The counterintuition of how leaders grow

September 21, 2018

My background is in small organisations: some fast-moving startups, but also some slower-moving organisations like research councils. Since I joined GDS I’ve been getting used to a larger organisation. A big part of that for me has been recognising how important leaders become in organising a large group of people. But a big part of that has been seeing how much help or harm leaders can do.

GDS has shown me people who I look up to a lot. Leaders who treat people with respect, are keen to grow people around them, and yet can manage effectively and see their team deliver lots. A lot of them are LGBTQ, or not male, and these traits definitely go along with forms of servant-ish leadership I appreciate.

My naive assumption for a long time was that these people were so brilliant because they’d learned it in equally brilliant, safe conditions. And yet from listening to them I’ve realised that isn’t true at all.

Wonderful leaders seem to have learned from failure. Even to have ‘born’ in failure. Many of the leaders I admire started leading in difficult situations that made them feel overresponsible, unsupported and unhappy.

My past has lots of examples where selfishness seemed to lead people to power who were intended to abuse it. I’m a believer that the best leaders are those who aren’t self-centered and wouldn’t seek power for themselves.

But that doesn’t necessarily look so straighforward in the real world. Many people, such as those in marginalised groups or who don’t try to project masculine-style confidence, don’t get offered chances that they obviously are capable of attempting. So getting that eventually requires some sort of opening.

I talked about this at length with some very experienced people. Their response was reassuring: that different people are motivated by different things, but that sometimes for anyone to get what they deserve they have to be quite assertive about it. And in particular, that personal ambition is OK. I suspect that will seem obvious to many readers, and it might feel frightening that I’m suggesting otherwise, but chat with me sometime.

So one can look for leadership opportunities. I’m vaguely convinced now that being ambitious like that is not unhealthily selfish. Finding the sort of vacuum that one can start healing is a matter of luck, but I was taught a new form of trust. If you’re demonstrating skills then you can trust people to start using those skills. Everyone’s doing their best, everyone needs help. And for awhile that’s probably going to be in a way that gives little responsibility but requires lots of engagement, but that’s how you show what you can do. And it’s how you can fail in a low-consequence situation.

So, the counterintuition is: some of the best and most sensitive and effective leaders actually learned that from bad, insensitive, ineffective situations that they felt determined to fix.

(At this point I realise I’m talking about myself.)