Mar 20, 2020

What is Leadership?

Orla Nugent photo

by Orla Nugent

Posted on Mar 20, 2020

What is a leader, in the corporate world, in everyday management and in conflict situations? Our podcast host Will Francis meets senior leader and trainer Orla Nugent and security and defence analyst Declan Power.

Episode Transcript

Will: Welcome to "Ahead of the Game," a podcast brought to you by the Digital Marketing Institute, giving you insights from industry experts to supercharge your marketing skills.


And today is the big Q&A. I'm your host Will Francis and I'll be talking to Orla Nugent and Declan Power, who both specialize in leadership and in very different ways. Orla teaches project management, coaching, and leadership, imparting many years of experience in senior leadership roles in both public and private organizations. Declan's experience lies in security and defense, where he shows the people who deal with some of life's most stressful situations how to be leaders, and effectively manage conflict and crisis.


Welcome to the podcast, guys.


Orla: Thank you.


Declan: Thank you, Will.


Will: I suppose coming from outside of the world of coaching and leadership, I have to ask Orla first, what is leadership in the context of the modern workplace?


Orla: So what is leadership in the context of the modern workplace? I suppose it depends on what you define the modern workplace is. And one of the things is a probably more flatter structure. But I think leadership hasn't really changed. Leadership is about our power base, our influence, our ability to bring people with us. It's about the whys. If you think of Simon Sinek, it's about the why we do things, not the what, but it's actually why we do things to engage people, bring them with us so that we can achieve an end result.


Will: So it's basically about bringing people along on our mission, on some sort of shared mission.


Orla: On the journey.


Will: On the journey, yeah. What's your take on that, Declan?


Declan: Yeah, I'd agree completely. And just as you use the term mission, it's very easy to set the parameters about what has to be done, when it has to be done, it gets a little bit more complex, sometimes, the how it has to be done. And all of those things are answered from an authoritative point of view, if you like, they're set. But the why, the why is mercurial, and the why is where the leader, a good leader steps into their own, because they have to match the why and the objective with the capacity of their team.


And so then, we're back to things that Orla mentioned there, such as power of persuasion, because you can't just order people, especially in civilian organizations, but even in military organizations. That's not going to work. People won't...they won't bring their own ingenuity if they're being ordered. So persuasion, and then also, galvanizing sentiment is a term that I use, recognizing that one of the most powerful forms of communication is emotive-led, rather than logic-led. So there has to be a degree of emotional engagement and the leader is pivotal to that. You think about a good leader in a sporting environment. That's what they're doing. They're playing on the emotional side. And mobilizing then the team through persuasion, through sentiment, and whatever other tools that are culturally relevant. So a leader has to be very adaptable and have a degree of ingenuity.


Will: But don't some people just like being told what to do? Because there's certainty in that.


Declan: There is, there is, yeah. I think other people crave certainty, to a point. And that's the thing. We all have our overload mechanism. If we're constantly being told what to do and how to do it, and we're not getting any feedback, or we're not getting some benefit, I mean, hence why we're...why do people change their voting patterns? Because the certainty that they craved isn't delivered, or that the certainty that they have given, they've bought into, has now been taken for granted. So there's a whole...the thing about leadership is, unless it's a completely dictatorial situation, there has to be pushing...a give and take, ebb and flow. And even when there is a dictatorial scenario, as history has shown us, if the wise dictator...and there are such things, not a big fan of them, there are such things...they know to allow a bit of elasticity. If they don't, there'll be a rebellion.


Will: I'm thinking about those visionary leaders that Simon Sinek calls out, people like Steve Jobs, but he was actually famous for being pretty uncompromising, you know. So do you see that sometimes there's a place for quite dictatorial leaders, or is there something else going on there that's less obvious?


Orla: And the original question was about the modern workplace, and I think you need to think about what's the context within which we're working, and it's a know that VUCA model, the volatile, uncertain, complex world, ambiguity is key. And I would say the likes of Steve Jobs, he had a very, very personal vision. And different leaders will have different styles. And as Declan said, if you're dictatorial all the time, you're not going to bring people with you 150% of the time, which is what you're going to need if you're a leader and trying to deliver on a very high-brow vision.


