Is There a Crisis in Leadership in the West?

Crisis of leadership
Photo by Mike Chai from Pexels

The Right Questions Podcast Episode 2: Are we facing a challenge of leadership in our Western culture? With Guest Andy Tilsley

This episode (recorded in London, November 2019) provides something of a platform to this podcast series. Andy Tilsley and I talk about leadership in broad terms; its definition, and the challenges of leadership that we see in the world today.

About our guest: Andy Tilsley (00:21)

Andy has over 20 years worth of leadership experience. He studied psychology at Exeter University, before moving to the BBC to work as a news and sports journalist spending many a happy (and some sad) hours commentating on his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers. Since then, he has primarily worked in the voluntary sector and in his spare time, he’s a keen writer. He is currently working on three novels and a non-fiction book on leadership.

How do we define leadership? (01:30)

Leadership is probably best defined as influence. The author David Foster Wallace, in his parable the ‘Infinite Jest’ demonstrates that we are all being shaped by our culture. That cultural influence creates change in all of us and can therefore be seen as a form of leadership. 

(03:30) As leadership is influence, then we are all leaders to a lesser or greater extent. Sometimes that influence is manifest in small ways. Andy’s first experience of leadership was helping others in small ways, supporting them through listening, encouraging and giving advice. This is something we all do as friends and colleagues, no matter what our position. 

This is why leadership as influence is a useful definition as we all shape the world around us – whether we realise it or not. Leadership is taking responsibility for that change. We need to be conscious of being leaders and then have a plan for the change we want.

(N.B. Apologies folks, in error I say James Maxwell in this section! I of course mean John C Maxwell, author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

Which leadership experts do you rate? (05:10)

Andy’s favourite leadership expert is Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why. Simon Sinek’s material is very accessible, engaging and practical. Andy’s favourite book is Leaders Eat Last. This book highlights the challenge that there are a lot of people who have the role of leaders but do not live up to the responsibilityof leadership when things get tough.

Is there a crisis of leadership? (06:40)

Do we have a crisis of leadership, particularly in the West (UK, US and Europe)? There have been plenty of scandals (such as the banking scandals of the early 2000s) that have uncovered poor leadership and shown that many people in high positions are not serving others effectively.

Has our individualist culture undermined the idea of servant leadership? Are we too self-serving? If so, this is not just an institutional problem it is a cultural one. Also, if, leadership is influence and that we are all influencers, then we all have a responsibility to address this crisis. We can all be better leaders.

How can we address the crisis in leadership? (08:20)

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote and spoke a lot about the importance of meaning and purpose in society, and our responsibility to contribute positively. We can all bring more hope and positivity. 

Darren Brown (mentalist and illusionist) demonstrated the psychology of negativity. If you are in a negative mindset then you miss the good things.

Therefore, seek the good – be positive – in your context and with your influence. Few of us have responsibilities for whole states but all have responsibility for caring for the people around us.

“It may not change the world, but it might change my world.” 

Andy Tilsley

That’s how we can all start in leadership.

Our ability to contribute and influence (11:00)

We all have a part to play no matter how small. This is summed up in the wisdom of Mother Teresa:

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa talked about looking out for the next one, the next person or step; concentrating on that, not the thousands. She focussed on the small things, but in this way, she was able to have a huge positive influence. Change is about getting our hands dirty in the here and now.

Influence can be exerted or expressed in different ways, whatever our roles, situation or context of leadership.

Positivity and the Power of the Team (13:50)

What most helps positivity? 

When we work together positivity is multiplied and amplified by our complimentary gifts. We can achieve so much more as a team due to the diversity that a team can encompass. 

How do you find out your strengths and gifts?

There are lots of tools to help you discover your talents and Andy recommends the Clifton Strengths Finder as one he has found very helpful. 

The team gives the ability and power to face and overcome challenges. The leader is just one member and one role within the team. A team needs a variety of roles to function properly (Belbin). 

“The leader maybe the catalyst for change but not the only author of change and success.”

