Reflective leaders achieve more than the bullish ones

Walking among your staff quietly and listening for front-line feedback may be more effective, writes our Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

The philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley has a remarkable life story. Born to a Jewish parent in 1930s Austria, at the age of five she was sent to England on a train to save her from Nazi persecution. Raised by adoptive parents in the West Midlands, she was determined to lead "a life worth saving".

Skilled at mathematics, she became a computer programmer and in the 1960s founded a business - and my mother was one of her first members of staff. Its concept was revolutionary at the time: it employed female programmers on flexible contracts, enabling them to continue their careers while bringing up children.

Finding many doors closed because she was a woman, Stephanie shortened her name to Steve. This secured appointments but, even then, as she wrote in her autobiography: "It's hard to sell someone software when they're pinching your bottom."

In time, Freelancers International became a huge success and made Steve a multi-millionaire. The business hinged on empowerment, trusting staff to complete objectives while working from home and using their judgement. Steve even espoused the incentives of employee ownership, giving many of her shares to the staff.

Motivated by the life and untimely death of Giles, her severely autistic and only child, Steve gave her wealth to autism causes, using her business acumen to seek projects with wide impact that could become self-funding. She later became the government's founding Ambassador for Philanthropy.

What strikes me most about Steve is her self-effacing, reflective leadership style. Society stereotypes leaders as big, extrovert characters, but they are often not the best or quickest at driving progress. You don't have to manage ebulliently to have a grip on the culture of the organisation.

In fact, it might help if you walk among your people quietly, listening for front-line feedback. Your task as a leader is to be hungry for any feedback that will improve the organisation, reflecting on what you hear while acting swiftly and decisively. Even developing new markets hinges more on your one-to-one networking skills than on having a big persona.

Many people confuse this reflective style with weakness, but you don't need to be bullish to be unflinching. I have lost count of the number of people I have faced down or eased out of charities over the years because they haven't shared our work ethic, emphasis on teamwork or self-questioning search for continuous improvement.

Reflective leaders are also more likely to share success, making them highly motivating to work for. Steve Shirley says: "The people you lead need to recognise that they too have power and responsibility - and if this causes them to claim credit for your collective successes, so what? What matters is that they are successes and not failures."

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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