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Hey everyone, when I published my last Ko Lab, I was embarking on a round-the-world trip. Over the past couple of months, I travelled to London, Stockholm, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. I had a couple of goals on my trip. First, I wanted to see the world again; to leave behind the ‘Melbourne bubble’ and to seek inspiration by being immersed in different cultures and environments. And second, I wanted to find some space to just stop, decompress, and simply ‘be’.

I’m glad to report that I achieved both those goals in spades. A memory that will live on in my soul forever is spending a couple of hours under this tree in Sigtuna (Sweden), completely removed from any devices and just… doing nothing.


I’ll share the many inspirations from this trip in future Ko Labs but in this article, I want to share the reflections that surfaced under this tree. Naturally, having just wrapped up my time at the helm of Leadership Victoria, I thought a great deal about my experience there. Was I a good ‘leader’? When did I fail? Did I demonstrate the leadership behaviours we espoused in others?

These thoughts got so much playtime in my head because I often found it difficult to reconcile what it meant to be a ‘leader’, especially as the role of CEO was not one I had sought. The reality was that most mornings when I woke up and looked in the mirror, I would freak out a bit and think: “Huh. So… is this what a ‘leader’ looks like? This schmuck with an unkempt afro and a baby face? Who has to front an esteemed institution that champions leadership across Victoria for people with vastly more experience? This guy?”

The expectations of ‘leadership’


I suspect what contributed to these thoughts was what I felt to be the weight of expectations on ‘leaders’. My feed is full of articles and posts pushing the need for leaders to be empathetic. To be courageous. To be remarkable. To be vulnerable. We need decisive leaders! And inclusive leaders! And purposeful leaders! Here are the TOP 3 THINGS that great leaders do! AND they need to be authentic, let’s not forget!

Like… what the actual hell.

I recall an incident last year at a tense all-hands meeting on the topic of organisational culture when a staff member experienced an emotional moment and had to leave the room, accompanied by two people.

Once they left, I was called out by an employee: “Why didn’t you get up?” The challenge that was levelled against me was a ‘crime of empathy’, that because I didn’t get up, I must therefore not care. For context, the person who called me out was – by their admission – the most overtly empathetic person in the organisation.

Quite quickly, I was piled on by a different employee for the same issue but this time, the challenge was a ‘crime of process’. I was the direct report, and therefore the correct process dictated that I should have gotten up. Because I didn’t, I was thus derelict in my duties. Again for context, this second employee champions due process above all else.

As for my side of the story, at the moment of the incident, I was sitting the furthest away from both the exit and everyone else. I watched two people get up to accompany the distressed colleague, so I knew they were being supported.

For context, I was personally quite close with this colleague, having worked with them over several months to empower them and to build their confidence (though given the nature of hybrid work, this was invisible). I knew them well enough to know that being fussed over by more people wouldn’t have been appreciated.

So could I have gotten up? Perhaps. It was a judgment call I made at the time and I fully owned it. Thus with all eyes on me and challenges hanging in the air, I gathered my thoughts and began to respond, only to be interrupted almost immediately.

It turned out that despite demanding a response, neither challenging party wanted to hear what I had to say and further accusations ensued. It was rough, to say the least.

I eventually realised that I had been presented with a paradoxical scenario. I wasn’t being measured by what I’ve done. Because I was in a position of ‘leadership’, I was being measured against these employees’ expectations (and projections) of how they think a leader ought to behave, based on what they would’ve done.

The first employee was expecting me to be at least as caring and empathetic as they were, and the second employee at least as procedural and structured as they were. And because I didn’t act in a way that met these almost diametrically opposing expectations, I failed in my ‘leadership’.

The paradox of leadership vs authenticity


This incident is but one of many that I reflected on under the tree. Could I have demonstrated better leadership behaviours? What might those be? Could I have been more empathetic? Or more authoritative? But as I played through each scenario, I eventually realised that I couldn’t reconcile the expectations of others without compromising who I really was.

