Thinkers50 Curated LinkedIn Live with Kirstin Ferguson

 

Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership

 

Every single one of us is a leader regardless of what it says on our business card – and each of us is a role model to others, whether we realise it or not. An advocate for emotionally intelligent leadership by all, as well as using social media for good, Kirstin Ferguson created the #CelebratingWomen campaign after becoming fed up with the denigration of women online. The campaign saw her commit to celebrating two women from all walks of life and from anywhere in the world every day for a year and led to a movement of women supporting women. She is the co-author, with Catherine Fox, of Women Kind: Unlocking the Power of Women Supporting Women, and a contributor to Forbes.  Join this webinar to hear Kirstin discuss ‘the art of modern leadership’.

Stuart Crainer:
Hello, thank you for joining us. I’m Stuart Crainer.

Des Dearlove:
And I’m Des Dearlove. We are the founders of Thinkers 50, the world’s leading platform for the latest and best in management ideas.

Stuart Crainer:
In November, we’ll be announcing the all new Thinkers 50 ranking of the world’s leading management thinkers and the recipients of the Thinkers 50 distinguished achievement awards. All the information about our event in November can be found at thinkers50.com. It would be fantastic if you could join us.

Des Dearlove:
And we’re announcing the short list for the awards over the forthcoming weeks. Kick things off with our short list of eight great leadership thinkers.

Stuart Crainer:
And today we are delighted to be talking with one of our shortlisted leadership thinkers, Kirstin Ferguson.

Des Dearlove:
Kirstin is one of Australia’s most prominent leadership experts and a highly sought after executive coach, writer and public speaker.

Stuart Crainer:
A 30 year career includes over a decade on a range of company boards, including being appointed by the Australian prime minister as acting chair and deputy chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Kirstin has previously been the CEO of a global consulting firm, a senior executive at a leading corporate law firm, and began a career as an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Des Dearlove:
She’s an adjunct professor at the QUT School of Business, part of the Queensland University of Technology. Kirstin’s co-author of Womenkind and the forthcoming Head and Heart, The Art of Modern Leadership.

Stuart Crainer:
As always, please send in your questions during our discussion and let us know where you are joining us from today.

Des Dearlove:
So Kirstin, let’s begin with congratulations for being shortlisted for the Thinkers 50 leadership award.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Thank you. Very exciting from my end. So thank you very much.

Des Dearlove:
Wonderful that you can join us. Where to start? I mean, you’ve been in the leadership field for a long time. Tell us a little bit about the Celebrating Women campaign.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah, well, that’s kind of, you’re right, I have been studying leadership a long time. So even back my very first degree, when I was doing it, I did a history degree was my first degree and I did an honors thesis and looked at leadership, and here I am 30 years later, having not worked in leadership for a long time, right back where I started, and so fascinated by it. But Celebrating Women, the campaign that you just mentioned, that definitely launched me into advocating and thinking about leadership and the role of women in particular. And that all came about really quite accidentally, to be honest.

It was a few years ago and I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination, what you’d call an activist. I didn’t even really feel comfortable speaking up about gender inequality. I’d come through the military as you heard, and other male dominated environments. So I was much more comfortable trying to hope that no one noticed I was a female at all. But I use social media. I love using social media. So anyone who’s following, obviously we’re on LinkedIn, but you can find me on all the platforms. But you can’t help but notice if you use it, the online denigration that so many women face simply for having an opinion all online.

And so there was a particular day in January 2017, it was right after Donald Trump had been elected president and women were taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers, wearing their pink pussy hats, if you remember that time. And I saw a particular thread of tweets abusing a female journalist. And those kind of tweets are really common, sadly, but I just remember feeling particularly annoyed and thinking, enough is enough. And I thought I had a choice to continue to feel powerless or see if I could turn the tables a little bit. And I’d always believe that every woman is a role model to someone else. And I thought perhaps I could just make role models visible by sharing their stories and celebrating them.

So look, I had no idea that I was about to go down a path that I could only think of now as becoming an accidental activist, but I made a really bold commitment that I would see if I could celebrate two women every single day of 2017 from all walks of life and from anywhere in the world. And in the end, I ended up celebrating 757 women from 37 countries. And it was most easily the most rewarding year of my career. And what became apparent was it was really the diversity of the women that I was celebrating. That was one of the strengths. There was women who were house painters, business leaders, farmers, competitive barbecue cooks, women at home with their kids, military offices, retirees, indigenous women, women of color, women with disabilities, women from Kenya, Vanuatu, Japan. And it was making role models visible who we might not have otherwise seen. So I think it was a real reminder of the importance of women’s stories and of all of us doing what we can to amplify others.

