7 ways to spark positivity as a leader

How much do you show positive leadership?  

Ongoing change, a myriad of competing pressures, uncertainty about future, the constant need to be inventive and agile are all part and parcel of leading. All test your ability to stay positive as a leader. Drawing on the wisdom of Kim Cameron, FutureSpark Coaching brings you 7 ways you can show more positive leadership.

1. Show an attitude of gratitude

Think about the last time someone showed real gratitude towards you. How did it feel? Positive psychology research evidences that gratitude has a powerful impact on well-being. Demonstrating openly to your colleagues genuine gratitude for their contribution or achievements assists significantly to enable a positive atmosphere and really encourages performance.

2. Be a positive energizer

Have you had an experience of connecting with a negative energizer, someone who sucks the energy from a room or conversation in record time? Remember it! Being over critical, inflexible and focused disproportionately on your own individual needs characterizes the core credentials of a negative energizer.

The energy you put out there as a leader is seen and felt. Create a crackle of positive energy by directly building into your interactions optimism and ways to enable the vitality of others. Alternatively, support the those who beam positive energy by encouraging them to have wider interactions across the team, giving them a platform to influence or supporting as mentor or to lead on an aspect of team or organisational development.

3. Be present and show compassion

Notice and acknowledge when someone is clearly struggling and experiencing upset or real difficulty – express some care and concern. People notice that you notice and will feel more valued as it helps to create a more caring working environment. In the words of Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

4. Pay more attention to strengths

Emotionally intelligent leadership will connect what a person wants, enjoys and is strong in delivering aligned with organisational goals. As a leader, you do not evidently ignore weaknesses and what could be improved. The approach however to addressing is all.

A good exercise to do is think about your leadership style. Question how much time you spend looking at the deficit in your team / organisation. How aware are you of organisational and team strengths? How much do you communicate with your team about their strengths? How do you combine this to give constructive feedback setting positive targets for performance based on strengths? Create the image of success highlighting what others should do and strive towards rather than only pointing out what they shouldn’t do or aren’t doing.

5. Communicate positively

If you have ever completed a 360-degree feedback, you will know that how you communicate as a leader usually takes centre-stage in shaping how others see you. Leading inevitably involves communicating on difficult issues and giving negative messages. Communicating positively in such circumstances needs your attention and awareness.

Keep communication as supportive and objective as possible. Faced with an issue, zone in on the facts and avoid judgement or subjective evaluation labels on the person ‘I think that you are…’ Focus on describing the action, event or behaviour not the person. Explain the consequences / reactions calmly and then offer or invite suggestions to resolve and move forward.

6. Connect purposefully

We enjoy and thrive in doing something which we find meaningful. What exactly does being meaningful entail? Something becomes meaningful if it helps us upholds our values, something we hold dear or live by, if it helps us achieve a personal goal or if it makes a positive difference to someone else or reaches out beyond us as part of a bigger picture.

As a leader, one of the great rewards of leadership is seeing someone fulfilled in work. When this happens, they have experienced work as purposeful: it has connected with something that is meaningful for them. Take time to see how you and your team connect your work to a purpose which has meaning for you. If you don’t know what is meaningful to your key team members and teams, get to know.

7. Build in one-to-one time

‘The only time I really see my director is when something goes wrong which I might be able to fix.’

This is not the type of comment an accomplished leader wants really to hear: the lack of value this employee feels attached to them is clear. Making time for regular one-to-one meetings with colleagues who are your direct reports is an investment. It builds relationships, clarifies expectations and unearths more about values and motivation. It is also a great opportunity to communicate supportively about development and performance. One-to-one time is a valuable two-way exchange and shows positive leadership at a very personal level.

