Throwback: A 23yo’s thoughts on leadership

Leadership is one of those things always being redefined. As you grow, as you learn more, as you experience more, as you screw things up more, your perspective changes.

I love being able to go back and revisit the things that resonated with me during parts of my life.

Here are my speech notes from the leadership panel at RYPEN (Rotary Youth Program of Enrichment) back in 2014 with David Speirs and Nick Xenophon.

RYPEN 2014 panel speakers

Speech notes:

Leadership’s pretty broad. We talk about it a lot –

“He’s a great leader” / “She showed such strong leadership” / “The Adelaide Crows leadership team did this” / “South Australian business leaders are meeting about that” / “Campaigners called on political leaders to…”

– you get the idea.

But when you try and narrow it down, you get a million and one definitions of what leadership is and who leaders are. You probably get 7 billion definitions of what leadership is.

Quick show of hand – who here feels like they have a clear understanding of what a leader is? Doesn’t matter if you don’t, I know I didn’t have a clear definition when I was 16.

We can sense good leadership though can’t we? You can just feel when someone’s a good leader. Because we react. We follow it, respond to it, look up to it, try to emulate it. But there has to be something more – intuition and gut feeling can’t be the only indicator of a good leader.

And it isn’t just that. There are four things that I personally believe all good leaders do. I’ll share those four things with you in a moment.

First I’d love to share a little bit about myself, what I do, and what motivates me to be a leader.

I’m currently the South Australian Director of Oaktree, an entirely youth-run organisation that’s building a movement to end poverty. In my role I work with three teams.

Our Community Leaders team who are providing resources, training and opportunities for young people in Australia, such as yourselves, to take real action against poverty.

And our Live Below the Line team. Have you heard of the campaign? Live on $2 a day for 5 days and raise funds to support education projects in the Asia Pacific.

I also coordinate our G20 campaign team, who are busy organising a grassroots campaign to tie in with the G20 conference, which is a conference of global leaders from the world’s leading economies. The campaign will call on world leaders to do their bit in the movement to end poverty.

I live with two housemates, great girls, both nurses. Incredibly passionate about their jobs. Bad taste in TV shows though – they watch that Honey Boo Boo one – toddlers and tiaras? Yep, bad.

Anyway, before all of that, I grew up in Mount Compass, down McLaren Vale way, with my parents and sister. Went to Mount Compass Area School – we only had a small group – there were only 20 people in my year 12 cohort.

At school, I was probably like most of you here today. Pretty ambitious, driven, with a love of learning. Actually I was talking to my mum about what to speak about today and she asked me ‘well, who’s going to be there?’. I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s just going to be a whole lot of 16-year- old Alanas’. You know the ones who not only give up their weekend for leadership training, but actually want to do it. The ones who think learning, self-awareness and intelligence is sexy – don’t worry, you’re right, it is.

After school I wanted to do further study and I went to university… after a WILD gap year (of working at Maccas), I’m currently studying journalism and international relations at university… I’m almost finished and I’ve just realised that I don’t want to be a journalist, despite that being my goal for the last ten years. Awkward.

And that leads into my first thing that I think good leaders do.

Good leaders grow.

Good leaders are always growing. They constantly challenge themselves, they step outside their comfort zone and they broaden their skills, networks and knowledge base. They set goals knowing that the learning opportunity is the journey, not the end point. Good leaders know that the path may change or they might change and want different things, but good leaders grow emotionally too and they have the resilience to deal with anything that comes their way, they’ve got that ‘bounce back’ ability.

So, when someone asks me what I want to do ‘when I grow up’ or what it’s like to almost be a ‘proper grownup’, I haven’t the foggiest what to tell them. Maybe I want to be like Peter Pan a little too much, or maybe I just want to be learning new and exciting things until I die.

What does this mean for you? Well, you don’t need to decide what your life will look like now ‘when you grow up’, don’t panic about making the wrong decision for year 12 or university, do whatever you’re passionate about and apply yourself. The important thing is that you’re making the most of opportunities to grow. So keep going to lots of these events.

The second thing that good leaders do is follow.

Say, what?

Yeah I know, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but seeing as no one can actually be the leader of the entire universe – can you imagine the level of responsibility?! – you are always going to be surrounded by other leaders.

Learn from them. If you believe in them, follow them. This ability to follow separates the good leaders from selfish ones. Being a good leader means contributing to the long-term goals, not reinventing the wheel or copying what someone else has already done just so you can have your name on it. Good leaders get on with the leading, not trying to get recognised for it.

Now, lots of people have made the great point that a successful leader creates more leaders, not followers. I couldn’t agree more. However, I strongly believe that to be a good leader, you need to be ready to acknowledge your growth areas and learn from others. It’s kind of like being good at talking AND listening. You don’t want someone who’s just a great orator, you want someone who also listens actively and responds appropriately.

Good leaders look after themselves

Well duh, Alana. This may not be new information, it’s certainly not revolutionary. It is something that the strongest people in my life do, though.

Good leaders are focused long-term. They recognise the need to be consistent and reliable and take active steps to avoid burn out – or recover properly from busy periods.

It’s not weak to acknowledge when something is too much for you, in fact it takes a lot of strength to give yourself time out. Good leaders work damn hard, but they know when the peaks and troughs are and they plan accordingly.

Besides, sometimes you just need an excuse to watch House of Cards or West Wing for three days straight.

Be yourself.

At Oaktree we talk about leadership a lot. There’s one analogy about effective leadership that someone told me that’s really stuck in my mind.

Picture a swimming pool. The goals is to get to the end of the pool.

We often think of leaders as the person swimming at the front of the pack, the trail blazer, the very obvious ‘leader for the group’. I’ll show you how to get to the end – follow me.

But what about the coach on the sidelines, are they leading? How about the person in the middle of the pack that may not be the fastest swimmer, but gives the best pep talks before everyone jumps in? What about the person making sure the lane’s clear, removing obstacles so that the group can get to the end? Are these forms of leadership too?

For me in my role I need to be that coach, the one motivating others and providing a birds’ eye view on the situation.

Good leaders know who they are and where they’re best suited – whether they’re swimming out the front, coaching others or removing obstacles.

It’s about being yourself.

So there you have it. That’s the four things I think good leaders do. They grow, they follow, they look after themselves and they be themselves.

RYPEN 2014 panel

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