Des Dearlove:
Yeah. We got a question here from Mona actually who’s who says, “Would love to hear more about how Kirstin can help bring more impact here in the Middle East, obviously a tricky part of the world regarding women’s issues and helping more women join leadership in business.” Have you got any particular thoughts on that?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah, I mean, it really depends which part of the Middle East, which Mona would know well. I mean, some countries are doing extremely well in really trying to encourage and support and amplify women into positions of leadership. What’s difficult, I think is if you’re the only woman in the room, and so many women have experienced that. And I certainly have as well. Having support in numbers is really valuable. And what I learned through that campaign as well is that we all play a role in amplifying those around us and reminding those who may not hold a position of leadership that we traditionally understand to be at the head of a business or on their business card, they’re the manager or the director because we are all role models to someone else. And whether we lead our families, our communities, our businesses, or our country, regardless of what it says on our business card, we’re all having an impact on those around us, through the words we use, the choices we make, the way we respond to feedback or the behaviors that we’re role modeling.

So I really believe that we are all role models and celebrating women certainly made that obvious because every single one of the 757 women are inspirational. And so to Mona, what I’d say is have a look around at the women, not only yourself, but other women that you’re working with and do everything you can to amplify them. Men, you play though a critical role and men were really important in the campaign. Not because I wanted to celebrate them. The whole campaign was about celebrating women, but their voices were really important in allowing and supporting women to have theirs. So men can make a difference when they listen to what women need, they listen deeply and then use their power and influence to make that happen. So I think all of those things are just some of the ways. But for Mona, it is a difficult thing to do on your own and I think finding the support of others and finding male allies who will also help amplify you is really critical.

Des Dearlove:
Yeah. [inaudible] by the way, she’s in UAE. I just saw her post that up. So yeah.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. Brilliant. And I was having, two weeks ago, I was having conversation with someone in UAE about women in leadership there. And so that is one country where there’s still a lot of work to be done, but there’s also a lot of initiatives going on. So find those networks and support groups where they’re wanting to amplify women.

Stuart Crainer:
Yeah. Mona points out that UAE the government has mandated one woman on the board. Obviously that’s a start. So what about role models for yourself? I mean, you were in the air force. Who were your leadership role models there Kirstin?

Kirstin Ferguso:
I get asked this question all the time and my answer has never changed. It’s like a buffet. I have a buffet of role models. As you know, there’s no one… Well, in my view, there’s no one person that I look at that I want to emulate everything that they do. But there are lots of people who I’ll take bits of and pieces of how they treat people or how they lead or how they make decisions, whatever it might be. And it might be from unexpected places. And the COVID pandemic has been a great example to see leaders in the community come to the fore, we might not have been aware of. Or different political leaders in different countries who are doing impressive jobs, wherever it might be.

Des Dearlove:
A lot of them doing impressive jobs, in some cases.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Who are?

Des Dearlove:
Who are or who aren’t? I mean, I’m saying is-

Kirstin Ferguso:
Oh, who aren’t. No, not who aren’t.

Des Dearlove:
[crosstalk] political leaders that haven’t done such an impressive job. But yeah, sorry.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah, there are. And I mean, there are. There definitely, I’m not going to argue with that. And I have some empathy for all leaders who have found themselves thrust into this situation because no one obviously was trained for a pandemic like this. And I think we’ve seen some leaders really able to step up and make courageous decisions with very little information and be transparent about those decisions and adapt their style to be able to show empathy and compassion when they need to, but also be able to be very decisive as required. And it’s those leaders, I think that’ll build a huge amount of trust in their people.

Des Dearlove:
And going forward, I mean some of the issue choose that people are going to have to wrestle with leaders. I mean, whether you insist that people are vaccinated before they come back to work. Some really tricky, ethical, moral dilemmas as well. Have you’ve got any thoughts on how you navigate those sorts of issues?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. I think, I mean, gosh, if you’re… It wouldn’t matter where you sit in an organization, the last 18 months you’ve had to encounter different issues you never imagined you would have to think about. I mean, it feels like every day, there’s some new thing we’ve never considered. And now as COVID has obviously progressed somewhat and people are starting to be vaccinated, there’s becoming, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, and how do we have a quality at work and how do we provide safe workplaces? And how do we treat teams who perhaps aren’t comfortable with other team members who aren’t vaccinated?

I think all of those things are going to require leaders to really listen and to really put themselves in the shoes of those they’re leading. And it may be that they have a firm view that one way or the other, but they need to understand that not everyone in their team is likely to feel the same way. We just know that from the statistics. And so I think listening and then thinking what the best path forward for that team is going to be, is going to be important. But it’s going to be a long haul. Definitely a long haul.

