, building team relationships, putting your activities in wider context, delivering goals etc. This “being” and “doing” applies equally to the followers, although the followers’ “doing” activities are complementary to those of the leaders. Followership is as equally important as leadership. 

There is a tight interplay between leader and follower – in many ways each is defined by the other. A title or job role does not make someone a leader. The followers who are inspired by the purpose and / or believe in the person make that person the leader. In a work context, this is why good leadership makes such a difference to performance (said to be about 30% difference to the bottom line) because leaders inspire their team and workers to be engaged and give their discretionary effort.

Leadership is not just for a few people in high level positions at work, we need leadership all around us at all levels in our communities – whether they are social, sport or work. Even if you are running a micro business with no staff, you still need to lead yourself to motivate and inspire yourself to make things happen, and to influence your clients and customers. As an owner of a business you need to be both leader and follower – leading when you work “on” the business, setting the direction and strategy, and being follower when you step into the daily working “in” the business.

The ability to step in and out of leader and follower roles, and knowing when each role is more appropriate, can be pivotal to the success of both the group and yourself as an individual. An example could be in a dynamic team, where the team leader is prepared to let a team member take the lead and constructively support them in doing so, perhaps recognising specific expertise or knowledge, or perhaps as part of their policy to raise others to take on leadership. I am reminded of a time when I was diving with a university club, and one of the top diving instructors in the UK was with us. He had the patience to allow one of the students be in charge of the days diving, letting her make decisions about where to go and how to do it, intervening by gently asking focused questions in a constructive way when the outcomes could have potentially life-threatening consequences (like being underwater when the current was too strong for safe diving) but allowing her to make and learn from more minor mistakes.

In my opinion, a major component of success in leadership is an openness to learn and forgive (both yourself and others) and to regard mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failure – beautifully described by David Watt as:
” I learned so much from my mistakes I plan to make some more ”

One of the most important leadership roles (for both men and women) is parenthood and the way we lead ourselves and our family, and influence their development, core values, attitudes and beliefs. Children give unconditional followership to their parents during early childhood and go through several critical development periods, particularly up to the age of 7. I personally believe that this contributes to the controversy in the debate over whether leaders are born or made. There is so much evidence that leadership can be learnt and “born leaders” are most likely leaders who learned leadership from age 0.

For example, compare these two scenarios that reflect different ways a parent might interact with their child, both parents having the positive intention to protect their child. It is a snowy winter and Bob and Joe, who are four, say they want to go out and play.

Parent A says “Remember to put on your coat, don’t get cold.” Bob follows orders; and grows up with others making decisions and choices for him to protect him.

Parent B says “ok, go out and play”. Joe runs outside, and soon afterwards comes back in “Its cold.” Parent B asks “What do you want to do about that?” Joe says “Put a coat on” “Ok, that sounds like a good idea” and Joe puts on a coat and goes out to play, warm. The difference is that Joe learns throughout childhood about the consequences of his actions in situations that are not life-threatening (eg: its cold if you forget your coat) and making choices – he is learning how to decide for himself and protect himself. When these two children grow up to be teenagers, who is more likely to be able to make good choices about things they are exposed to, like drugs, peer pressure, and so on? Which approach do you think is more effective in managers and leaders?

Unless we learn otherwise at some stage in our life, our default leadership style typically reflects the way our parents behaved with us. Yet, as good leadership is so context dependent and no one style suits all situations, the best leaders match their style to the situation. Learning good leadership starts with raising self awareness to recognise your own style, the way you behave and interact with others, and your own attitudes, beliefs and values that shape the way you behave and think. When these are raised from the unconscious level, where they strongly influence all the decisions you make without your being aware of it, you can consciously choose how to be and behave in different situations. The next stage is to learn how different styles can influence situations in different ways… and I think that is a lifetime’s journey.


Are you so busy looking for what you think you need that you can’t see what’s right in front of you?

Are you sure you will recognise success when you find it? (or it finds you?) How fixed is your idea of success? Or are you open to the idea that it might not look anything like you expect, so you might want to consider how you will recognise it when it comes along….

I have just come back from recycling a load of bottles someone left in my flat. To save overflowing our recycling bins at home, I made a detour to the local Tesco’s recycling point. I was rather disappointed to see that it had been closed up, with solid metal shutters across the sections that must be for various glass collections. There seemed to be only a couple of sections open with a container to leave textiles. As I drove past it, a traffic jam appeared out of nowhere in the car park lane in front of me, forcing me to wait at the exit. Frustrated at having to waste yet more time when I just wanted to get home, I watched in the rear view mirror as another car pulled up at the recycling point and a man got out with a box of bottles. Curious now, I saw him pressing buttons at what I thought was the textiles point, so I reversed, parked and took my bottles to investigate.

It wasn’t closed up at all. It just wasn’t the usual recycling system I was used to, where you have a large container with a hole in it that you push bottles into – and a different container or section for each colour of bottle, or plastic or tin. No, this is just one large outer container with a multipurpose bucket that you put things in. The wonders of modern technology! Not only does the machine identify the items and save you time sorting them yourself, it also gives you green points on your loyalty card! Your items are collected and conveyed, much like a snacks vending machine, to the relevant bin, accompanied by a satisfying sound of smashing glass somewhere at the far end of the container.