Simon Ash

Dysfunctional teams (17:00)

Teams don’t always work. Naturally, within a team, there are relational challenges and differences of opinion. You don’t always get to pick your team and therefore a leader’s responsibility is to help to forge the team together and get the best out of every individual. In this way, the whole team can develop personally on the journey together as well as working towards the goal.

The importance of the journey and legacy

It’s not always about getting your goal. We also don’t always get what we want in the here and now. So, success is not always in just achieving the goal, it is in the journey itself. The goal may not even be achieved in our lifetimes. Therefore, personal growth is often as important as the mission.

How the effect of focus on the individual in culture (22:00)

Rabbi Sacks has an excellent TED talk that examines our culture and politics:

He points out that the ‘selfie’ is an example of how we worship the individual in our culture. The anti-dote to this self-obsessed culture is living for something bigger than ourselves.

Authority is like any relationship – it does not come through a title alone, but through a decision to trust someone. We give authority to people by giving our heart to others. This is demonstrated in parent-child relationships. Parenting is a fascinating model for leadership as it is relationship and the demonstration of influence through love.

How do we find balance and purpose in life?

Self-actualisation and working out our purpose in life is a challenge. Part of the struggle is that there is just so much advice out there and this subject alone. It can be confusing. 

Passion alone is not enough. Shouting about something (for example on social media) is also not the same as really living for something. So, what do we do?

Finding our greater purpose is a large part of life’s journey (and one of the reasons I started ‘The Right Questions.’)

We are all part of a bigger picture. It’s like being part of a huge tapestry. We may only seem to be insignificant or loose threads in that great tableau of life and history, but we all play an essential contribution. We may not ever see the whole picture but when you get the chance to step back, even just a little, you can get a larger perspective of that role.

How do we find our purpose? (29:30)

So where do we start in exploring our life’s purpose? In my experience I recommend people start with the question ‘why?’ (Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why is a great resource.) Asking ‘why’ helps us to understand our values, principles, priorities and passions in life. It’s a good first step.

Starting on an adventure and finding your call is not easy. The challenge – the opportunity cost – when starting out, can be paralysing. We can fear that we are losing out on something else when we make a choice or pursue a dream.

Worth and identity (33:00)

Where do you place your value? What is your ultimate worth? Be careful where you place your worth as it might eat you alive if it’s the wrong thing! (Foster Wallace)

In our culture, we are bombarded by attacks on our worth and identity. Advertising works on creating a perceived gap in our self-worth. It tells us we are not good looking enough, not rich enough, that we need something to make us better. This can make us deeply unhappy.

Happiness is largely based on comparisons. Being happy is often dependent upon the gap between expectations versus reality. This is the premise in The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. In the book he looks at some of the wisest advice through history, combined with modern research, to understand happiness.

Habits and discipline (37:00)

How do we instil discipline and create good habits?

If you want to understand the psychology of habits then I can recommend The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg. His research has shown that these things can help us more effective at changing habits:

  • Experiment with the reward you get when you are forming a new habit
  • Be realistic – start small and grow the habit and expectations slowly
  • Make sure that what you do is effective: practice what you can’t do, not what you can
  • Accountability to others and encouragement 

The discipline comes in keeping going. It’s pushing through the pain. Staying the course when progress is slow. Staying committed when the results seem so small. This is where other people can particularly help us.

Stories that inspire our leadership (44:30)

Stories are important to understanding leadership and powerful in inspiring us as leaders.

What makes a story great? What makes them inspiring?

One common theme at the heart of the greatest stories is love and self-sacrifice. For example, Harry Potter, where love is the strongest magic, or Lord of the Rings, which is full of sacrificial acts by the heroes.

But there is a theme in stories today where the future seems to be increasingly dystopian and full of anti-heroes. These can be useful in examining our behaviours now and how they might negatively shape the future, but they can also be lacking in hope. 

We need stories of hope, not least because the stories we tell affect us.

“We become the stories that we tell ourselves.”

Andy Tilsley

That does not mean that stories should be ‘sugar-coated’ 

Key friendships are also key to truly inspiring stories. They give us a picture or real teamwork. Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings would be one example, or Ratty and Mole in the Wind in the Willows. 

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