Stuart Crainer:
It’s a shame that listening is in such demand because it’s one leadership skill that’s probably the least practiced over the last few hundred years of leadership theorizing. I mean, all the great leader theories listening was never featured that were there.

Kirstin Ferguso:
No. And all those great leader, like the great man theory, let’s take gender out of it, that’s bad enough, but it also really denoted this idea that that great man was also the smartest man in the room. And this view that you need to speak to be able to prove to everyone the other smartest person in the room, and that’s how you got promoted. And we have rewarded this idea of leading with the head and having technical expertise and being able to do issues. That’s what we learn at school and at university. And that’s what we’ve been promoted on.

But listening requires in my opinion and what I’m sure we’ll talk about leading from the heart as well. And having that humility and that understanding that you don’t actually know all the answers. You just don’t. And even if you are the smartest person in the room, or you believe you are, demonstrating that actually is counterproductive because everyone listening to you either won’t feel safe to speak up or they won’t feel they could be bothered to speak up because you’re going to have a view anyway, or you’re going to be critical of their view. I mean, so leaders listening is probably one of the most important skills and that you just miss so much if you are the one filling that space with your own voice.

Des Dearlove:
I think it was Tony Blair who obviously is a controversial leader now, but I think he said one of the hardest parts of the leadership role was not just listening to the loudest voices, listening to the quiet voices and encouraging people. You can imagine in a cabinet situation, not just being led by or being influenced by the people who were speaking loudly and actually seeking out the views of people who perhaps, quiet voices.-

Kirstin Ferguso:
Well that whole-

Des Dearlove:
But there’s definitely a-

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah, that whole 80/20 concept as well. That 20% are dominating and you got the 80% who are sitting back and going and finding those people, and the wisdom that they can impart. But it takes an emotionally into intelligent leader, A, to recognize that’s what’s happening. To even realize that they’re only hearing from the loud ones. And then B, to have that vulnerability and humility to go to the people who they haven’t heard from afterwards and say clearly something in my facilitation of that meeting means you’re not feeling able to speak up. I’d love to hear your contribution and what can we be doing differently in those meetings so that we’re able to hear from everyone.

Des Dearlove:
There’s a very good piece in HBR. I think it was last week or week before. Amy Edmondson‘s piece on how we interpret the arrogance of leaders and that we need more humble leaders. It’s very good piece. I do recommend it if you haven’t seen it.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yes.

Stuart Crainer:
You’ve chaired boards, Kirstin, how do you practice listening in a boardroom?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. Well, that’s, the chair is the most critical role in the boardroom and you definitely have personalities that have done very well in their careers, and they’re now sitting in the boardroom and they want to be able to express their views on things. I think a good chair can really set the tone during good times. So when things are not stressful and when you are able to have measured balanced conversations and hear from everyone and set some of the ground rules about how that works, that then translates into more difficult times and when there’s a crisis.

I think if you’ve got that foundation, it’s really helpful. But there’s no doubt it’s difficult. And particularly, I’ve led boards in real crises and they are challenging to make sure that A, everyone is heard and everyone feels heard, because everyone wants to be able to feel that they’re being heard as well. And often as the chair or as any leader, you have to make decisions that not everyone agrees with. And so being able to come to a view on that and an agreement on how you’re going to proceed, that is what leaders do. And being able to do that well is something that comes after a lot of mistakes and a lot of practice.

Stuart Crainer:
Are there different skills being a CEO and being a chair?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:
Because they seem to me to be very, very different roles.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Absolutely. So the CEO is obviously there leading the organization the day to day doing and speaking publicly most of the time and representing the views of many stakeholders. The chair is there obviously leading the board, but is also guiding that CEO and really helping mentor them and help them through a situation and holding them to account clearly with the rest of the board. So there’s quite a fine balancing act, and it can be really difficult if that relationship breaks down, obviously. But I think for a chair, there’s a lot of being the conductor of the orchestra and making sure everything’s working well. Looking out for those signs where there’s a breakdown between management and the CEO and his team and the board and whether the communication needs to improve. And all of that requires you to use your antenna for relationships and culture of the business. And then to not only obviously also make sure that you’re achieving all of the governance things that come with being the chair of the board too.

Des Dearlove:
Okay. Now you’re currently working on a new book, Head and Heart, The Art of Modern Leadership, great title, which is going to be published by Penguin Random House and is out… Will be out next year, 2022.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah.

