The Really Wild Leader
By Steven Shove, MBA, DipM
“Life is a great adventure or nothing!” Helen Keller
Leadership is an adventure!
When planning an adventure to a new area of the globe I choose my expedition leaders and my team with a great deal of care and precision, for if I don’t my clients and I may not come back. I seek the best and I seek those whom I trust – with my life!
This has led me to work with some of the most trusted and capable leaders in the world. It has been the same in my professional life as a business person, coach and educator too.
Like the weather – markets, regulations, technology, customer expectations and products for example, are always changing. Like vast areas of the rain forest – sales territories are frequently unexplored. Like expedition teams – the teams we come to rely upon are ever more varied, geographically dispersed, transactional or piecemeal in nature.
To survive and thrive in such conditions, we need a leader who can see us through such challenges and leverage the opportunities I call these, “really wild” leaders.
So, what do they look like?
In the paragraphs below, I introduce ten characteristics that I deem to be some of the traits of a really wild leader – that is a leader whom you would trust to take you into the most challenging of environments, situations or circumstances, whom you would actively follow despite the odds.
Ten traits of a really wild leader:
- Inspire and dare to venture
- Set a clear direction and keep track of progress`
- Build trust
- Be authentic
- Communicate with excellence
- Personally, connect and engage
- Love people and the world about you
- Serve and remain humble
- Be resilient
- Be consistent but willing to change
1. Inspire and dare to venture
Really wild leaders are not afraid to try new things or explore new lands. They recognise that staying put, whilst sometimes an essential short-term survival technique, is rarely a long-term strategy. Their minds are continually looking to new horizons and evaluating what might come next whilst protecting what is important now. They confidently inspire and rally their people and resources to act with sense of purpose and urgency that can get even the most incredible things done.
Consider Elon Musk and his decision to make humans an interplanetary species. He determined that the existence of the human race is by no means guaranteed if we remain solely on our present celestial island. He developed this into a vision that motivated him and inspired others. He dared to risk his incredible personal wealth to challenge the status quo that rocket travel was too expensive and changed the nature of space travel forever. His staff follow him and his dream. They are not commanded to do so.
How do you inspire others? Why do they follow you? Where do you wish to take them?
2. Set a clear direction and keep a track of progress
When leading others in the mountains a mountain leader will be very precise in setting their goal and direction. They will also check and take regular bearings to know exactly where they are or use other navigational features to keep them on track. They will regularly appraise their teams of progress and let them know as accurately as they can what they can expect and when whilst on their journey. Their journey may not be straight, but they will always know where they are relative to their destination.
One of my colleagues, who was recently awarded an MBE by the queen for his services to leadership development and survival training in the RAF, and who is also an International Mountain Leader, recently told me of an occasion when after hours and several kilometres of mountaineering he arrived just a few metres from his planned destination. I was really impressed until he stopped me in my tracks and told me that he had failed. He was on assessment in the fog. Had he arrived just a few metres in another direction he may have stepped over a precipice which would have led to certain death.
Really wild leaders set a clear direction and go to great lengths to make sure they and their entire team know where they are on their journey ad what lies ahead.
If you asked each member of your team where your organisation is going and what progress had been made, how similarly would they reply?
3. Build trust
For any leader to reach their full potential they must first be trusted. If not, their teams and the people they influence will not ever fully support them. Trust is earned by setting out your stall and honouring it, by being consistent with your behaviour, making the right choices and managing expectations.
As well as developing one’s personal trust, a really wild leader will build and foster trust between each member of their team, internal, external, physically present and remote.
Perhaps the finest example of trust is the trust Scott of the Antarctic earned from his team. As a leader he left them on a remote peninsula in Antarctica whilst he navigated and traversed against all odds with the promise that he would return to save them. They waited for many months and followed his instructions to the letter certain in the knowledge that he would return, which of course he did. Imagine what you could achieve with your teams if you were trusted to such a degree!
Which behaviours might you further develop to increase your own trust or that across your organisation?
4. Be authentic
I was recently running a leadership programme for a number of government ministers, CEO’s and other executives of banks and the subject was, “authentic leadership in a competitive world”.
