I have had the great privilege of working with Save The Children on an interim basis for the last three weeks and had the great privilege of reading the anecdotes from Gareth Owen, Humanitarian Director, Global Programmes, some of which with his kind permission I have shared below. I hope you will be as inspired as I was by these lessons/reflections.
Lesson 1: You have to fight really hard for what you believe in
Mainstreaming your cause is not a popularity contest. You have to fight really hard for a very long time and be ready to be extremely unpopular for what you believe in. The fight will be multifaceted and feel almost endless, with progress achieved almost imperceptibly at first, accelerating later as momentum builds.
The fight will be mostly internal: to be heard; for space on the agenda; to do what you instincts are screaming is the right thing; to overcome obstacles and bureaucracy; to shift stubborn ideology; to simply keep your spirits up. Sometimes the fight will be loud and obvious, with tears and pain in the white hot heat of battle. Sometimes it will be more subtle to change the organisational DNA by stealth, to shift the organisational mechanics, to quietly unlock a huge potential leap forward, like unleashing your cause’s atom bomb. The ultimate question is: how much fight do you have in you?
It is right that we should fight hard for our cause, but we should fight less with each other and save our strength for the huge fights that wait for us on the external frontlines the world over. This is about finding ways to lead the fight together as one. However, beware: if all you have done is fight, then eventually that is all you know. But I’d rather give my all as a fighter than be known to lack the stomach for it. It is a mindset thing, what do you want to see and feel when you look in the mirror at the start of each day? It’s okay to be scared, to fear the dread consequences of losing, but you must never take flight or give up the fight. Never stop fighting. To stop is to give in to despair. When all seems lost, hope remains.
This takes enormous courage and stamina. The gremlins of doubt will chatter constantly in your ear and you will experience exhaustion. This is an exercise in personal and collective resilience, so the trick is to pick your serious battles carefully, learn to fight with skill and impact and acknowledge that even then you won’t ever win them all. The inevitable defeats and set backs will hurt deeply along the journey, so learn to let go and just move on to the next piece of the fight if it hasn’t all gone your way. Don’t store it all up as a catalogue of injustices or you’ll drive yourself mad with the infuriation when you realise that no one else appears to care as much as you do. They may just show it differently and in your anger you risk losing all perspective and getting seriously bent out of shape. This is very damaging physically, mentally and emotionally and will render you a spent force in quick time if you let it. Self–awareness and coping strategies are critical.
Lesson 3: Practice Authentically Selfless Leadership
You absolutely must, at all costs, live your core values as a leader when mainstreaming your cause. This is about walking the talk, about being vulnerable and disclosing the truth about your own feelings in a self-caring, self-respectful way so as to give permission to others to also behave as the best and most productive version of themselves as much and as often as humanly possible. It is about being kind without being weak; showing strength of character; the application of considerable wisdom; communicating with inspiration and a tremendously galvanising sense of purpose.
It is about maintaining positivity in adversity so as to seek new opportunities to keep moving forward in new and uncertain directions. It is about remaining humble, forgiving and above all tolerating the foibles of others, the realities and compromises of complex enterprise and the myriad challenges of collective endeavour. It is about the power of trusting your gut instinct and acceptance of failure as the only true measure of having properly tried hard enough.
Lesson 4: Care passionately about people
Staff are like customers – they are always right, even when they are absolutely wrong. Leadership is a service industry and if you don’t care passionately about people they will quickly sense it. This is about being a ‘giver’ not a ‘taker’ and ultimately about exhibiting kindness in your dealings with others. But this is not about suffocating people with excesses of love, it is about being honest enough to speak the plain truth to the best of your ability, to treat people as adults and avoid mollycoddling staff like children, with patronising or paternalistic behaviour.
True kindness is borne out of a genuine respect for others. You honour that respect best by being willing to confront the difficult truth where necessary. This is a philosophy centred on creating the most enabling environment in which others can have the best chance of succeeding. You become a true a leader in service of others by placing yourself last and by measuring how well you are facilitating and encouraging all those others around you to succeed – it is always about others and never about yourself. You have to invest heavily in this as it does not come easy.