Des Dearlove:
What should we expect? What’s in that book? What is the art of modern management? Can you give us a sneak preview?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Art of Modern Leadership, yeah. Well, I guess I like to think of leading in any context. So when I, remember I said before, we’re all leaders, so it doesn’t matter if you’re watching this and you’re just leading your two teenage kids or you’re a volunteer in your local school, but it’s a bit like following a recipe. So stick with me because in some situations, whether it’s a conversation or a crisis or a decision you might need, I don’t know, a kilo of strategy or a cup of analysis, and a bit of a teaspoon of courage to really make the best decision that you can, or to have the best outcome in a conversation that you can. But then there’s other are situations where the recipe might call for three cups of humility if you’re really stuffed up and a teaspoon of empathy and a dash of expertise.

Knowing what ingredient is needed when, is in my opinion, the art of being a modern leader, because for all the experiences I’ve had, the different teams I’ve led the different ways I’ve sought to influence, it all comes down to knowing how best to lead with my head and my heart at the right time. And understanding that balance and that it is a balance and knowing what recipe is going to work, I think is what makes you a modern leader. And when I talk about leading with our head, I’m obviously referring to that rational decision making part of our brain. And that’s the bit that we’re all very good at. It’s very tangible. We can analyze data. We can weigh up risks and we can write policies and that sort of thing, it’s measurable. We can package it up, print it out, it’s safe. We can see it and feel it and touch it.

And the attributes we often see from someone who lead with their head is what I… These are the four really admirable qualities of leading with the head. Curiosity being one, second being analysis, being able to analyze all that data that you’re getting. Strategy. Setting strategies and expertise, real technical expertise. And these are really important skills, but if that’s all you lead with, we know that that can have certain consequences. So you must be able to balance that with leading with the heart. And I think that’s much messier and intangible.

And leading with the heart is obviously all about our emotions and how we’re viewed by the world. And those attributes are humility and insight. Insight into yourself and insight into the impact that you’re having on those around you. Courage, that speaking up and feeling able to speak up, and also having empathy, empathy for others. So I think a modern leader, and particularly COVID has shown that this is critically important, is someone who really understands that leading with both your head and your heart is critical. And that is irrespective of the situation.

It really, I spoke to a group of defense officers about two weeks ago and they’re obviously engaging with the enemy and things like, but there are times when you’re a military officer when you must take from both the head and the heart. And so that’s really what I’m working on at the moment and not wanting anyone to throw out any other leadership theory that they’re using. They’re all really important. It’s all about balance though. So it’s all about knowing that any situation will require a slightly different recipe and that, that could change from one morning to the next. It’s always going to be different.

Stuart Crainer:
I think the clarity issue is interesting because historically leaders brought clarity. That was their description. But what you are saying really is that in the current world, clarity-

Kirstin Ferguso:
Oh, where’s clarity?

Stuart Crainer:
usually is an illusion. And that-

Kirstin Ferguso:
It is. Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:
But that’s a different sort of leadership. I mean, communicating ambiguity and difficulty and that’s why we see, I think we’ve seen over the last 18 months that leaders they’re preconditioned to go for clarity.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. Simplifying.

Stuart Crainer:
It’s the easiest way to communicate.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Well, it is. You want to simplify the complex, but that’s a good skill to have. There’s no doubt that COVID, who would’ve thought we’d all become mini backdoor epidemiologists to be able to talk about genome tracing and different things like that and what are the numbers. But a lot of that’s because it’s been simplified, clearly. None of us are going to become Nobel Laureate epidemiologists anytime soon. But, I do think that’s an important part of communicating. But what you miss if you try and simplify too much without listening and showing empathy for those you’re communicating to, is that your message could be brilliant, but no one’s listening because they don’t trust you. You’ve burnt them before or you’ve simplified and you’ve forgotten really important parts of what you’re needing to communicate.

So I think this idea of being a humble leader is incredibly important and being insightful about the impact of your words and actions. And I’m certainly observing, here we have a whole range of different political leaders, different colors and parties and different things like that. And some engage well with their constitutes and some don’t. And some haven’t perhaps got that insight into understanding the impact their words are having each day.

Des Dearlove:
Yeah. I mean, building on what Stuart was saying, and what you’ve said as well, I think it’s more the certainty. I think you can have in the moment you can have certainty of purpose, certainty of intent, but leaders used to feel like they had to map out and tell us what was going to happen next. And that’s clearly gone out the window.

Kirstin Ferguso:
The smartest person in the room thing again. It’s that feeling, that obligation. I need to fix this situation and come up with a solution. Maybe, in some situations. Maybe. But you would never do that on your own. I can’t think of a single leader that would feel that they should do that on their own. If that’s their way of thinking, then there’s a whole team there they’re not drawing on, that they’re leading.