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

Cutting through the mystique of leadership

Renee Quinn knows a lot about leadership. As Business Manager for Northern Ireland’s public sector Chief Executives’ Forum and overseeing the Women and Leadership programme, Renee sparks some refreshing ideas about where great leadership really lies…

What has been your own personal experience of seeing inspiring leadership in action?
A leader who I met quite recently, talked about improving the standard of quality control within his organisation and how his leadership skill drove that change, but what was most obvious to me was that he handled it in a compassionate, evidence-based and empathetic approach. He won over hearts and minds by approaching change on a small scale, which built trust, then he widened the scope, and over time systems started to change. Now, that particular organisation is an exemplar within the UK for quality control. I don’t think the term quality control does it justice, because what it actually comes down to was the vision that inspired that change and the leadership style used to achieve it.

The leader, in this particular case, transferred leadership to team members. He didn’t keep it within his own confines. He put himself into that vulnerable position and empowered his staff. You can tell the difference when you go to a meeting with any of his staff. They all display individual leadership; they absolutely live and breathe the strategy and the corporate values. Every decision they take will come back to that. They are very confident in their conversation about what will fit with their strategic aims and they are empowered to take decisions, which is fabulous, because they will come to a meeting trusted to be able to make that decision, so it doesn’t have to go back up the hierarchy again.

Obviously, this leader has said, ‘Listen, we’ve employed you to do this job; I’m going to trust you to do it to the best of your ability….now just get on and do it’. It’s the autonomy to act ethically within the corporate structure and his transference of power to front line staff that was very visible to me. It really did change the culture of that organisation in a relatively short space of time. So, I would say that he was a shining light and an exemplar of inspirational leadership in action. To me the key learning that I took from that experience was the trust and autonomy he bestowed on his staff and his demonstration of compassion when things didn’t go as planned, you knew he had their back. To me that empathetic leadership style gets the best from colleagues.

With your work supporting leadership development, which types of skills or leadership approaches need developed most?

Authentic leadership: I think there is a façade and a mystique around what leadership is. It’s not helpful when people see it as some mystic, god-like influence that they can’t grasp or aspire to achieve, when in fact it’s about recognising the leadership qualities in all of us.

I firmly believe there is a leader within every single one of us just waiting to be discovered and that’s where there is a responsibility with current leaders to spot those ‘glowing’ individuals and nurture them towards leadership positions.

Leadership is just not one thing and as a society, we need to recognise that leadership is not all about whether you are ‘Personality A’ type person or ‘Type B’, its more nuanced. I would like to see a conversation around leadership that values the more difficult parts of leadership skills, those softer skills, which is a misnomer in itself, because they are the hardest to achieve and they are not in the least bit easy to master. Rather than the dominant, autocratic style, which is still so widely evident, it’s around Emotional Intelligence and servant leadership. It’s about having empathy, showing vulnerability, being authentic and warm and not forgetting to have fun.

Some of my most productive work has been with teams where we’ve had a blast working under pressure, so fun is an all-important leadership ingredient as well. People come to work for eight hours a day and they want to enjoy what they do. If it feels like a grind, people become stressed and won’t enjoy the experience and they won’t give you the outcome your organisation desires and so not to have an eye on those skills, in my view, is folly.

I think that there needs to be a loosening of those 1950’s Taylorism leadership styles of command and control. That style does not work for the generation of workers that we have now or indeed the generation coming next. It might have worked in the industrial age but we now have knowledge workers who demand more from their work; as many treat work as an extension of their social networks. If you could unlock more emotionally intelligent traits it would go some way to address the mental health crisis that is sitting beneath the radar.

Allowing people to embrace their own projects and giving people the freedom to do so is very important. Those organisations which allow their employees to try new things and fail without consequences, I believe, are the most successful.

Creating the type of culture that allow employees to be creative in finding solutions is vital. It shouldn’t be about an organisation driving hard on innovation, I believe a leaders role within an organisation is to provide the optimum environment for employees to flourish, to allow employees to genuinely feel empowered to try something and fail and having the passion to give it a go without fear of repercussions.

