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What leaders say

Lessons on compassion, humility and magpie habits

Leadership isn’t easy. It asks us to keep our heads engaged, our minds curious and our hearts open. To quote one leader, “to not only live for yourself but to try and impact on others”.

Here, eight leaders share their ideas on how we can be at our best for others, and for ourselves too.

Over the last two and a half years I’ve been talking to leaders from across all walks of life to understand and learn from their leadership philosophies: what matters to them? Why this, and why now, in light of how much changed in 2020?

In this time I’ve shamelessly become a bit of a magpie; borrowing the shiniest and brightest ideas that come from these conversations, hot footing it back to Invisible Grail and adapting them to my own leadership philosophy. (A case in point, the very notion of collecting ideas like a magpie came from one of my interviewees.)

Having spoken to eight brilliant leaders from across the world on issues such as cultural intelligence, leading as a student, and love in leadership (and being interview myself too), it feels like the right time to gather together the strands of these conversations and pull out the threads that reveal the heart of what it means to be a leader in higher education: what do we need more of and what do we need to do differently.

Compassion and humility

“We’re imperfect…but if you’re sincere [and] you deal with people from the heart, they know.”

Professor Kamil Omoteso

In August 2019 I spoke to Leah Weiss, Professor of compassionate leadership at Stanford Graduate Business School. It’s obvious that compassion is a desirable trait in leadership, but our conversation revealed the tangibility of it – what it feels like and how you practice it in real time. It starts with purpose. Its dependent on inviting the people you lead into your professional world, and deeply involving them in the decisions and choices you face as a leader.

But compassion isn’t just about who’s in the room and how you work with them. It’s also about the  impact you have on people you don’t know, who you haven’t met and maybe never will.

In light of Black Lives Matter and the inequalities exposed by the pandemic, it’s a fundamental imperative that we seek to better understand people who have different experiences and backgrounds.

Without compassion, we risk not having the conversations that matter and that help us find the solutions that are so important, across generations as well as across nationalities.”

Lucy Butters, Cultural Intelligence expert and interviewee

For two interviewees who I spoke to, Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser, expert in sustainability and leadership, and Helena Clayton, advocate for love in leadership, this aspect of compassion called for a step-up in leader’s curiosity – radical acceptance and unconditional positive regard. That no matter the situation, you must listen, without judgement, to what people say and how they feel. This takes practice, and patience.

Tao Warburton, former SU President at Buck’s New University walked me through how this worked for her in practice. She saw a critical part of her role as supporting each and every student that came into her office and “just being that person who listens to them, because I feel like if you’re listened to…then when they’ve said what’s on their mind…it’s out there, they don’t have to worry about it as much anymore.”

All these strands to compassion came together beautifully when I spoke to Professor Kamil Omoteso, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean at the University of Derby, when he said: “We’re imperfect…but if you’re sincere [and] you deal with people from the heart, they know.”

“Just try [it] out and see what happens”

One thing I wasn’t expecting to emerge through these conversations was a deep sense of playfulness in people’s approaches to leadership and how they encouraged this in others too. Helena inspired me to consider experimenting with ideas, and to think of these as “things that we hold very lightly, tiny things that we just try out and see what happens…if it doesn’t work, bin it and try something else.”

There’s something incredibly liberating in shifting your mindset from planning and executing an action, to trying out an experiment for size.

And it’s not all about playfulness with others, it’s also part and parcel for having compassion for yourself too; not taking yourself too seriously, but as Leah says, being “able to laugh at yourself, not in a self-deprecating way but in a loving way as you’d do with a good friend”.

The skills we need now

I’m certain there’s a long list out there about the skills we need to tackle the challenges now and in the future. That phrase itself feels like a threadbare carpet we’ve walked over a few times. Yet, through my conversations I found shrewd insights into this very question; points that got me sitting up straight and leaning in.

“We live in a landscape of stories, so one of the key skills is story listening: enabling leaders to hear the stories of others – not to respond or colonise them – but to hear and respect them… It’s about listening to stories more than you tell them, investing in the community without an expectation of reciprocity.”

As a pioneer in the idea of social leadership (that power is distributed in communities rather than at the top of hierarchies) this was a powerful reminder from Julian Stodd about our need to understand people from their perspective.

Stories can take us further though. They can connect us, deeply, to a common cause. My colleague Dr Paul Gentle captured this, “to really enable people to work together effectively, you need to find the language and stories around which people can coalesce”.  

These ideas aligned for Janet when we spoke about sustainability and leadership, “it’s hearts and minds…that leaders need. It doesn’t happen from the top.”