Stuart Crainer:
Yeah. Mona makes a point saying, “Work and modern leaders have so much responsibility, find trusting support for themselves. There is a great burden and isolation.” And of the leaders and Des and I have spoken to, I think the big issues that come across are isolation, a feeling of being isolated as a leader and the ambiguity that goes around them. Because after all, every other job has got an extensive job description. But when you become the leader, there is no job description. You have to make it up. So managing those things is very different from what people encounter in earlier roles in their career normally.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Oh, definitely. It’s lonely. It’s lonely being the one. Putting yourself up on the pedestal as the smartest person in the room is not a great… There’s nothing positive about that. I do executive coaching work and I’ve honestly never been busier because of this exact reason, because I think leaders need someone that they can bounce ideas off in a really safe way and say, “Well, this is the problem I’m dealing with. This is the way I’m thinking of handling it.” And having someone who’s nodding, there’s no investment, an objective observer to be able to say, “Oh, look, have you really thought that through because how will that be interpreted? And how’s that going to go?”

So I think Mona that’s one way leaders find some support. But if you can create a psychologically safe workplace, like Amy talks about, you can have team members that you can go to and really be a able to say, “I don’t know. I don’t know how we’re going to handle, this is a big mess we’ve got to deal with. What are your ideas? Here’s some thinking I’ve got.” And that does not diminish you as a leader. I just, I want anyone who’s a new leader who feels that you can never say I don’t know the answer to understand that saying it actually builds trust. It does not diminish you as a leader. I think if you were to say it every day on every issue, you’ve got a problem and perhaps you’re in the wrong job. But if you use it when it’s authentically true, and there is a major challenge that you really need support on, you can’t go wrong.

Des Dearlove:
Yeah. We’ve just been talking about being lonely, it being isolating at the top. But picking up on your point earlier, Kirstin, that leaders are at all levels. We’re all leaders in different walks of life. And a lot of us by the nature of that will be, I mean, you mentioned being an accidental activist, but a lot of us are accidental leaders. I mean, what can those people do, because there may not be leadership development programs in place to help them develop these skills. I mean, obviously we can read books. Obviously read your books, but what other things can people do who perhaps can’t keep [crosstalk]?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Seek feedback. Everyone can seek feedback. So even if it’s just from your teammates or your supervisor or the one intern that might report to you, you can seek feedback. And really value it. Listen to it, be respectful with it. Don’t get defensive. Understand that it’s being given to you. It’s a gift. I mean, feedback is truly a gift. When I was CEO of a group of psychologists and they’re all over the world. Psychologists, as any listening today know, love to give feedback. And we had a true feedback culture where any day, multiple times a day, someone would come up to me and say, “Kirstin, can I give you some feedback?” And your internal response is, “Ah, seriously more feedback?”

But what I learned more through being able to understand the gift of feedback in that organization than I think I have in any anywhere else, because it makes me crave it. And you need to understand that you don’t have to take on the feedback. So sometimes the feedback you can hear and process and think about it for a while and think, yep, I’ve heard it. I really respect what they’ve said. But there were some reasons why I did what I did. It’s not a blanket, you have to take it all on. But generally, there will always be really good advice in there, even if it’s just a perception. So even if it’s in technically factually incorrect even, sometimes that can happen, you as the leader still need to accept that you’ve done something to give that perception. Something. What is your part in that? And if you can listen to it with vulnerability and humility, again, a huge way to build trust with your team.

Stuart Crainer:
Can I go back to two words, which I think are really important? Curiosity, Kirstin, it amazes me the number of leaders we’ve encountered and they’re not actually that curious.

Kirstin Ferguso:
I don’t get it. I mean-

Stuart Crainer:
You talk to people, for instance, you talk to people, CEOs who don’t read books or don’t [crosstalk] up-

Kirstin Ferguso:
Presidents even.

Stuart Crainer:
Yeah. Well, yeah. Let’s draw a veil over that. But leaders who aren’t really interested in learning more about leadership. So they’re they’re not curious about that. They’re not curious about people. So the lack of curiosity is often really stunning. So it’s really underrated, I think.

