When I was in my final couple of years at school, I did summer work experience in the factory where my dad worked. The managers I saw there wore suits whilst everyone else was in overalls. They didn’t get their hands dirty; they stayed in their clean offices in a separate building and told people what to do, approved shift patterns and were talked about in hushed tones throughout the factory. They made decisions in isolation and didn’t submit to questioning or challenge. Their strength came from their immunity to challenge and their ability to make decisions without question from those carrying out the work.
Whilst the world has moved on, that vision of a manager still lingers in our collective memory. Even if we’ve never worked for someone like that, we’ve seen them in popular culture enough to feel like we have. When asked to think of a manager, so many people still conjure this vision. In their mind, they see a man in a suit who tells people what to do, knows all the answers and never gets questioned. He shows no outward signs of a lack of confidence and maintains a distance from those who work in his team. Whilst in many industries this idea of a manager has evolved into the modern image of a leader, the persistent memory of this style of management still shapes many people and makes them think that if they don’t fit that mould, they can’t be a leader.
I never fitted that mould. I’m a man and I’m white, but I’m not self-confident. I knew in my mind that I didn’t know all the answers, unlike the leaders I saw around me. I told myself that one day I’d know all the answers and maybe then I could think about leadership. But I was also plagued by self-doubt, and so the message I was receiving through that early stage of my career was that I “wasn’t like” the people who were leaders, and so I could never be one.
Over time, I started to move into positions where I was leading small groups of people, then leading teams. I never found the self-assurance that those around me seemed to have, and when I looked around me, the other leaders weren’t like me. The message I was receiving now was that I could be a leader, but I’d need to change myself to behave and think like those I saw being successful around me.
I could cut my own path as a leader. Leadership is something that you do, it’s not who you are.
The leaders around me weren’t deliberately sending out that message; many of them truly believed that diversity is important in leadership. But without realising it, collectively they were sending out the message that in order to succeed, I would have to think and behave like them.
It took me many years of emulating others to begin to realise that I could cut my own path as a leader. Leadership is something that you do, it’s not who you are. Anyone who has the aptitude and desire to lead can do so, but when you feel like you don’t belong in the room, it’s hard to see that.
It’s not surprising that many of the leaders in and founders of businesses we see are self-assured. In order to get to those positions, they’ve had to take risks and put themselves out there - open to criticism and failure. In order to do that, there has to be a certain level of self-assurance. Having spoken to many such people, although they genuinely believe that leadership is open to everyone, they find it hard to imagine what it could be like to live without self-assurance, and they try to eliminate the doubt within the people they mentor rather than supporting people to thrive without changing how they feel. The drive seems to be that anyone who has self-doubt or lacks confidence needs to be “fixed”. But that’s not necessary. We are all good the way we are and we don’t need to change who we are in order to succeed.
For some people, the inner critic is quiet and for others, it’s loud. I’ve learned that my inner critic gets louder the more I try to ignore or silence it, and so I’m slowly learning to give my inner critic space to speak, but to respectfully disagree with what it’s saying. I can be a leader whilst still having self-doubt; the two are not incompatible.
And so when someone in my team talks to me about how they doubt their ability or how they feel like they aren’t as good as those around them, I don’t tell them to try to turn that inner voice off or to ignore it. I tell them to acknowledge that voice, but to see it as a point of view rather than a statement of fact. The inner doubt is trying to protect us; it’s trying to keep us away from humiliation and danger, but we can listen to it without taking its advice to stop trying to succeed.
I’m slowly learning to give my inner critic space to speak, but to respectfully disagree with what it’s saying
Strong leaders not only allow themselves to feel insecure but also are open to challenge from others, too. They value views which differ from their own and trust their team to make good decisions.
Not so long ago, I asked a senior leader I know and trust how he judges the time when he can allow those in his team to make their own decisions without his direct oversight of each one. He responded that he would allow them to make the decisions when he was sure that they would reach the same conclusion that he would. Although he had no bad intentions at all, he was inadvertently failing to trust his team at a fundamental level. The important trust to have in your team is not that they’ll come to the same conclusions as you, but that they are competent enough to come to rational conclusions based on the evidence. It’s an artefact of the human condition that different people can draw different conclusions from the same inputs and that difference is what brings strength to a team. Those people who suggest a different solution to the rest are those who move the thinking of the team forwards, making the team more open-minded to new ways of working.
A few years ago again, I was doing a management training exercise with my peers in the senior leadership group. We were presented with the hypothetical problem of a youth sports team who had progressed to the next stage of a competition and in doing so, could only take forward 15 of the 20 people in the squad. We were asked to propose our solution to the problem. Out of a group of nine leaders, besides the HR partner, I was the only one who proposed a solution which involved bringing those in the team into the discussion and solving the problem in collaboration with them. The idea of a manager as someone who makes decisions in isolation from those impacted was alive and well.
The discussion which followed the presentation of our solutions centred not around listening to the two of us with a different point of view, but around “educating” us on how our approach wouldn’t work in the real world. By failing to be open to a completely new way of thinking, the more experienced managers in the team had viewed my difference as lack of experience rather than a new perspective to be valued and listened to.
The role of a leader is not to be comfortable. The role of a leader is to bring the best experience and thinking they can into the team to make the team as broad-minded and diverse as possible.
It’s a natural impulse to surround ourselves with people who are like us. It’s a more comfortable environment when those around us think the way we do and have the same reactions to the same stimuli. When we invite people over to watch some TV, we’ll invite people who like the same shows as us, because we enjoy sharing the experience of the same reactions.
But the role of a leader is not to be comfortable. The role of a leader is to bring the best experience and thinking they can into the team to make the team as broad-minded and diverse as possible. Strength in a leader is shown by how they surround themselves with people who constructively disagree with them and with people who think differently.
Strength is then shown by how you listen to those people and don’t dismiss their ideas. Even if you don’t dismiss their ideas explicitly, you need to ensure that you don’t inadvertently do so by subjecting ideas you disagree with to more scrutiny than those with which you do agree. Our goal in helping those in our team to grow is to make them into the best version of themselves; our goal is not to help everyone learn how to think like us.
As well as what you do as a leader, your team will be shaped by the signals you send. Those in the team will view you as a role model for behaviour, whether that’s your intention or not. They will see you as successful in your position and they will take their cue on how to succeed from how you behave. The only way to prevent this from leading to a narrowing of diversity is to model inclusion and difference.
It’s not good enough to talk about inclusion in general terms; you need to make it clear that you value the views of those who don’t think like you and that you don’t favour those people who think and behave like you do. Model vulnerability as a leadership strength and respond to challenges by being grateful for the additional input you’re getting to make you and your team better.
Anyone can be a leader, and any leader can be a successful leader. But you’ll only truly thrive if you are the best version of yourself that you can be; you will never thrive by doing an impression of someone else.
Encourage those around you to thrive in their differences, not to change themselves in order to aim for success. Admitting that you don’t know the answers is a sign of strength and being open to listening to others is the only way to find those answers.