It’s back again to structures: the rules and regulations of how things are done in an organisation. There needs to be more openness and honesty about the need for some rules. We need to have a conversation about what the rules and regulations are supposed to achieve and do they work for the majority of staff? There needs to be more honesty about the structural set-up of an organisation.

A great example of a leader turning an organisation on its head is Ricardo Semler from the Brazilian firm, SEMCO. He empowered employees to decide amongst themselves about how they worked, their time and environment were all decided by the staff. Staff were able to make informed decisions about their work because they were expertly trained in understanding the budgets and financial statements, so they could see the effect of their work on the bottom line and their job security.

I believe there also needs to be more bravery around challenging the status quo and asking those hard questions; such as why is it done this way? Could we do it better? Is it demotivating staff? Is it actually improving productivity or making a difference? Does it really matter where someone works or what times they work? The focus should be on the output and that’s what we should measure, otherwise you get presenteeism setting in.

Having worked across all sectors, what could each sector learn from each other in terms of leading effectively?

Having worked in each of the sectors and as a small region, I have found that’s there is such passion within each sector, enthusiasm and goodwill and I believe we are not harnessing that and pulling our intelligence together to make this a better region. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to develop a cross sectoral leadership programme with CO3. I recognised that the siloed approach to work needs to be debunked and I wanted leaders to walk a mile in the other sector’s shoes to be able to understand the commonalities that exist. I think you need to be able to get under the skin to understand what makes a CEO in the third sector tick compared to a CEO in the private and public sector. From my experience, what you’ll find is they are all coming from similar places of wanting to do the best for their organisations. So why don’t we therefore focus more on breaking down those barriers that hinder this process? In my opinion, it just requires a will to want to do so and to possibly relinquish some control. I think if we can get over that, there could be great things which could happen for the region and our citizens.

It’s also about leaders being curious, taking time to lift their head from the day-to-day grind, looking around them to see who they could collaborate with to help for the betterment of their organisation or society and this is where I think the draft Programme for Government has really helped to spark that conversation. The Programme for Government has given us the framework to work towards, so now the challenge is how do we do this? And who do we need to work with to make great things, that matter, happen?

Leaders need to recognise that power doesn’t just rest with them. They have to be curiously vulnerable to a certain extent and relinquish that power to achieve greatness. It’s a little bit about putting yourself into a more vulnerable position and acknowledging that you don’t know it all.

There’s also the possibility that you might lose power. You may not have the budget to do this type of work but as I see it, when you understand people’s values and they want to make it better, that’s as good a starting place as you’re going to get.

I believe values are what drive you to do a good job. If your job aligns closely with your values, it doesn’t seem as if you are going to work and that’s where passion is derived. If you truly and passionately believe something, you can convince people from a place of passion and that actually hooks people in.

What would be the most exciting or innovative step we could take to shape our local leadership for the future?

I would like to see leaders taking their sons or daughters to work for the day showing them what they really do, and how they are making a difference to their children’s future, or else what is the point of work? I would like to see them opening up their office environment to kids from underprivileged areas and for leaders to go out to schools and talk to children about self-esteem, resilience, believing, failing and talking about their leadership journey. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if leaders could go out and talk to children about what they think leadership is, what it looks like, and inspire each child to recognise that they have leadership abilities within themselves; daring them to dream ! This also helps to break down this concept of leadership being some ethereal skill that is unachievable for most.

I think this myth-busting is important because a lot of our society looks upon leaders as an elite that cannot be challenged and a leader is someone who just wields power. This is so vitally important, particularly, for our younger female generation who don’t see themselves as leaders and don’t recognise themselves as someone who could lead an organisation.

There is a well-used phrase: “You cannot be, what you cannot see” and it’s certainly one that has resonated with me. My personal goal is to change that concept for my children. I have endeavoured to make changes within my own work, by making gender equality a personal priority and have created several strands of new work to help address this trend.