Kirstin Ferguso:
And so for me, that it’s one of the critical components of leading with your head is curiosity. And Adam Grant talks about it in Think Again, this idea rethinking your positions on things. And that requires curiosity and this vulnerability that perhaps, I don’t know all the answers. But, I challenge anyone who’s gone down a Google, YouTube rabbit hole, which hopefully it’s not just me, and you end up going, why is that like that? And then suddenly everybody watching videos at 2:00 AM in the morning of some spurious thing, that is curiosity. That is, there’s no reason to do it other than for our own personal enjoyment. All I’m suggesting and I think Stuart, what you are saying as well, is applying that to decisions at work or to the way things have always been done or to why someone has responded the way they have. Thinking I wonder what else is going on for them?

So someone may have responded really poorly in a meeting, for example, rather than just going and berating them the next day and saying, that’s not how we act here. And you’ve breached our values and all that kind of important stuff. Actually being curious about, with open questions, what is it that I’m not understanding that might be going on for you? You’re not normally this way. You don’t normally come in… Is there something else going on? And again, it’s just these little interactions that build so much trust. And it’s not difficult. It’s not a difficult thing. You don’t need to have degree to be able to do that. We do it with our kids. We do it with our spouses. It’s something that comes naturally to most of us. I’m saying though as a leader, you’ve got to do it. I did add most of us, Stuart.

Stuart Crainer:
Yeah, you didn’t say we did it well.

Kirstin Ferguso:
No. But that’s okay, because you take feedback.

Stuart Crainer:
Yeah. Definitely. I think another interesting word you’ve raised, Kirstin, is authenticity. Because it is really interesting around, often leaders can’t be a 100% authentic, because they’ve got to give positive messages at times when there’s a lot of negativity. So there’s a degree of being inauthentic or be being comfortable in different roles, I would suggest perhaps in leadership.

Kirstin Ferguso:
That is, it’s a really, really good one. And I think it was the number one trap at the start of COVID. So certainly you saw leaders who were used to giving the optimistic spin on things because that’s what they felt leaders have to do. And give everyone hope and this is all going to be fine. That definitely has a role. But when you were in your neighborhoods, going into your local supermarket and people were raiding the shelves of toilet paper and everyone thought we’re all going to be… The apocalypse was coming, hearing a leader say, “Oh, it’s all going to be fine.” It didn’t resonate for people. It wasn’t authentic.

So I do think there’s a place for leaders to be able to say in that situation, “This is scary. I understand why you are reacting the way you are. We don’t know how this is going to be.” And I think authenticity is important, even if it means being courageous to say you don’t know or you don’t know what’s around the corner, because again, trying to pretend, or not pretend but trying to do this whole… Again, it comes back to the smartest person in the room. Trying to be the one with a solution when others’ eyes are open to the reality that it just doesn’t. There’s that dissonance between what they’re hearing and what they’re seeing.

Des Dearlove:
OK. Alexandra says, “I enjoy reading your weekly column. It’s easy to talk about leadership and solving problems in theory, but it must be very hard coming up with realistic and applicable solutions to real life problems. So how do you tackle that?” Because to some extent too, you’re only getting part of the story. You can’t use your antenna to sort of work out what’s going on. You’re getting one side of the story I suspect in those situations.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Oh, always. And Alexandra’s referring to a column I do in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age every Wednesday. And I answer Australian readers questions on work, careers and leadership. Oh my God, there’s so many bad bosses out there. I just, I could do a whole column on bad bosses. Look, I think, Alexandra, I don’t have it as a leadership theorist. I tackle it, having been working in business and as a CEO and always knowing there’s two sides of the story. So I try to be much more practical than apply any theory, because I agree with you. The theory works when you practice it. Theory doesn’t work if it’s just words on a page. It’s really for someone to be able to… Everything we’re talking about today, curiosity, it’s great to hear that it’s important, but it only matters if you go and do something with it. So I think making that really tangible.

But there are some curly questions I get, and the curlier the better. And I’ll sit there and think, “Oh, I do not know. I don’t know what that person’s going to do.” And so back to authenticity, sometimes I write that. Sometimes I say, “I have no idea. This is a really difficult one. Here’s what I’m thinking could work, but you’re really going to need to experiment and see.” So yeah, we don’t have all the answers, Alexandra. Definitely, I don’t have all the answers.-

Des Dearlove:
Does-

Kirstin Ferguso:
And I wish there was a follow up. I would love to know-

Des Dearlove:
I was going to say do you ever get the pushback later? I acted on your advice and now I’m redundant? I now have [crosstalk].

Kirstin Ferguso:
I have had, I’ve had one person do that. So anyone listening who writes in, please come back to me. And it was about how to ask for a pay rise. And they were a casual worker and they did, they followed the advice. And of course the employer responded really well. And so I was so excited about that. I was like, “Success. All right.”