(So it seems even traffic jams have their good points – if it hadn’t just suddenly appeared, literally as I reached the exit, I would no doubt still be under the mistaken impression the recycling point was closed up!)

Ok, this is a rather mundane example, but it got me thinking. If I can’t even recognise a recycling point when I’m specifically looking for it, what else am I missing in life or in work because I’ve got too fixed an idea of what it should be like? How do we help ourselves recognise the opportunities of change?

Is Coaching for you?

Coaching is not a panacea or cure all. It is a tool which can be extraordinarily effective to achieve a purpose. Like all tools, it is effective when used skilfully and appropriately, recognising the appropriate fit for the purpose, when, where, how etc.

Coaching is not for everybody – the approach simply doesn’t bring value for some people for various reasons, which may be related to attitude, the coaching style or approach, or the coaching relationship amongst other things. However, some people find it is possible to change perspective and discover value in coaching. For example:

• You are already using this thinking style so it feels like the coach is not bringing anything new or a new perspective. The value comes when a good coach makes a difference by asking deeper questions to push beyond the limit of your comfort zone, with the benefit that you gain new insights, such as to how to move forwards and/or achieve your goals.

• You are already spending time to think about these issues, so you don’t value the time out of every day work to explore these issues with your coach. The value comes when your coach introduces a different perspective that you haven’t considered and uncovers assumptions you are not aware of – which are present more often than we realise as we get used to doing something the usual “way we do things round here”.

• You don’t value being accountable to a coach to make the changes and you feel you would do these things anyway. The value of coaching comes when you recognise you probably would let some slide, or not stick to your timeframe as other tasks seem more important that those you just set for yourself. The benefit is you are more likely to do what you planned and achieve your goals, when you keep your coach updated on your progress.

• You are looking for a consultant who will advise on the best way forward. The value of coaching comes when you recognise that you don’t need to be told what to do in this situation and you feel you will be more committed to doing things that you have identified and chosen to do yourself.

• You are not comfortable at opening up and discussing issues close to your heart, that may be sensitive or things you would not usually discuss with anyone else. It may be because you don’t have the right coach with whom you can develop a relationship where you can comfortably discuss these issues, or it may be that you simply don’t like talking about it. In any case, it can be quite likely that the coaching will not get to the nub of the matter and address the underlying issues. Addressing only the surface manifestations is not as effective or long-lasting or transferable to different situations. The value of coaching comes when you invest time initially to find a good match with your coach so you can develop a good rapport. You also explore with your coach what it means to you to share these problems, or ask for help, if it doesn’t come naturally, and what would make it easier to talk about. You can choose to focus on one thing at a time so it doesn’t seem overwhelming and your coach can ask questions that will help you drill down to address the core issue.

• You are not willing (consciously or subconsciously) to commit to the process and actually make the changes you discuss, reflect on what you do or complete actions. The value of coaching is when you make a conscious commitment to the process and explore with your coach to raise awareness of any barriers that you feel might get in the way.

• You think (consciously or subconsciously) all this mumbo jumbo is not going to make a difference. You think real factual evidence and ‘task focused’ efforts are what counts. The value of coaching comes when you can acknowledge that thinking about deep personal issues is rather difficult and may take time, and it is ok that there are no right or wrong answers. You can also recognise that your feelings, values, and emotional state can be “factual evidence” about you. You recognise that being fully aware of who you are and how you feel is important as it influences how you make choices and decisions in your life and work.

• You find yourself being irritated or not engaged during coaching sessions, or perhaps rather ‘turned off’ by the language the coach uses. The value of coaching comes when you invest a bit of time and research upfront to find a coach who has an approach and style of coaching that you can relate to.

There can, of course, be other reasons too.

I speak with experience having been one of those people who didn’t value coaching, for some of these reasons, although I have subsequently come to value the experience of being coached and work now as a coach myself. I also hear and see all these examples in different combinations when talking with people about coaching, particularly those who have had a bad experience or have friends who didn’t get anything out of coaching. I often don’t take these people on for coaching as there is no point using the wrong tool when it won’t help someone achieve what they are looking for. It only ends in frustration and disillusionment. However, some of my clients have initially approached me believing that coaching doesn’t work, and I still took them on as they were willing to explore how to find the value as I have outlined above and came with an open mind, a desire to work with me and a commitment to their future.

Many people find coaching provides real value when they take the time to find a good coach with whom they can work well. It is about finding a good fit so you can build a good relationship with your coach.

Coaching isn’t a tool to force or coerce change. Coaching is a tool to facilitate a collaboration to unlock a person’s potential, clarify purpose and direction, unblock barriers, create new horizons, energise, motivate, challenge and support their commitment to achieve their purpose. When it goes well, coaching is fun and wholly energising. I love it and my clients love it and usually leave my session buzzing with enthusiasm, hope and commitment. It is contagious and gives me energy too and a sense of satisfaction as they achieve what they are looking for.