I am currently very passionate about delivering the first pan-island conference on ‘Budgetary Impact Analysis: A Catalyst for Economic Growth’, which is really about making financial decisions based on what the evidence tells us; so I am excited to bring over leading experts so that we can learn from them over the year. Also over the year I have organised several round table discussions with senior female leaders to discuss how we can make more progress on women’s positions within Northern Ireland’s leadership levels and am currently very excited about the launch of a new, year long, Women’s leadership programme. I hope these initiatives go some way to addressing an increasing area of concern and I’m hopeful that my small part will assist in that improvement.

Another area which adds to shaping our future and which leaders can impact is when organisations are commissioning services, creating policy or in control of a budget, you need to go out and meet with those who are going to be affected by your decisions and have a discussion on the issue.

Getting out of the office and speaking to service users, say, in a mental health charity who are going to be affected by a certain approach is critical. That does not mean that you are going to shy away from taking those hard, budgetary decisions, but you have to leave your office and walk a mile in their shoes. If you can convince service users of your well-reasoned argument, you will have a group of people supporting your changes.

People don’t like things being done on them, they like to feel a genuine part of the decision-making process, which develops the trust that is required to make effective change stick and generally garners greater buy in. You need to convince society that it is the right approach. It’s back to your values again. If your values align to what you are trying to achieve your passion will shine and you can create that persuasive argument more readily. Your litmus test for that is going out to the people who are going to be affected and explain your rationale with passion and integrity. That type of honesty shines through and once you win people around, they can be your champions. It’s again about transferring that leadership to people within communities to transfer and actively champion that message more widely.

What leadership legacy would you like to leave behind?

I would like to be considered as an empathetic and understanding colleague who has the well-being of colleagues at heart. I would like to be seen as a compassionate team player and someone who is energetic in delivering on things that matter. I thrive on being curious and listening to others; I don’t have an ego about knowing everything. In fact, I am quite happy to admit that I know very little about some subjects; but I am always eager to learn and listen to those that do know and I enjoy listening to diverse opinions, which, I think helps me form better opinions and decisions.

Where my strength comes from is by listening to other people, learning about them and what they can bring to the table. I am there to get people around the table and connect them; I get a real buzz from collaborative work. Any of my previous colleagues would say that when I get involved in a project, I really give everything and get very passionate about it. That overspills then to connections with other people.

It’s also about not knowing everything, that cliché that ‘every day is a school day’ gets me up in the morning.

I think about what today is going to bring and what am I going to learn: what little gem or nugget can I learn from my next encounter and put into my treasure box? Ultimately I would like my legacy to have made a difference in some small way to make society and my children’s lives better. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m eager to keep discovering and trying.

Leading your life, what sparks a sense of real personal fulfilment for you?

My family is my first true love. I have my husband, my two girls and my mother. My mother has always been a strong and supportive woman who really helped me to see from a young age, the art of the possible. She taught me to see the future as something better than what she had come through in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 70s.

She painted a picture for me very early in life, that education was the pathway to success and diversity of thought was something to be embraced and to take pride in; she firmly believed that was the road to greater and better things.

She was my first encounter with a true leader and I think that’s an important point for parents to realise; that caregivers in those crucial early years have a strong influence on their children. The poem praising motherhood, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World!” by William Wallace expresses this sentiment more eloquently, than I could ever do and is so appropriate for caregivers today.

With my family then, and especially with my two young girls, I am trying to recreate that for them. To always strive for better, to be curious, to not be afraid and to reach out for better things. The spark for me, is whenever my kids turn around and they inspire me with their work and the things they think, they are at the stage where they are forming their own little opinions about what they think. So it’s inspiring me, as I am now learning from them.

My husband is very supportive in everything that I do. When I went back to university and studied for my MBA, I had baby at 18 months and another one at three-years old, studying would just not have been possible without the support of my husband and my mother. So, they have always had my back and facilitated my escapades. So they would also be my spark, as I explore more ambitious adventures.

