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What We Get Wrong About Leadership Roles, According to an Expert

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Stephanie Nuzzo – Lifehacker

February 22, 2023

What makes a good leader? And not just in the formal sense. How does someone lead successfully in any setting, personal or professional? These questions are asked incredibly often, and people will have varying views on what the ‘right’ answer may be, but few of us have dedicated as much time and thought to the concept of leadership as Dr Kirstin Ferguson.

The former ABC Board Chair and UQP Adjunct Professor is a bonafide expert in the space.

To start, Ferguson has a PhD in leadership. But more than that, she has a three-decade-long career as a leader behind her, and she has written an entire book on the topic – for which she consulted a range of established leaders, ranging from the likes of Benjamin Law to Nyadol Nyuon.

Following the release of Ferguson’s latest book, Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership, Lifehacker Australia chatted with the author about what successful leading looks like today.

What do you picture when you think of a leader?

Kicking off our discussion, I asked Ferguson about modern perceptions of leadership and how she feels that has developed in recent years.

She responded by, unsurprisingly, highlighting that historically, leaders “tended to be men,” which naturally shaped the way we pictured this kind of role. But this has since changed. And we’re (hopefully) getting better at recognising that leadership positions of all kinds exist.

“…we have leaders around us that look like you and I,” Ferguson highlighted. “That are parents, that are teachers, that are frontline workers. They might be middle managers…. that are getting squished from either side. There’s no longer, I think, a need to think about leadership as formal leaders only.”

“It’s a reminder that we’re actually all leaders,” she said.

The way Ferguson likes to look at it is that leading is nothing more than a series of moments in which we take the opportunity “to leave a positive legacy” and “impact others through our words, actions and behaviours”. Whether that’s heading up a political movement, helping a colleague write an email, or teaching a kid how to ride a bike, it doesn’t really matter. You’re still using your skills to lead.

What skills are most valuable?

We hear the term ‘leadership skills‘ thrown around a lot in corporate environments. But what does that mean, really? What specific traits are needed in leadership roles, and are some more important than others?

That’s where the whole premise of Head & Heart comes into play.

Ferguson has built an online tool called the Head & Heart Leadership Scale, which, based on detailed research, measures your tendency to use head-based or heart-based leadership attributes.

Those attributes are:

  • Perspective (head)
  • Curiosity (head)
  • Wisdom (head)
  • Capability (head)
  • Self-awareness (heart)
  • Humility (heart)
  • Empathy (heart)
  • Courage (heart)

The leadership scale will ask you questions, after which it will rank your affinity to each of these attributes from highest to lowest. Here, you can see which skills you’re leaning on most, as well as get a gauge on whether you’re being a head-based or heart-based leader.

And the thing is that while we tend to broadly value certain traits, like capability, quite highly, Ferguson stressed that “the art is you need all of them”. Also, your results will change depending on what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.

“I did this with a university, so it’s not like this made-up pop quiz, but it’s also not meant to be fixed in stone,” she shared.

“…You might be in a different workplace culture, and the way you lead there will be quite different, and you might go and do this [test] and have a different result. So, it’s not that you don’t have any of those skills. You’ve got all of them. It’s just today when you did it; that’s where you’re sort of head’s at right now.”

In essence, it’s a way to check in with yourself and see if you need to balance out your approach to leadership at all.

“I think there’s still too much emphasis at school and in the workplace on leading with the head because it’s measurable and tangible and it’s when you get results or you know you’re capable at your job,” she shared.

“Whereas, you know, we’re now just starting to realise that you can only get so far…if you don’t work out how to lead with your heart as well, and put people at the centre [of your work].”

She added that you could be the brightest expert in your field, but if you have no heart-based skills, you’ll be a “disaster” when it comes to leading a team. So, it’s a real mistake to dismiss heart-based leadership qualities.

What not to do when you become a leader

Okay, so we’ve looked at what skills are required for a balanced approach to leading, but what are some classic leadership missteps?

Ferguson took no time at all to answer this question.

“The most common mistake I think any leader makes – [and] it doesn’t matter if they’re a new leader or they’ve been around forever – is feeling they need to be the smartest person in the room, and [that] they have all the answers.”

She explained that this often comes from a sense of insecurity. While some may think it makes them look confident, Ferguson explained that, really, all it does is give the impression you’re not comfortable with others discussing and offering other ideas or solutions.

“Even if you know the answer, the best leaders allow others to get there themselves or perhaps guide them with some really good questions to help them come up with the solution,” she added.

“My advice would be don’t feel that you need to turn up on day one with all the answers, and you’ll build more trust by actually being able to say, ‘Look, I don’t know. I haven’t done this before. You guys have been in this role for five, ten years, what do you think the best solution is going to be?’”

So, if you’re stepping into a leadership role for the first time – or maybe you’re looking to showcase more leadership qualities in your daily life – remember that you don’t need to be the loudest, you don’t need to have all the answers, and you certainly don’t need to be the first to speak up. What you do need is a balanced approach to the tasks you take on, an ability to listen, and the intention to help build other leaders along the way.

Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership by Kirstin Ferguson is available now. And the Head and Heart Leadership Scale is live for you to try out for free, too. 

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