At the end of November I packed my suitcase and set off for London from my home in Edinburgh to attend the 2021 Common Purpose American Express Leadership Academy. 

It sounds like the beginning of a journey but I felt I’d been travelling towards this point for a good couple of months already.

The theme of the course was Leading Beyond Authority and there was a stringent application process. I had to complete a detailed form and CV and submit references. I was invited to a 360 degree process where I was to ask up to 10 people for feedback on my skills and attributes as a leader.

As if this wasn’t already a lot for my weary post pandemic brain to take in, I was considering the implications of spending an entire week away from home, particularly as my husband was also booked to be away for at least part of that week. 

The mental load

I’m typical of many women who live with a male partner and their children, in that I carry the mental load for the family. It’s also known as the invisible load, but as any working mother will tell you, it definitely exists and it can be a heavy load too. 

The minute detail of an average week in our family; school calendars and activities, dental and medical appointments, organising tradespeople, knowing whose turn it is to take the bins out, making sure there is always a ready supply of clean underwear and packed lunches and food for the dog, is largely kept in my head. 

In fairness to my husband, he works long hours, in what can be a high-pressure job. I have never been able to crack a way of sharing this complex mental checklist. I also know that the work needed to make that happen, would be another job for me. I have zero appetite for introducing a military style routine to the family and so it seems easier to just carry on, often with frazzled nerves but always with love.

Travelodge here I come

Looking at the schedule for the course was anxiety inducing. It was 5 days, beginning every morning with breakfast at 8am and finishing after dinner in the evening. I had not spent such a long and intense period of time in the company of people I had never met for many years.  I don’t mind admitting I felt overwhelmed. I might even have questioned if I could be bothered.

Thankfully my better, rational self quickly took over. I imagined a week away from home, on my own, in a hotel where I didn’t have to cook or wash up or walk the dog. Where I wouldn’t be making cups of tea at 6.30am, dashing to the supermarket at lunchtime and emptying the washing machine at bedtime. This would be time for me to reflect on what more I had to give as a leader, not just in my home or community, but in the world.

When I looked at the opportunity like this, it was a gift and so I grabbed it. 

In the beginning

As 50 of us gathered for the first time on Monday morning, there was a sense of hushed anticipation in the room. Most of the group had been working from home solidly for the past 18 months. I know now that pretty much everyone was quietly wondering what they were doing there, carrying doubts about the week ahead, perhaps worried about reintegrating again after so long in isolation.

Our first task was, one by one, to stand at the front of the room and introduce ourselves using the prop of a small object we had brought from home. Something that would say something about us and the kind of person and leader we are. No pressure then.

As we went around the room, I was struck by how everyone, including those who were obviously shy and deeply uncomfortable, spoke with warmth and humour and wit. If this is what leadership looked like then I wanted in.

I took a lot of learning away from that week. It was of course extremely well planned, organised and facilitated. But what seemed different, compared to all the other courses I have ever been on, was how quickly and readily everyone dropped their guard.  

We had unfiltered conversations on topics from equality, diversity and inclusion to the importance of being brave, standing up for your views, listening and showing your vulnerability.  We had outwardly confident and successful leaders openly admitting to imposter syndrome and ‘faking it until they made it.’ It all felt so refreshingly real.

A model for Leading Beyond Authority

Through a variety of visits, presentations, group exercises and self reflection, we were encouraged to see leadership through a different lens. Leadership is not about exerting power over others, it is not a one-size-fits-all personality attribute. 

Leadership where there is clear authority, budget and accountability is the most common type, but true leadership goes beyond this. Common Purpose illustrates this using the ‘Circle of authority’ model.

The speakers who were invited from a broad range of third sector organisations had many things in common and as many things in difference. What they all had in abundance was purpose and passion for solving some of the most complex problems in society. 

To be successful, they have to operate beyond their inner circle, influencing in areas where they have little or no inherent authority. They do this by forming coalitions and networks and crucially by taking a longer view and being prepared for failure and setbacks along the way.

The Circles of Authority

My six key takeaways

I’ve been home for nearly two weeks and as the dust has settled I’ve been reflecting on what I learned, both from the Academy but also those I was privileged to meet and work alongside.

  1. Good leadership is not about holding power over others. It is possible (although not easy) to lead upwards, sideways and down, and across organisational  boundaries;
  2. Be authentic. The most important thing you can do as a leader is be yourself. If you try to be someone else you will either crack under pressure, or be found out;
  3. Empathy is a leadership skill. More than ever before the world needs leaders with emotional intelligence. As Mary Portas says  ‘fairness, kindness, collaboration and values that historically have not been recognised within business’ are the future;
  4. Listen deeply. Almost every problem can be overcome if you begin by listening to understand the issues;
  5. Be self aware. Knowing your strengths is important. Be aware of your weaknesses but don’t let them hold you back;
  6. Collaborate. We won’t solve society’s problems by working in silos. The most positive changes happen when organisations and people find ways to work together. Sometimes this requires us to be vulnerable and open to admitting our failings.

As the Academy drew to a close, what I think we all had in common was a feeling that the week, despite the effort to get there, had been exactly what we needed. 

After so long, keeping our heads down and pushing on through almost two years of a global pandemic it was time to lift our heads out of our isolation and see the horizon again.

Thanks to the team at Common Purpose, the American Express Foundation and everyone who gave so generously of their time and experience.

Melissa McConnell

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