What also drives me is to try and make society and life easier for my children in the future. I want to try to improve things for the next generation coming through. So, I really put my heart and soul into breaking those barriers which exist for my kids and to try to make it, well not necessarily easier for them, but to make society kinder. That’s what I would aspire to change, to try to make society kinder for my two children.

How do you think coaching could assist in leadership development or living your life authentically?

Coaching to me is the person who has your back. Coaching helps you to find that little piece of quietness amidst the storm of work life, helping you to take stock and to lift your head above the trenches and stand still in the moment; they help you to recalibrate back to your values.

The coach is the person who helps you keep the equilibrium in your life, to bring you back when you are losing your head in a project or work environment.

They are a sounding board to actually bring you back to ‘why are you doing this?’ and bring you back to your values. They are integral to any great leadership journey.

Look at any sports athlete; they are surrounded by nutritionists, doctors, coaches and psychologists. Equally we have leaders in our region who really are athletes within their sector. We don’t, however, give them the same latitude to make mistakes and improve. We seem to think that once you are in a leadership position, you have all the answers and therefore why do you need to be surrounded by the right people. In our current culture it is seen as a sign of weakness to have a coach, whereas in top performing countries, it is an anathema to not have a coach.

This is back again to myth-busting about leadership. We seem to think that they should know it all or that they shouldn’t need any extra input. But if you look around at athletes or Olympians, there is acknowledgement that they need to be surrounded by good people. This helps keep your leader and your athlete healthy and well.

To my mind, our leaders are corporate athletes and they need to be surrounded by experts to help them and keep them performing at tiptop levels. It a lonely place, they can’t do it all and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that.

It’s about society recognising that leaders can be fallible. It’s also about leaders acknowledging and being vulnerable and seeing that they need to be surrounded by the right people to help in their quest. It’s about having a coach who challenges you, stretches your abilities and helps you to unpick the issues and repackage it and to go forward with energy.

One of the big things a coach can give you is energy, to know that you are on the right path and to continue doing what you are doing and to be your champion!

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

What makes for great Board leadership?

Eileen Mullan is founder of Strictly Boardroom a website that profiles boardroom vacancies across the public and third sectors.

As a Governance Practitioner Eileen supports boards and CEOs to maximise their boardroom effectiveness. Eileen is an advocate for the value diversity on Boards brings to decision making and believes fully in enabling and empowering others to take on board roles across the public and third sectors. She has nurtured and supported aspiring Non-Executive Directors, and Trustees , where they are now centrally involved in decision making across Northern Ireland. In doing this many boards have gained the valuable skills, knowledge and qualities required around their board table to make a difference.

Eileen’s current Non-Executive Director roles are: Chair of Age NI, Member of Northern Ireland Committee for the Big Lottery Fund, Health and Care Professions Council and Southern Health and Social Care Trust. She holds an MSc in Management and Corporate Governance and an IoD Diploma in Company Direction.

A champion for boardroom diversity, a believer in anything is possible, civilly partnered to Fidelma and a servant to four rescue dogs, Jake, Woody, JJ and Jess.

What for you builds positive leadership?

For me leadership is based on honesty, trust and respect. So, I have to see it, I have to feel it, I have to evidence it. When I don’t capture all of those in an individual, then I don’t recognise leadership.

We can have leaders that are not heads of parties, organisations, chief executives or managers. We have leaders everyday who get on with it and do their work, but they do it and inspire others and don’t even realise that they are doing it. Those are the ones which interest me most, the ones that don’t say to themselves ‘I am a leader’ but that it’s quite obvious that they are.

On ‘irresistible leadership’

Recently I came across the concept of ‘irresistible leadership’. It’s when a leader gets people – their hearts, minds, hands – behind a cause to give their absolute best. When have you experienced or seen irresistible leadership?

