A short time ago I was invited by Paul Levy, a long-time friend and now senior researcher at CENTRIM, University of Brighton (where we both studied back in our heyday) to join an informal chat with his creativity students. The idea was to arrive ready to impart whatever wisdom I might conjure to try to inspire some bright minds with chat about my own career journey, thoughts on life and answer any questions they had on leadership.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was struck by various insights and questions the students had. Post event, a particular question from one student (Richard) got me thinking…
“How can I start being a leader at university?”
Unknowingly, Richard had already showed great leadership, simply by asking this very question.
I said as much.
He’d been the first to ask his question. He’d put himself out in front of his friends and peers to ask a vulnerable question which many might have shied away from. In doing so, Richard was encouraging others to follow his lead, to be curious and unafraid to ask the questions that they may not have had the confidence to voice. He was leading by example.
I spoke to him about that small act of leadership, and then encouraged him to start noticing the acts of leadership that were happening around him every day. To try and notice where he saw great leadership, or indeed where he felt leadership was lacking or off beat.
Observing leadership is powerful
Simply observing those around you is an incredible tool to becoming a great leader yourself. Which values and behaviours do you appreciate in others when they lead? Which values and behaviours feel damaging, egotistical or uninspiring?
I also asked him to start recognising the different types of leadership he might be seeing.
I gave a few examples, noting the leader who always puts themselves out there, who bravely steps forward in order to inspire, rally and encourage others, and then the quieter type of leadership, which requires already able people to acknowledge when to hold back and give others the space to put themselves forward – becoming the cheerleader of others.
I suggested he might journal his observations, looking at what works for him. How would he like to show up as a leader?
I encouraged him to be deliberate about leading but to know what you’re doing and how to respond to different people in different situations.
The question may have come from someone just starting out on their leadership journey, but the answers hold fast for leaders at every stage. We’re all looking to do better and be better and observing leadership around us is a great way to do that – and one which may well serve better than any leadership book can.