Stuart Crainer:
Isn’t isn’t it amazing? You say there’s a lot of bad boss out there and it’s really amazing once you start thinking about it, how few examples of really good leadership you encounter. And this is despite the last 100 years, the study of leadership. I mean, there’s been millions of words written about leadership, conferences, books, articles. But I think there’s universal agreement that the leaders we’ve got in all walks of life, aren’t up to the job in many ways.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. I mean, that is a bit rough. I think there’s definitely… What we were saying about the 80/20 rule. There’s some really very clear example of poor leaders out there who happen to get plenty of column inches and we read about them and just want to curl up and hope they disappear. But I do believe there’s a lot of leaders out there. And again, remembering that everyone is a leader, everyone, that are doing extraordinary jobs and may not even recognize that they’re a leader themselves. So I think looking around for inspiration, from those who we maybe again, may not have a formal title or anything like that, but that we can learn from.

And when you asked about my role models, I volunteer every weekend. I do a shift in our national call center we have called Lifeline, which is a crisis, a 24 hours, seven day a week crisis line. And some of the volunteers who work there full-time are extraordinary and they’re not people who write books and are spoken about and written about, yet the way they lead and some of the decisions and how they come about them are extraordinary. So I think being open to get inspiration from anywhere is really important.

Stuart Crainer:
I think we’re looking now for the inspirations for leadership from beyond the corporate and the political world. I think that’s a really big shift. The people who are inspiring leaders tend not to be… They’re more likely to be sports people or mountaineers,-

Des Dearlove:
It used to be-

Des Dearlove:
It used to be generals and people [inaudible], and then it switched to the politicians and then the business leaders. Yeah. So I think that’s probably a healthy thing. I’m not sure. Yeah. Sports obviously has its place as well. But Mona’s come back with some, I think a very good question around generational leadership styles and mindset. I mean, what’s the next generation’s attitude and stance with leadership? And do you see, is there a shift? Does it shift or is leadership pretty much sort of perennial? Does it stay the same really?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Oh no, it definitely doesn’t stay the same because I think you just look at your own leadership. I think about what I was like as a leader, as a 21 year old air force officer to compare to a 48 year old, whatever I am now.

Des Dearlove:
Yeah. Some said, that’s experience though, rather than generational. I mean, do you see a different generational mindset coming through?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yes, but I do wonder though how much of that is the individual rather than their generation, because there’s some older leaders who are brilliant forward thinking, empathetic, compassionate. And there are younger leaders who really want everyone back in the office and go against that millennial stereotype. So I guess I am much more of an individualist in that sense, but there’s no doubt that it’s been challenging with some older… I can look at older generations and think that they’re a bit dinosaurish in their way of thinking and they’re still back in the 1970s, 80s way of leading. But fortunately they’re few and far between and the majority of leaders, regardless of age. Again, if you’ve got that curiosity and the humility and all of those things that are not age specific, I think you can be a modern leader regardless of your age.

Stuart Crainer:
I think age is an interesting issue, isn’t it? Because it would’ve been assumed in the past that age, leadership and older age were equated with each other. Whereas, now you really accepted

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. Thats definitely not.

Stuart Crainer:
that younger people are, are valid as leaders as well.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think with younger leaders, what they have is probably a greater willingness to listen, a bit democratic in their ability to get feedback from anyone and everywhere and hear input from anywhere. But what they lack is that experience that we’re talking about, what happened between being a 21 year old and a 48 year old. You make a lot of mistakes in that sort of couple of decades, and those mistakes every leader will make and we learn from them and get much more comfortable in talking about them as well.

Des Dearlove:
You mentioned earlier your work as an executive coach. I mean, yes, we got the feedback message. I think that that’s quite clear. Are there other things that crop up again and again, with these people that you almost, kind of an academic [inaudible]. So things that you really-

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. Well, we’ve touched on one tonight, funnily enough, which is this whole complex of feeling you need to be the smartest person in the room. I think for a lot of leaders, there’s a tipping point at which they’ve risen through their career. And because they’ve been technically excellent and they’ve been able to speak up in meetings and be the most educated and the most decisive and all of those wonderful things. But recognizing that there is a point in your career where that is a detriment, not a positive to have. In fact, the skill is toning that down, even if you know the answer, but allowing others to fill the avoid and to have those ideas, even if you are sitting there thinking that’s never going to work. Helping that person come to that realization through really good questions is your job. Not just telling them that’s never going to work. So I think that’s common, that’s certainly one thing that comes up a lot for people.