In the simplest format and I’ll expand upon what I mean by that. There was a situation a few years back where a government minister made a decision to close NHS residential homes for older people. There was one older lady who went on the radio and told her story. I think here name was Betty. She told her story in such a powerful way that it was a very simple story; that this was her home. This was her home, this was her stuff, nowhere else is her home. She put the call out the minister that if he wanted to close the home, he could come and talk to her. By that phone call and that conversation what she did was that she got a forcefield of people behind her. That meant that the minister had no choice, no choice but to change his course of action. That’s a very simple thing. For me what that lady did was put her heart out there. She told exactly how she felt as a result of someone making a decision about her, without involving her in it at a very simple level.

At another level, you have your organisations and causes that tug at people’s hearts, whether that be cancer, whether it be children or animals etc. Then you see those individuals who have had an experience of some kind. They have been able to enrol and engage a wide range of people to bring about change. They might have done it on the basis ‘I’m not too sure what the path is’ but they’re clear on what the change needs to be. You see how they have been able to slowly build this mountain of people behind them to say ‘You know what, we need to bring about change’ and they’ve done it.

On the other side of this you have what I would refer to as bad leadership based on manipulation and coercion. If you have a cause for example that I am interested in, I should be a willing participant which means that it’s my decision to join it. The leader’s role is to enable me to do this and identify where I can play my part. You allow me that space to enable it to happen but you don’t say ‘You’re coming and this is what you are doing.’

It is something in the language of leadership that is not spoken about very often. It can be exactly like that…

That’s a space I find incredibly uncomfortable and I will avoid it all costs. That brings me back to the trust, the respect and the honesty. Because if I am in a room and I’m fighting for a cause and if I am not greeted with honesty, trust and respect, I know there’s no point. Time to leave. I have to then think who do I need to talk to next because it’s quite obvious that people I’m trying to engage don’t want to be engaged. Their engagement will be at their own level of benefit.

I sometimes get frustrated at politics here, so much seems to be about horse trading and saying what others do badly instead of what they do well. I do appreciate that Parties represent a constituency of the 1.8million people in Northern Ireland – that voters have expectations of those they elect.

Negotiating is an aspect of being in government in determining priorities but I don’t see enough leadership that is about the greater good of the whole population. I don’t see leadership based on trust, respect and honesty – maybe that’s just politics but politicians are called leaders, so I would like to see more of those qualities in the way they govern.

Personally, what have been your best times and most challenging times in leadership?

That’s honestly a difficult one to answer because you know, I would see leadership from how others would view it. How others might view my leadership might not be how I view it. Yes, I am told for example that I am an exceptionally good Chair. I am told that what I was able to do was pull a group of people together to be clear on what their role was and to deliver on fully for an organisation. I was able to do that without having to drag anybody, they were all very willing participants. I was clear on this is what we were there to do. Now, all I felt that I did was go in and did a bit of re-organisation but that was good leadership.

Yes, but that’s not how I viewed it. Now, I walk into meetings, whether that be a public level or a third sector level and put positions on the table and be very clear, articulate and negotiate to a point, that’s viewed as leadership. I view that as a conversation to get an outcome. That conversation is about how I can ensure that people are hearing the message that I am giving and the message needs to be clear. I suppose this goes back to when you asked me about this interview and you pitched it on the basis of me as leader and I took at breath at that as I wouldn’t envisage myself as a leader. But I get it as there are things that I do, and I may do them in a very soft, not-in your face way, but there are many things that I do which is leadership.

The TEDx Talk for example, that was about me being able to speak for 14 minutes without a piece of paper. I also had to get a strong message across not just for the people in the room that night but for a wider audience. That was me putting my head above and putting myself in a space to be criticised and be challenged.

On thought leadership…

The best conversations I have had is when I start out and go ‘I’m not sure what this might look like, but here’s my idea and I think there’s a role for us all to play and I would love to hear what you think about it.’

And those are the best conversations I would have. When I walk in and say ‘Here it is!’, it doesn’t work. You know, you learn this as you go. It’s about being self-aware and I am incredibly self-aware. I analyse, analyse and analyse myself and do the critique afterwards and go, ‘what did I miss?’ which I will probably do this afternoon!