The most surprising idea I heard came from Helena: we need to know what gets us angry. What do we stand for? What will we not put up with?

Paul extended this; we need courage to have conversations that surface the things that are not OK, to point out the elephant in the room and not hide it back under the table.


You should always try something once.”

Louise Clifton

I’ve written about curiosity before, and it seems to be something I come back to time and again. When Paul interviewed me I had a chance to think aloud and articulate why it’s stuck so fast to my head, heart and soul. My perspective on it and its importance in leadership, is that curiosity means you’re vulnerable and it asks – sometimes demands – compassion from the other side. It also neatly aligns with my mantra, “you should always try something once.”

Curiosity isn’t only important to me. It’s the thing that helps people understand themselves better. Here is Leah’s take: “If we ask questions which help give us clarity about what makes us resilient, then we’re more able to take risks, and when we’re more able to take risks we’re more  compassionate.”

And curiosity holds us accountable. On committing whole-heartedly to sustainable organisational models, Janet suggests we ask, “is this great, through and through?”

It’s not only effective at an organisational level, but important in framing workplace culture too. Lucy outlines how it forces us to slow down, and shifts us from solving peoples’ problems – which limits learning and resilience – to creating positive relationships that have greater room to grow.

To extend this even further, we can use questions to invite more love into the workplace, by asking questions like, how comfortable are people bringing their whole selves to work each day?

We need to change

We need to act to create a better world, now. Every person I spoke to put this at the heart of why they do what they do: their professional purpose.

As leaders, we are responsible for not just pointing to what a better, more sustainable world could look like, but for creating the conditions where people can gather, exchange ideas and find the resources to make it happen.

“You can’t effectively sustain the planet, or the environment or the wider world, if you don’t start by sustaining yourself and others immediately around you.”

Dr Paul Gentle, Academic Director and interviewee

“There’s no room for leaders who don’t allow ethics, sustainability and accountability to be part of what they do”. This is Kamil. And Leah agrees, “it’s untenable in our world for us to continue accepting the premise that leaders of organisations that control large amounts of resources aren’t accountable beyond their bottom line.”

This is a call to arms to work together much more closely. To avoid becoming fragmented, atomized and disconnected. And to channel compassion, curiosity and love so that we can create places of education where we bring people together to challenge the status quo. Using what we’re good at – critical analysis, questioning and challenging – to remodel how we live and work.

If you’re not going to have a positive impact on this world, what else are you going to do?”

As Janet says, “we have a moral duty to be role models for our power at an organisation and system level, so that students can take their learning out into the wider world.”

After all, if you’re not going to have a positive impact on this world, what else are you going to do?

Finally, if you could give only one piece of advice…

Throughout this blog, I have pooled together key threads of what these eight brilliant leaders told me (and a just a little of what I think too.) But there was one question I asked of all of them, and for which I want their words to stand alone. I leave you with these thoughts:

If you could give only one piece of advice to a leader, what would it be?

Professor Kamil Omoteso: “It would be to be a sincere leader, [because] it matters. It can be seen through you. Be open, be honest.”

Tao Warburton: “You don’t have to be confident to be a student leader; you just have to be engaged.”

Dr Paul Gentle: “Never miss an opportunity to ask somebody how things really are, whether that’s about themselves, yourselves or the wider world around you. To show genuine concern, I think is the real secret of leadership.”

Lucy Butters: “It’s about listening and having compassion. These two feed into a mindset of being Culturally Intelligent. Taking time, being curious, listening, and then sowing all of what you’ve learned with an intention to do what’s best.”

Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser: “When you’re making a decision to think why, not just what. Why are you making that decision? What are the driving forces for it? What are the implications of the decision for stakeholders now and in the future?”

Helena Clayton: “It would be to introduce the idea of experiments…experiments are just things that we hold very lightly, tiny things that we just try out and see what happens…And if it doesn’t work, bin it and try something else.”

Julian Stodd: “Be kind…if you’re kind before you’re efficient then that quality of kindness will be the one that sticks in your community.”

Professor Leah Weiss: “Start by taking a good look at how much of your day is spent on things that are purposeful to you, find the gap between your hope and passion and purpose and where you’re spending your time. Once you identify this, that gives you a trajectory to start to understand what your core beliefs and values are.”

Take a look at the full collection of interviews here

A final note from the author. My sincere thanks goes out to all my interviewees who took part, and who were so generous in sharing their thoughts, ideas and ways of thinking with me. It’s been a fascinating journey, and one that I hope inspires others as much as it did me.

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.