“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
I grew up thinking I was terrible at anything athletic, and academically ordinary. As an adult I was told that I didn’t look or sound like someone who could or should be a leader, a Professor, a CEO, and I’ve struggled with a countless number of leadership challenges. But along the way, I learned that “we don’t see things are they are, we see them as we are” (Anaïs Nin).
I love this quote because it’s a constant reminder that our way of seeing the world is skewed to our own perceptions and beliefs and the stories we’re told, and we tell ourselves, about ourselves. It’s a great reminder to seek and see other perspectives, to empathise with how other people see the world, to challenge preconceived ideas, to diagnose what might actually be going on and to use this to make progress.
Anyone who knows me will tell you, leadership is one of my favourite things. Being challenged to think, work and do differently is one of my happiest places. I love challenging, encouraging, enabling change, building capacity, watching people and teams shine, working alongside incredible people, leading collaboratively with others, solving problems, working out how to navigate other people’s and organisations’ values, priorities, connecting purpose with strategy, navigating complexity, working politically, learning whether and where we’ve made a difference, and adapting, innovating and evolving to strive for better outcomes for public good [I could go on, but you get it].
But, let’s be honest, leadership is also bloody hard work.
At times, it’s exhausting and overwhelming, like I’m fighting a war on multiple fronts and working out which balls are ok to drop and which ones I need to keep juggling and accepting that I’m never going to meet everyone’s agendas, needs and wants. At times it’s bewildering, like I’m desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to steer a boat that’s adrift in tumultuous seas. At times it’s upsetting, like when decisions for the greater good let down people I care about. At times it’s heartbreaking and disconcerting when problems inevitably arise, and mortifying when I reflect on my part in the mess. And, at times, it’s incredibly lonely.
Leadership for Social Impact
In the for-purpose space, all the rewarding and challenging components of leadership are amplified because of what’s at stake: the potential for positive impact, the risk of wasting limited resources, and the fear and possibility of doing harm. I love the purpose, passion and absolute drive of leadership for public good, but it comes with serious ethical considerations and decisions, the need to navigate complication and complexity, balance organisational and system outcomes, manage with tight margins and constrained resources, and traverse volatile and uncertain environments.
I don’t always get it right and I will always have much more to learn and improve on, but I thrive in the complexity of leadership for social good. I’m acutely aware that it’s leadership training, coaching, mentoring and peer networks that’s helped me be a better leader, to navigate the rough seas, to fight the wars, to ensure purpose and values are guiding lights and to wrap around myself people who I trust, who will push me, support me, call bullshit on me and who I love for it.
Leadership training, coaching and the peer leadership network around me have helped me challenge this trap of “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. It has helped me in more ways than I could have ever imagined:
- to value my strengths and give myself permission and a voice to be in the room;
- hold and move between multiple identities;
- identify and (try to) address my biases and blind spots;
- realise that I don’t always need to have the answer;
- connect head and heart;
- navigate power and privilege;
- create and hold space for silence, asking, listening, understanding and diagnosing;
- sit with discomfort;
- be disruptive for positive purposeful change;
- work out what to hold onto and let go of;
- be brave and bold and know whether, when and how to fight; and
- to be vulnerable, rejuvenate and reflect.
Importantly, the leadership habits I’ve learned have been critical in regard to how I work with and within complexity at organisation and system levels:
- to work in uncertainty;
- build coalitions;
- work across factions;
- hold both empathy and tough decisions;
- create an environment with permission to fail, learn and adapt;
- accept the importance of authorising environments and to devolve authority;
- value and work effectively with people with different ideological and lived experiences;
- pace change;
- understand different types of problems and approaches to solving them;
- navigate politics; and
- constantly zoom in and out to understand what’s going on and work at different levels.
While I still have irrational arguments with myself about whether I have time for leadership development (because there will always be other ‘urgent’ things to deal with), the benefits have always far outweighed the time. I’m lucky to have benefited immensely from leadership development and know that in the for-purpose sector, this isn’t always the case. There are significant challenges around cultures of permission and resourcing.
These are some of the reasons why I’ve spent over the two years partnering with incredible leaders to conceptualise, believe in and invest in Social Impact Leadership Australia (SILA). I tip my hat and pass on enormous thanks to the founding funding SILA partners – Leonard Vary and The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund teams, Jenny Wheatley and the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation team, Jo Taylor and the Paul Ramsay Foundation team – and also Craig Connelly and the Ian Potter Foundation (who funded the research behind this program in September 2018).
It’s been a privilege to partner with these leaders and leading foundations and I look forward to witnessing what this 5-year leadership program achieves in helping to advance the capability of leaders, organisations, and ecosystems for a better civil society.
If you’re a for-purpose CEO, please consider applying for the amazing opportunity that is SILA. We’re looking for a diverse group of CEO leaders. And, if you’re not sure if you can commit the time and energy or if you’d be competitive, remember, leadership development isn’t just an investment in you, it’s an investment in your organisation and the change you want to help create.
I am a product of the people who have shaped me: trained me, pushed me, supported me, encouraged me and challenged me. And, as a result, it turns out I happen to be a decent endurance athlete, I became a leader, a Professor, and a CEO and a I have much left to learn and contribute. I’m so grateful for everyone who has (and who will continue to) make me a better leader for the positive social changes that drive me.
Leadership development has helped me see that, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. It has shifted my head and heart to see the world from different perspectives in an effort to do what I can do to make the world a better place. Imagine what we could do collectively through a different and supportive lens.
CEO, Centre for Social Impact