For instance, I like to think I’m quite empathetic, however my demonstration of empathy tends to be much more subdued, through deep listening and dialogue, and in private. And whilst I completely accept there’s always room for improvement, asking me to do a big public display of emotion would feel incredibly inauthentic. So, at what point do I stop being ‘Scott’ in order to fulfil the ‘leadership expectations’ of others?

Because this wouldn’t be a Ko Lab without a model, what I’ve done below is picked 5 random characteristics and – on a scale of 1 to 10 – plotted the expectations of two made-up employees as well as how I would rate my personal assessment of those characteristics.

Now, if I trace around the outer edge of the two expectations with a red dotted line, this is the shape I would need to be if I were to fulfil all ‘leadership expectations’. The combined area of the red shading (failed expectations) and the purple shading (how I show up) is the size of the paradox.

What this model does for me is highlight the contradictory environment that we create for leaders. We expect people to ‘stand up’, take risks, make tough decisions, be authentic, and role model behaviours we want to see in others. And then we get disappointed when they don’t dance the way we want them to.

We expect leaders to be the paragons of individuality, and yet we don’t accept the individuality of leaders. And therein lies the paradox.

So… what if the notion of ‘leadership’ is actually the problem?

Why do we seek leadership?


No seriously, think about it. Why do we call for more ‘leadership’? Do we really need more ‘leaders’? Will the arrival of another batch of leaders change the world? Or is it because we seek role models to demonstrate what ‘good leaders ought to do’?

It strikes me that the notion of leadership is synonymous with ‘foremost’, ‘superior’, ‘paramount’, and ‘being in front’. To be recognised as a leader typically implies that you’re the ‘best’ at something, or at least ‘better than others’.

Picture someone who is described as a ‘decisive leader’; how would you feel if they appeared to be less decisive than you? And from the leader’s perspective, if they’re expected to be a decisive leader, would that expectation push them to make rash decisions for the sake of appearances?

Of course, I know ‘being the best’ isn’t the only driving motivator for many people but I argue it has an undeniable influence. People often seek leadership roles because of the recognition of personal achievement and with it, the power to influence change. However, the pursuit of leadership can also create poor behaviours, from performative grandstanding to unhealthy competition, not to mention the endless stream of media noise touting the latest ‘secret’ to leadership.

From the perspective of ‘followers’, do we believe that leaders are the only ones capable of creating change? That if we don’t keep calling for ‘inclusive’ leadership (for example), no one would know how to be inclusive? What happens if leaders demonstrate ‘inclusivity’ in a way that we don’t like (aka the paradox)? Call for more leaders?

Now, I want to be clear that I’m by no means calling for an abolition of hierarchy because there is an important distinction between ‘authority’ vs ‘leadership’ (just as there’s a difference between management and leadership), but just consider the nuance of these two statements:

  • We need more inclusive leadership
  • We need more inclusive people

Just by placing the emphasis on leadership, I posit that we are essentially delegating the hard work to someone else, rather than putting in the effort to walk the talk.

What if we stopped seeking leadership?


When we take a step back to look at the volumes of books, theories, and programs on leadership, they often revolve around variations of the same things: Embracing different perspectives, ‘getting on the balcony’, learning from mistakes, being curious, emotional intelligence, empowering others, etc. Elevating self-awareness, in other words.

Frankly, these are all skills that are of benefit to everyone, not just the realm of leaders. Every single day, when the chips are down, against the messy backdrop of work and life, things going off the rails, angry people in our faces, and with limited information available, the reality is that no one is thinking: “Hold my beer, I’m gonna leader this so hard.”

Instead, we draw upon our skills and life experiences and do our best to make a call that feels right to us. And if we get lucky, other people just might look at that and think: “You know what, that was a pretty good example of leadership.”

This was my big realisation under the tree: Leadership is only ever identified in hindsight. There is little to no guarantee that applying a particular set of ‘leadership behaviours’ to every potential scenario will yield the same outcomes. What might be seen as good leadership in the short term may turn out to be horrible leadership in the long term, and vice versa.

Thus, what if we stopped seeking leadership? Let’s take the pressure off ourselves and off other people to be the paragon of whatever virtue is the flavour of the day. Instead, what if we just focused on trying to be just a little better each time and seeing the good in each other? Perhaps that’s enough.

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