In his wonderful book, Discover Your True North, Bill George recommended that leaders find their sweet spot and be true to themselves by creating working environments that enable them and their teams to operate according to the values and principles they hold dear.
Some of my clients explained that in reality this is not always easy, particularly when the environment in which you work is incredibly complex and the impact of your right choices might lead to outcomes for some that you would rather avoid. Doing the right thing can often be painful!
We concluded that a really wild leader will always do his or her best to live according to their principles and values, to change their working environment where and when they can on their path towards ever closer alignment. Where they definitely cannot make a difference, they will have the courage to move to a place in which they can.
Are you living and leading according to the principles and values you hold dear? If you feel light and unburdened by your choices, you probably are. If there is a nagging or knot in your stomach – what will you choose to change?
5. Communicate with excellence
During world war two there was a poster that stated, “careless words cost lives!”. I would add to this, “and actions too”.
Before allowing someone on expedition, I run an exercise to develop and assess each candidate’s ability to communicate with clarity, empathy and encouragement. I also evaluate their behaviours throughout each selection process. If I don’t, and then allow them to join a trip to the Arctic for example, I run the risk that lives may be lost or clients not served well.
I have noted throughout my career that the more senior a person becomes the impact of their words reaches a point when it is amplified exponentially. What may have at one point been acceptable to share out loud, may in fact now result in consequences far beyond expectations. For better or worse, a word from some people can change the entire performance of the global stock markets for instance. Consider Warren Buffet or various comments made by our friend Elon Musk! In just one tweet about taking his company Tesla private, Elon in August added 7% to the value of the company’s stock. It rose so fast the SEC suspended trading.
If the power of a leader’s words can be so strong, then what of their actions? When observing leaders at work, I notice that people are far more likely to model what someone does than what they say.
So how to communicate?
Like any indigenous peoples, really wild leaders seek to be fully in tune with their environment. It can change at any time, as can any situation or circumstance within it. They use each of their senses to determine exactly what is going on. This involves listening and observing well and picking up on even the most nuanced of signs, then deciding to communicate and act accordingly i.e. by choosing the right means for the right audience at the right time, in the right tone – demonstrating clarity, empathy (understanding) and encouragement.
The competitive world in which we operate can be dangerous and gruelling at times. Leaders will need to navigate their teams and stakeholders through some pretty tough times. By carefully choosing their words and demonstrating best actions, they will be far more likely to succeed.
How do you communicate with the range of your stakeholders? What do people hear you say? What do they see you doing? And what are the consequences?
6. Personally, connect and engage
Really wild leaders do not sit in their ivory towers. They lead from the front or work side by side in close proximity to their teams. Whilst modern leaders develop and use good reporting systems to provide the necessary insights to performance (of their teams, schools, government departments, companies or competitors for example), they also understand that without personally connecting and engaging with their stakeholders and the wider environment too, they will lose incredibly valuable context.
This will impact the quality and timeliness of their decisions and the opportunity to inspire and motivate their teams. Ultimately this will also impact the degree to which people will choose to follow and support them in their objectives.
The most wonderful examples of engagement are seen in schools where busy head teachers fully engage in the activities of their schools, when they take time to greet pupils and parents, to take a turn on playground duty and to make time to teach alongside their staff. I have observed that these leaders run happy schools, meet the needs of their very disparate cohorts who then go on to achieve in the most amazing ways. I have seen the opposite too where the life of the leader is filled only by spreadsheets, analyses and directives. Here, staff turnover, customer satisfaction and results will rarely compare.
I frequently meet strong business leaders too who have enjoyed the most incredible support of their staff who have gone far beyond what is required of their roles or their official working hours. They have sought to get something done, not because they had to but because they wanted to. This would not have happened without a close connection and engagement by their leader.
Do you take time to personally connect and engage? If not, what can you change so you can?
7. Love people and the world about you
“If your business genuinely improves people’s lives success will follow.” Richard Branson
People instinctively know whether someone actually cares for them. When they know their leader cares, they will often reciprocate with the most wonderful commitment and loyalty! This applies equally to staff, suppliers, partners, customers, pupils, parents and shareholders too.
