Emily Thornton

The changing face of leadership

At AchieveForum, we’ve been talking a great deal about how everyone has the capacity to be a leader, and how we all display leadership skills regardless of our position. Whilst I do instinctively feel the truth of this, I struggled a little with understanding what that meant for those people who occupy leadership positions. Clearly there are still people in business who have greater power and influence, such as the CEO and exec team – what then should they do with this power?

When I read this resignation statement by Sophie Walker, the leader of the UK’s Women’s Equality Party (read it here), it really helped me to find some possible answers – and maybe some new questions.

There are three key points to me:

  • Sophie talks about standing aside for new voices. Of course this is critically important in a political party that wants to be intersectional and allow people who are not normally heard to have space. But how does this translate into the workplace where the trajectory is sometimes always seen as vertical? How can people’s talents be developed both with promotion, perhaps by expanding the definition of qualified, but also within their roles? How can people contribute in business and use all their talents, not just the few skills a job demands? How can more than the top management be heard and valued regularly and consistently? I really feel as though there’s a lot to learn in her statement that ‘sometimes in order to lead, you have to get out of the way.’
  • Then there is the question of what leadership means – moving away from the ‘hero model’ where we rely on one person to save us. To me, this means that we have to look at how we can distribute power and influence, how we can empower people to effectively ‘save’ themselves. But how does that translate into how talent is identified for the formal leadership positions? How do people who do not see themselves reflected in the executive team of a company, whether by gender, race, social background, education, qualities, believe they belong there? 
  • Finally Sophie calls for kinder, gentler politics. I’d argue the same could be said of business. People are at the heart of every business, whether employees or customers, or both. It is easy to feel as though organisations are somehow separate but they’re not. We made them and we can remake them. How do we adapt to the demands of the digital age? How do we encourage diversity and inclusion, through not just our HR policies but wider business practices like shared parental leave and flexible working for all? How does the way we treat each other affect people? Ultimately, how is power wielded and what qualities do we admire in those who lead us?

These questions will evolve and develop, as leadership does, but I think it’s critically important that we keep asking them.

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