I would get asked a lot for advice. I think it’s lovely and sometimes I wonder, why on earth are they asking me? Now in one regard, I say it as it is and I’m very direct and direct in a nice way. To think that people would want to pick up the phone and say ‘Listen Eileen, I need your advice…’ is an incredibly humbling experience. And, you know, this is where I find leadership extremely difficult as most leaders like to showcase themselves. They love the fact that someone calls them a leader, and a ‘thought leader’ and all that stuff, they love that. What was the term you used earlier on, that new one, ‘irresistible leadership’? I am sure that they would fall over themselves at that but that’s not my style.

So, when I was talking to you earlier about the people who do it, you know I am one of those. Sometimes I put my head up, and then I get a knockback and I have to go and lick my wounds. Then I have to look at what happened, try and assess it and come up with a strategy of how I ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Are you not?

No, not a joiner. And the reason that I’m not a joiner is that I find it’s very much about ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. How I do business is that if my work is good and you want me, then fine but I won’t coerce you in a networking event to give me the chance do something. For me, that’s not leadership, but for loads of leaders, that’s how they interpret leadership because they are able to wheel and deal.

Leadership is about people, fundamentally about people. If you can’t motivate people, then you’re not clear on your message and it’s not going to happen.

How necessary do you think it is for a leader to nail their values to the mast and be clear about what they stand for?

It’s imperative. I wouldn’t accept it any other way. If their values are not evident, it’s just a non-starter really. I have on many occasions put my trust in people and to find out that it has been abused. And you talk about emotional intelligence and you talk about self-awareness, there’s two ways that that can go. It makes you very hard and sceptical of other people and cynical. Or, you guard yourself and you will be very clear about who you will and will not work with and just not rule everybody out.

So, I need to do a test on values before I engage in conversations. What I was finding was people wanted information, they took that information. Where I was offering the opportunity for collaborative working, they were quite willing to have that conversation on collaborative working to the point that they wanted to go it alone and take it with them. So, that hurts. You’re not meeting values with values. So, what I had to do then was to make sure that I was seeing the values really early on before I would start to engage.

Are values a litmus test for you?

Yes, it is, and if it doesn’t, or is not evident for me I would give it a bye ball. It’s not worth it for me personally: I’m not going to compromise my integrity or my self-worth for somebody who won’t reciprocate the values.

I just see too many people in leadership positions where they believe in their leadership position but they are there for the wrong reasons. It’s a bit like Boards, people go on a board just to be on a board. Or they go on a Board because it passes the time for them. Or they go on the board of an organisation because the cause interests them and they actually want to contribute. The latter one is the one you want. The other two are not. And in many Boards, there’s too much of the first one because they are on for all the wrong reasons. And when I have conversations with government about the challenges with their arm’s length bodies, it comes down to trust and respect. If you have the right people sitting around the table for right reason and there is trust and respect between a department, a minister and a Board, you wouldn’t have a problem. But sometimes what we have are egos: ‘I don’t like what he’s saying or she’s saying, so I’m going to do something about it’ and then its fighting within, about power struggles rather than delivering for the citizens.

I think we have a natural tendency here of not being able to recognise or not to understand what leadership actually is. It can be as simple as the person on the bus who tells the guy to stop doing something to the person beside them. It’s very simple, nothing fancy about it!

What insight would you give to someone who is an emerging leader just stepping into a new role which you think would be most useful for them?

Don’t be afraid. Making mistakes is OK. Making mistakes and not putting your hand up is not OK. Making mistakes is OK and then do something about it. It’s a cycle, you have to be self-aware when you are doing it. Emotional intelligence, deal with it when it goes right and wrong and then understand that it’s not just you on your own. There are other people you have to engage with and how you treat them with honesty, trust and respect will reflect on your leadership.

Leading your life, what has sparked for you the most sense of personal fulfilment?

