We recently completed Connect, our (eighth) annual six-month leadership experience for 90 people including senior leaders from engineering, media, financial services, housing, energy and retail. These are leaders on their way up, average age early to mid forties, bright, ambitious, keen to learn.
We try to avoid leadership bullshit and pointless inspiration and most of the time we do (although I did nearly say ‘going forward’ and ‘paradigm’ at an event I ran recently).
Connect covers a lot of ground. Our members are keen to get stuck into the topics which dominate the day job: how to create a customer centric culture (leadership jargon claxon!); how best in class companies innovate and bring new profitable ideas to market; how to attract and develop talent.
In June, the tone shifts and our conversations centre on organisational and personal purpose. As levels of trust peak, we are into the anxiety and uncertainty of leadership and the denial and stigma around mental health in pretty much all workplaces (especially for middle aged men).
All of us are hungry for truthful, grown up, conversations about the messy, one step forward two steps backwards nature of leadership in a real world of badly designed organisations led often by fearful people who value loyalty and obedience far more than honesty and challenge (and this is as true of social enterprises and charities as it is of the largest multinational). Indeed it strikes me – having listened to hundreds of leaders over the last decade or so – that the purpose of most organisations is to drain the courage from people the higher they rise.
We welcome some fabulous people to share their leadership insights and warnings who don’t rely on “I have been to the mountain top” hyperbole but use clear language to distil powerfully simple truths.
Baroness Sue Campbell is a marvellous woman and leader passionate about the power of sport to help young people rise. She is the head of women’s football at the FA and before that was the Chair of UK Sport and, with Seb Coe, oversaw the profound culture change in British sport which led to the success of London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Her insights into how cultures work and what it takes to redirect them towards high performance are unparalleled and it is all shared with a wonderful no nonsense northern self deprecation and some excellent jokes.
The three questions she asked everyone at UK Sport when she took over – “what do you? What could you do? What stopping you?” – have become Wavelength’s unofficial motto. So, what indeed is stopping us from achieving what we want as leaders and how much of that is inside our heads?
One of Scandinavia’s most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, Lars Kolind is renowned for his bluntness and killer lines. “Really, are you leaders, or are you just caretakers?” is another of his feather ruffling zingers!
Lars believes the days of the pyramid shaped hierarchy are severely numbered and that too many of our businesses are using long outmoded styles of leadership and models of value creation but we lack the courage to carry out the thorough going change necessary.
It is a cliché but we do live in a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – and many leaders are lost in it and pretending they aren’t. I know this because many of them tell me so. How to lead when you don’t know the destination is a challenge in this world no one has trained us for. Jude Kelly – one of the country’s leading arts innovators – speaks very honestly about this leadership dilemma.
It calls for bravery to convene conversations when you don’t know what the outcome is but know that things must change, profoundly and quickly. This is common sense but in the make believe world in which many leadership teams meet –where expressions of doubt or stepping out of the warm consensus are career-limiting moves – it is indeed radical.
Aravind Eye Care System is a globally renowned social business with the noble mission of curing needless blindness. Its pioneering cross subsidy business model has resulted in millions of poor people getting state of the art eye surgery. There is much to admire about Aravind including the quality of it leadership. Dr. Aravind Srinivasan is an eye surgeon and board member. His mix of business insight on purpose driven innovation and self-aware leadership and personal mastery is one of the most potent we‘ve come across. It’s why we have him back to England as often as we can.
Connect ends with Dr. Aravind’s question ringing in all our ears: what of real significance will happen through our leadership?
Written by Liam Black, Co-Founder & Chief Encouragement Officer, Wavelength
Connect is our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 90 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.
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Some of the people mentioned in this article are part of Wavelength’s SpeakersHub. To view their full biographies, find links to videos, and to book them to speak at your own event please click on the links below:
Baroness Sue Campbell, Chair, Youth Sports Trust & Head of Women’s Football at FA
Lars Kolind, Chairman, Serial entrepreneur, Professor, Author
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director, Southbank Centre