There’s also, again back to COVID, building rapport and trust with people working everywhere. Never physically seeing them. Leaders who have had to start new leadership roles during COVID, so they’ve never had their teams together. That’s tough. That’s a tough gig. And it requires a lot of really conscious work on the part of the leader to be able to bridge that gap, and thinking of ways that you can do that that’s authentic and not driving the person crazy by checking in on them every day, all of that kind of stuff. I think that’s some new challenges for leaders at the moment.

Des Dearlove:
What about the flip side of the smartest person in the room thing? Because a lot of people who do perform leadership roles would probably have some sort of imposter syndrome. If you were to say to them, “Hey, you’re a leader.” People actually-

Kirstin Ferguso:
All of them.

Des Dearlove:
people resist it sometimes. It’s like, “No, no, I’m not a leader. I just keep my head down.” But that thing of feeling like we’re not leaders, we’re… I mean, there are obviously the loud ones who think that their leaders, even regardless of whether they have the attributes or not, but there’s a lot of people who lead very quietly and would probably not even consider themselves to be leaders. And perhaps it would help if they were more confident of that role.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Yeah. It’s so interesting that you raise that because sometimes those with the loudest voice have the highest insecurities and probably struggle with imposter syndrome the most. Those who are prepared to be quiet in meetings have the most self confidence and they don’t need to. I have a term I use and I discovered this on boards, particularly as I was becoming a more experienced director, and I call it the word to wisdom ratio. And it’s those directors or people who hardly say anything at all, but what they say, every single bit of it is really fantastic and it hits the mark and is exactly what’s needed to be heard compared to those people who have a hit rate that’s pretty small. So I think understanding, or perhaps we misidentify those leaders who are confident and speaking up and may seem to have all the answers as being the smartest people in the room, but really we need to look around us and have that insight and see the person in the corner. Who’s not saying much at all, probably really is.

Des Dearlove:
Yeah. Brilliant. And that’s partly what Amy Evans’s article was about as well, and I know you follow her work as well. So that definitely chimes for me. Resonates. We have a couple more minutes.

Stuart Crainer:
I mean, we’re facing really big issues, Kirstin, with climate change and the pandemic and so on. Are you optimistic that we have the leadership we’ll need in the future?

Kirstin Ferguso:
Oh, some days. Some days I am. Some days I utterly despair. And I think I’m not alone in that. I think we’re all the same. And you do see bright lights. You do see some leaders, I think, who are prepared to acknowledge that these are big issues that perhaps they need assistance to deal with. But sadly, our political model is set up that admitting, and I think like that is counterintuitive to being reelected. And I think that holds back our political leaders, but I do think we’re seeing more and more business leaders being prepared to lead in different ways. I agree completely with your comment before that non-business, non-political leaders are being looked to as role models. And that’s also come down from the sort of destruction of trust over a number of years in politics and business. But I suspect business will do better at improving that than politicians simply because of the whole system they’re in about how they feel they need to be reelected.

Des Dearlove:
Hmm. And when we’ve talked about the forthcoming book, Head and Heart, The Art of Modern Leadership, if people want to find out more about your work, where should they go? Where’s the best resource to-

Kirstin Ferguso:
My website. So, and it’s just kirstinferguson.com. There is one thing I just want to finish on because it sort of ties up everything that I was talking about with the campaign I did Celebrating Women. And it’s really just this idea that you know that old saying that if you should be as so successful as to achieve your own goals, you should lower the ladder down for those coming behind you. I want us to really forget the damn ladder. I don’t know whoever came up with that analogy, but if you think about it, it only, a ladder has one person on it at a time. And in fact, you hold on for dear life, so no one can get past.

And what I really want leaders to think about is that we can all throw down a big fishing net and bring a up many, many, many people together, all of us holding the sides and that’s something I truly believe. And that was what the campaign was about, about the book Women Kind… Ooh I have a copy, conveniently right here… and hopefully we’ll also flow through into the book I’m writing now.

Des Dearlove:
Okay. Fantastic.

Stuart Crainer:
Kirstin, thank you very much. We’re out of time. I would encourage anybody watching, I’m sure lots of people will be going to Kirstin’s website to find out more. Women Kind, a great book. And that fills in the gap before the new book arrives next year. So Kirstin Ferguson, thank you very much. Thank you everybody for joining us. Hope you can join us next week, where we’ll be featuring, Oleg Konovalov the author of The Vision Code, who’s also been shortlisted for our leadership award. So Kirstin, thank you very much.

Kirstin Ferguso:
Thank you.

Latest Books

Ideas@Work Membership

World-class content from world-class thinkers. Subscribe now for unlimited access to T50’s unique library of content.

BENEFITS INCLUDE ACCESS TO:

Podcasts
HEAR SAMPLE

Webinars
WATCH SAMPLE