I would say honestly since I had my kidney transplant, that it has given me a level of confidence that I did not have before. When I allowed myself to talk about it, I realised that it was OK to talk about it. Because what I was doing was triggering thoughts for other people and I realised it was one of the most powerful things I had to share. I’m not one for talking about me.

So, I suppose there are a few aspects to it. I had this new dynamism of energy as physically I was able to do more and the smog had cleared in the head as a result. So, then I was able to do more, so when the opportunity came up, I said yes. I said yes to everything. I allowed myself then to be open to opportunities, events and people that popped up. Each of those then triggered another step and another road to do something else. Every bit of that built confidence.

Would confidence have been directly related to your condition and how you were feeling before the transplant or would it have been a wider thing?

I think probably a wider thing. I can appear extremely confident: It appeared in TEDx that I wasn’t shaking in my boots but you know, you do that; you get those first few minutes and then you get it over with and then you’re on a roll. But you know from a confidence perspective, and this comes back to being on your own as self-employed, I had nobody there telling me if it was doing it right or wrong. That’s a very lonely place to be. Sometimes I just needed somebody to tell me ‘Actually Eileen, you know what, that was spot on…’ Or that I could be tweaking it differently. So, from a confidence perspective, I had to build that up myself. But, my interventions are interventions and my observations of others have enabled me to do that as well.

I heard a guy who was up here talking about 10 or 15 years ago, about those three things you know opportunities, events and people here. You know, you can stand in a bus station and not talk to anyone or you can stand at the bus station, smile and say hello. And that conversation can trigger something else. Or for those few moments at least, you have created a human interaction and that in itself has value.

There are people out there who are leaders and who have not got the ability to interact with people. They are in a position that gives them the leadership role and they will believe they are leader. Their understanding of leadership is the position. But the position alone does not reflect leadership.

People can walk over people very quickly. What was it somebody said, always be nice to people on your way up as you will meet them on your way down? There is a lot of it out there and I suppose this is why I shun joining. For me it can feel wrong because of the culture that comes with it.

When you have had a significant event in your life, it wakes you up. It doesn’t make you immortal, but what it says is that you take every day as it comes and you just make the most of it.

So, for me there’s no need for being a controlled by structures anymore and I would have been very structured. I am still structured and organised but now I enjoy more of ‘let’s just see where this goes.’

It’s goes back to what you said earlier about how you start your best conversations…

And I’ve stopped having those other conversations where I would identify ‘I have…’ I don’t have. I have got maybe an idea that I can talk to you about to see what you have and we can maybe put that together. People jockeying for position, from a leadership perspective, that’s somebody who feels the need in the room to the be ‘the one’. Then it’s very evident that trust, honesty and respect might not be there as they are coming at it from the wrong place.

How would you see coaching assisting in people in their leadership or lives?

It needs not to be too structured or formal. It could be a phone call one day and a Skype call the next week or it could be a quick text. It doesn’t have to be this thing that it looks and feels that it sounds like counselling. For me it’s always about enabling people. People already have the solutions, they just can’t see it so I help them to get rid of the fog. You’ve got to be honest, no ‘flaff, flaff, flaff’, there’s just way too much of it.

I was a mentor for Politics Plus ‘Women in Leadership’ programme. Some of the women were outstanding in what they achieved in a short window of time. They move jobs, got promoted, and changed their life. For me, all I did was that I met with them three times and we had a conversation and I turned around and said ‘What are you talking about, that’s nonsense’ or question them, ‘Is that what you want to do? What are you doing? What are you doing to get it?’

There needs to be more of programmes like this and people being able to access support based on trust, honesty and respect.

There are people out there who don’t realise that they are leading every day and who don’t realise that they’re doing outstanding work. Every day they’re doing great stuff and they don’t know it – the silent leaders.

To learn more about Eileen’s work supporting Board development and leadership, click on her website Strictly Boardroom 

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

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