It is by no mistake that the most senior executives who lead the happiest and most loyal of teams, show a genuine love for their people and the world. They appreciate the need to achieve short term targets to survive, but also value creating a long-term, healthy, happy and sustainable environment and results with which to thrive.
A really wild leader will take the time to notice the apparently little things knowing they could sometimes have a huge impact on the people or world around them. They then find ways to make a difference.
This could be by looking after a particular individual. It could be on a grander scale as they seek to develop a giving or environmental strategy way beyond the minimum requirements considered acceptable for corporate and social responsibility (CSR) purposes. It could also be putting standards and systems in place to safeguard and encourage the physical and mental wellbeing of staff and their families.
Whilst on a desert island a few years ago, my business partner noticed that a member of his team looked a little pale and clammy. He chose to enquire after her wellbeing rather than continue about his tasks for the day and realised very quickly that she had cut herself two days earlier and not told anyone about it. Had her injury gone unchecked for just another 24 hours she would have likely died from sepsis. He was able to intervene and save her life.
As a leader, what are you doing to demonstrate love for the people and world around you? Are you paying sufficient attention? What effect do you have directly or indirectly on peoples’ lives, their state of mental and physical wellbeing? Consider the environment you are creating and the natural world about you too!
8. Serve and remain humble
Really wild leaders encourage their teams to continually look out for one another, to find and act on opportunities to help. They do this most effectively by being seen to serve others themselves.
I was delighted to see this in action during an open day at a prestigious grammar school in the south east of England. Whilst hosting an important day for parents and teachers, the head master took time to clean up the mess from an over filled and knocked-over bin himself rather than instructing his students to do it. In this way they saw that he was serving them and that even he, in the most senior of positions, was not above doing even the most menial of tasks. Now isn’t hat somebody you would be happy to follow?
A leader’s job is to set the direction and serve their team by creating the environment and securing the resources necessary for them to succeed.
What acts of service do you fulfil on a daily basis, to individuals close to you and for the organisation and extended community as a whole?
9. Be resilient
When making key decisions, the role of a leader can be a lonely one. Most decisions will be received differently by different audiences with criticism or attack sometimes coming more fervently than those of agreement or praise.
We have seen that a leader’s values and principles may also sometimes be tested, and we instinctively know the physical, mental and personal strains one can face.
Resilience comes from looking after yourself, remaining authentic and by building and staying connected to the right support team of confidantes, loved ones and advisors around you. They care about you, believe in you and are confident enough to challenge you.
Really wild leaders are honest with themselves and take care of their physical and mental health.
They recognise their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are not afraid to recognise when things are not going well or when they are ill, anxious or tired.
They are trained to share this information with their support group whenever such situations arise, and to than act upon the advice they are given. Failure to do so would be a disservice to themselves and neglection of their duty of care to others. You can’t have a mountain leader ignore their possible exposure to altitude sickness, nor an Arctic leader a frost-bitten foot. The results would be disastrous. The same principles apply to leaders in commerce and public service.
What team do you have in place to support you in times of need? Who can help you with the difficult choices you make? What can you do to improve your own physical and mental health?
10. Be consistent but willing to change
People feel secure when their leaders are consistent in their behaviours.
A really wild leader is consistent in their actions but flexible in the path they choose to take, for the path they choose to take must change based upon results and changes in environment around them.
It is my belief that whatever the direction a leader chooses to take their organisation, they can rest assured if they follow the traits above, their chances of success will be high.
Life is a great adventure and the adventure of leadership is indeed a rewarding one. For a really wild leader, it is incredible!
How do you measure up on the ten points above and where could you improve?
George B. (2008). Discover your True North. John Wiley & Sons.
The above chapter was published in Fit For Purpose Leadership #4 by Writing Matters (2018). It may be purchased here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fit-Purpose-Leadership-Andrew-Priestley-ebook/dp/B07JGK1WJ8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1551189983&sr=8-1&keywords=fit+for+purpose+leadership+4