Trust is a fickle beast, hard won and easily lost. Not everything will be in your control so you have to be accepting of trust as a fluctuating currency, with wider organisational forces impacting on your own sphere of influence all the time. You will never be able to keep everyone happy and the most ‘squeaky wheels’ should neither be ignored, nor should they be taken as representative of the prevailing body of opinion.
Seek to judge yourselves on how well you handle the harder management tasks, not the easier options; be curious; listen much more than you talk, coach and mentor rather than instruct; be accessible; above all else be straight with people all the time, especially if it is not what they want to hear. Above all, always believe in people far more than they believe in themselves.
Lesson 6: Always Call It as You See It, But With Compassion
The longer you are in an organisation, the more iconic your personal history, both good and bad will become. A narrative will build up around you, especially if you are in a high profile role, but you should not concern yourself with it too much. The only thing that really matters is whether you can honestly say to yourself that you have always sought to do the right thing. People will instinctively know whether this is true about you and will trust that you can be relied upon in this way if it is.
Do not be political, slippery or Machiavellian; do not play power games or seek to weave a tangled web of deception. It is all too tiring and will unravel on you. Hold a consistently fair line and communicate it with authority. Speak truth to power in the right way so that your message is heard; avoid berating senior Executives for organisational failures and unnecessary compromises as you perceive them – there will always be more to it than you know. Be accepting that human fallibility applies to all at whatever level but speak passionately about the cause at every opportunity. Objectively measure any compromises made against their consequences for the cause in your choice of words and you will always be on safe ground. Bring people back to that at the start and at the end of every encounter and above all else, never under any circumstances allow yourself to be coerced, merely for expediency’s sake, into changing an opinion that you genuinely hold to be true. Stand your ground at all times and allow others to manage the consequences of your honestly held beliefs, accepting the situation and towing the party line as necessary, and with good grace, when your opinion does not hold sway.
Being open is more important than being agreeable or conformist. In fact, do not give in to the temptation to be too agreeable, especially around more senior colleagues, and don’t conform just to respect the hierarchy. Being subordinate and ‘on side’ by default is helpful, but only to a point: essential when supporting the organisation through difficult moments, but useless for creative strategic thinking. The most useful, but often most difficult, people to work with are the ‘disagreeable givers’, whose hearts are in the right place but who prefer to be the grit in the oyster. Their giving nature means they always have your own and the organisation’s best interests at heart, but they are not afraid to be critical and highly challenging. It is their way of helping to sharpen the cutting edge of your ideas. Done well, this gives real life, verve and substance to your originality. So deliberately seek out the gruff, awkward, un-glossy, shabbier, rumpled and abstract types to test the strength and quality of your ideas against their kindly intended scepticism. Beware the ‘frenemies’ and the ‘agreeable takers’. The former are too unreliable and ambivalent towards your efforts and the latter are not on your side at all. Fortunately they are quite easy to spot: they will be dressed the same as the boss. They will borrow your watch to tell you the time and will steal all your good ideas as to present their own if they think it makes them look good. But if taking the best from you is their real intent, then simply give them something you want them to have – it’s another canny way of propagating your own agenda through their blind ambition.
Lesson 9: Know thy self
Don’t take it personally: practice the art of self-reflection and seek an internal locus of identity from which to derive the necessary confidence. This means embarking on a deep conversation with your inner being to ascertain what really matters to you – your core values. Hold on to these as they are your touchstones. They will endure and you can nourish and develop them over time. In this way the external changing world around you will become less significant to your identity, less threatening and will generate less anxiety. You will view inevitable change in a positive and creative way and ultimately feel more at peace. I never believed this was possible until I really tried with the help of a great coach. In learning this I found myself feeling less in conflict with the organisation I had devoted a third of my life to working for. As if by magic, my influence on the organisation suddenly grew exponentially.
Very special thanks to Gareth for allowing me to share his work. Are you not inspired? I know I am and was 🙂