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To fully engage with our role as communicators we must be ready to lead

By Emma Duke (First published in Influence)

Global leadership in the past year has been…underwhelming. At times down-right dangerous. For all the Kamala Harrises, Greta Thunbergs and Jacinda Aderns, other national and global leaders have relied on a heady diet of narcissism, misinformation and double-standards.

We all know bad leaders. The ones you’re less likely to put forward for speaker opps, as spokespeople and presenters on company-wide events; the ones we battle on a daily basis, resisting any attempts we make to demonstrate openness, authenticity or vulnerability as an organisation. Part of our role in communications is the ability to identify and elicit great leadership.

And then there are the great leaders, the connectors, the inspirers, the self-aware, the influencers. These people know me well as I’m constantly getting in touch to ask them to speak, listen, engage.

“I was really lucky to have some very inspirational colleagues and leaders at The Guardian,” Nicky Smith, MD of Twelve PR told me, “like Carolyn McCall who was voted the most admired leader in Britain by Management Today magazine two years in a row, but it’s a saying from Fiona Morris who was Sales Director when I joined which probably influences me most as a leader, ‘be courteous with people, ruthless with time.’”

As communicators we spend a significant amount of our time and energy supporting leaders, whether as clients or line managers, part of our job is to make leaders look good. Personally, I have done this for years. I develop a good relationship with a leader, open up to them, develop a trusting relationship and equip them to lead. Despite my extroverted tendencies, I’m quite happy with this ‘behind the camera’ persona. I won’t hide from the limelight and my role on the Senior Leadership Team makes me visible, but when it comes to leadership, that’s what I help other people do.

Only recently did it occur to me that, like it or not, I hold a position of leadership and while I spend so much of my time examining the leadership skills and attributes of my colleagues, I wasn’t taking an objective view of my own. I needed to be more conscious of the impact I wanted to have.

Suzy Jenner, Director of Marketing & Communications, Oxford Brookes University spoke to me about the need to go above and beyond when it comes to conscious leadership in a crisis, particularly in the last year, “Speaking to all of my colleagues, everyone has been acutely aware that we need to maintain a balance between organisational leadership, and conscious and proactive team leadership. We’ve actually put a huge amount of additional engagement activities in place to ensure that our teams remain ‘hooked’ into Brookes and receive the leadership they need.”

I recognise this recent shift. While the world burned it was very clear that what was needed, was leadership. Employees, friends, families, humans…we were all forced to face some of our greatest fears and needed inspiration and hope more than anything. Oddly it was at this time that I found my own voice. By becoming more conscious of my own abilities to lead I was more open to learning how to do it better and about the opportunities to demonstrate those skills.

Natasha Hill, Managing Director of Bottle PR reflected on her own style: “I’m a cup half full person, with natural empathy – so my ‘natural’ (or unconscious) leadership leans towards finding the positives in people, motivation etc. My conscious leadership – the bit I know I need to work on – is to ensure I’m resisting my tendency to give more support than challenge in the ‘high support, high challenge’ equation.”

A great leader I used to work with would always quote Jim Collins’ window and mirror leadership model, from his book From Good to Great. A good leader “looks out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well. At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.”

While taking credit for good work is something I believe is important to do, the idea of holding up a mirror to oneself to identify the tendencies, biases and influences that will affect the way you lead is an important part of conscious leadership.

Personally, at my best I can be decisive, empathetic, authentic and inspiring. At my worst, however, my fear of failure can lead to defensiveness, I speak over people in order to prove I have the right answers and can be ‘destructively sarcastic’ and sulky.

While I shudder to think about disclosing this to the UK’s PR industry, I reassure myself that this horror will, in fact, get me closer to my equivalent of Mecca: Brene Brown’s concept of courageous leadership: “The greatest barrier to courageous leadership is not fear—it’s how we respond to our fear. Our armour—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability—move us out of alignment with our values, corrode trust with our colleagues and teams, and prevent us from being our most courageous selves.”

I also sought to make myself feel better by inviting Nicky Smith to do the same: “The flip-side of loving what you do – being passionate – is that you can get tense when things don’t go to plan. I asked a colleague how that comes across and she said I can get ‘angsty.’ Well…I did ask! I guess that proves I do still care… She’s learnt to recognise and deal with that from me, and we all need to learn to deal with stress, myself included. Being self-aware of course is another key quality.”

Stripping away the amour that protects us from our weak spots can be more beneficial than just helping you and others navigate them, a former colleague Clare Harris of Clare Harris Consulting told me a story about inviting senior leaders to participate in a leadership programme,

“The clear brief was not to come and give a presentation, but instead to answer questions and share personal stories and insights. The idea was to show the human side of being in a leadership role, all about authenticity and vulnerability. Almost all of them turned up and gave a speech about establishing strategy, delivering on bottom lines, etc etc, which left participants dead behind the eyes. But when one or two of them turned up genuinely curious to hear what the participants had been learning and thinking and then responded with honesty and humility, it was like magic happened in the room. And it was those leaders that came to me afterwards and said how much they had learned and what a great opportunity it had been to have their thinking influenced by future leaders.”

Listening is the communicator’s superpower and I truly believe it’s what makes us great leaders. It enables us to anticipate issues on the horizon, to understand the complexities of an organisation, to empathise with frustrated employees and to create truly inclusive organisations.

So the next time I question my entitlement to lead, I’ll remind myself of the tools I’ve used throughout my career, to connect with people, influence them and make change happen.

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