Why do values make a difference?

What happens if your boss or someone at work asks you to take short-cuts? Do you think this is a great idea and will save time and money?  Do you think this will compromise your work or other issues you think are important, such as safety, health, legal regulations and so on? Do you feel able to say no or discuss it? Do you think your boss recognises the implications? Do you feel they just don’t get it? Do you feel your job may be under threat so you just need to go along with what you are asked? How stressed would you feel?

Values play a fundamental role in how we perceive and interact with the world, how we interpret events and other peoples actions and behaviours. Its not always obvious. Our values and beliefs are often a sub-conscious filter through which we interpret everything around us and so play a fundamental role in how we respond – in our thoughts and behaviour. This sub-conscious influence sometimes leads to apparently irrational behaviour and decisions that are at best not constructive and often destructive or disastrous.

We acquire our values and beliefs over our entire lifetime, accepting the ways of our culture, our parents, our teachers and others around us. They may have been extremely valuable at the time we took them on board, but sometimes they outlive their usefulness and lead to behaviour that is no longer helpful in our current situation. Time spent reflecting on knowing our values and beliefs and evaluating how useful they continue to be to us right now, is time well spent.

Raising our conscious awareness of our values and beliefs gives us much more control over our personal thoughts and behaviour and makes us more aware of why we feel the way we do about a situation or person. It guides our choices and decision making at a conscious level and helps us to recognise when a choice does actually exist, even if the alternatives are somewhat unpalatable. We might recognise when our subconscious hijacks the decision making process when we feel there is only one way forward and no options.

So how does this extend to a team or whole organisation? Jeremy Darroch, chief executive of BSkyB, gave three great examples at the recent Institute of Directors Annual Convention. Fostering the mindset “Believe in Better” has created a culture where everyone at BSkyB applies innovative thinking to everything they do every day, right across the business from product development to accounts. Maintaining a consistent value set and core beliefs guided Procter and Gamble to move quickly and grow sustainably from a small enterprise selling soap up the Ohio River to a global company.

When values are a key component of strategy and are motivating – made real and alive from the executive team down, not just words on a page – they give people guidance in a way that rules and procedures alone do not. The strength comes from a clear value set that reaffirms the behaviour, actions and decisions made by all in the organisation. Getting everyone in the organisation involved and knowing how their role connects with the company success, focuses and guides everyone in one direction, even when facing new situations that rules and procedures do not (yet) cover. In contrast, consider Jeremy Darroch’s third example, the recent banking debacle – once people crossed the line beyond the rule book, they could and did go anywhere. In a rapidly changing world, consistent values and beliefs guide the way to sustainable success.

Values and beliefs are a core component of Aeona’s new open programmes for leadership development. Please tell us what you think is important to include in a leadership development course or programme. Enter our short survey here and you could win £50 in Amazon Vouchers.

Click through to our website for information on the short course, Inner Leadership, or 12 month Exceptional Leader Programme.

The Power of Purpose

Its summer and barbeque time! While I was at a barbeque celebrating my niece’s one and a half birthday, I found myself deep in conversation with another guest, Karen, about our respective professions. It turned out she is a psychologist with a healthy scepticism for coaches, due to the ever expanding number of people setting themselves up as coaches without any training in the profession at all. Yet, she was pleasantly surprised by my approach to coaching which she said resonated strongly with her.

Many clients who come to me for coaching don’t have a very specific issue to address but rather broader questions around building confidence, developing leadership and managing their career. I encourage them to spend time working in our early sessions, and to reflect between sessions, on their values, beliefs and purpose. They find this approach pays dividends in achieving their more intangible goals like knowing what they want to do and being more confident. Why? I feel a sense of purpose and knowing your values and beliefs brings

  • personal meaning;
  • a sense of being;
  • knowing who you are and what is important to you and what you stand for;
  • a sense of harmony, peace and well being when you are living in alignment with your core values;
  • a feeling of direction and energy;
  • being true to yourself;
  • respecting yourself; and
  • self belief, self confidence and self esteem, which is honest and not misplaced or falsely built up; based on evidence you can prove to yourself, recognising your own achievements and contributions without claiming those of others.

Having a sense of purpose can make a real difference to the way we feel about ourselves and how we live our lives. Karen reminded me of Frankl, an Austrian psychologist who survived the holocaust and helped other inmates in concentration camps during the first world war. He noticed that survivors of these terrible places were those people who felt a sense of purpose. For some it was love for children or a wife that gave them a meaning to cling to, or a talent to be used, or perhaps lingering memories they felt worth preserving. The people who felt they had nothing to live for died quickest. The people who felt a sense of purpose found meaning even in these most miserable conditions and survived.

Most of us now are fortunate – we live in incredibly good conditions in comparison, yet still we feel stress or a lack of direction or confidence. Taking time to discover our sense of purpose can help us release our full potential, turn our dreams into reality and be who we want to be.

Next time – where do our beliefs and values come from and what can we do about them!