Will: So is it that they selectively use that kind of power to dictate?


Orla: Yeah. So I think there's two things in it. And it's back down to the levers that you have as a leader and knowing what style you have. Because if you are a very much...a command and control type leader, but you're in...the context of the organization within which you work is culturally different to that, then you need somebody to temper that. So when I think of the leader and leadership, I think of the team around the leader, and I think of the other skills that other parts of a senior leadership team bring to that story, so that as a collective, we move it forward, if that makes sense.


Will: It makes a lot of sense. The natural question to ask you is what are those roles? Is there a perfect setup to have around a leader in that way?


Orla: So I think it depends on the leader. So every leader is different. We all have our strengths. We all have our weaknesses. And in terms of being a good leader, it's about understanding and being self-aware of where our strengths lie, what we need to complement for the good of the team and the organization and division, and then bringing that into the fold. So that self-awareness is really, really key and our emotional intelligence, not just our IQ, but our EQ as well.


Will: That begets another question, but I'll come on to that later. That's really interesting. So Declan, I know the area of interest of yours, particularly, how is leadership different to authority? Because you're from a military background where we see that as an incredibly hierarchical organization that is surely driven by authority.


Declan: Yes, it is. But one thing the military world has had to learn over the last, I would say, 50-odd years, or even if you go back to the World War II period, by necessity is that that hierarchical rigidity, it has its strengths, but it has its weaknesses as well. So you have to adapt to scenarios. For instance, the whole concept of a more modern aspect of conflict now, hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare, without going down a rabbit hole about that, but it's where you have to make...a strong military force won't succeed against a weak military force if it can't adapt. So if you don't develop thinkers and leaders with that adaptability mindset, you're going to fail. How do you do that in a hierarchical situation? Well, you've got to create different zones. You've got to recognize different leadership styles and reward them.


A lot of listeners may be familiar with the film "The Dirty Dozen." You know, it's an iconic one we all see every Christmas, for example. And it's a handy little example to remind, within a very rigid mentality, you have a military objective that requires certain types of people and a career officer who recruits a team out of military prison, the worst kinds of people you can imagine -- murderers, rapists, whatever. And he molds them into a team. He's using his awareness, his ingenuity, his imagination, and he's given the space to do it by his higher leadership. Why? Because they all are aware of what the objective is. And this objective won't be met with the normal tools.


And I think a lot of these wartime thinking is then carried over into the civilian world, into the corporate world, in the period between the early '50s and the 1960s, and gave us a lot of the management theory and the axioms some of which Orla has touched on.


So coming back now to your original point, within that was an awareness that a leader might not always have a lot of authority, but they will be pivotal to getting a job done. Some of what we touched on in the webinar, the informality aspect, one of the things I learned, when I moved into...out of mainstream military world into what was known as civil military coordination was how important interlocutors were. So if I went to a new locality...and this is relevant, it's relevant to some things I teach to law enforcement and to peacekeepers, you're not going to know the culture inside out, everywhere you go, but somebody will. So you start to identify those people who become, to borrow a word of Orla, authentic, authentic message carriers and opinion formers. You sit down and conceive the plan or the solution or whatever else in concert with these people and have them deliver, and they're authentic. So they're going to be listened to in a way that you might not be.


Let's dial that down a bit and take it back to a more Western, normal-type workplace. You come to a new place and you sit down and you map out who are the different personalities that are respected, who are the people who have competencies that are admired, and ways of doing things that don't jar with their co-workers. And they're fundamental to your leadership style, because you can't give orders purely and expect to have a success. You've got to use these tools of influence. And tools of influence are essentially people.


In the military world, we mentioned Pat Quinlan and the troops at Jadotville. He was an effective leader because his ability to coordinate 150-odd men was done through a mixture of formal and informal leadership personalities. They're your tools, if you like to coordinate. The captain of a ship does the same thing. The CEO of a company, if they're good, will do the same thing.


Will: And when you talk about authenticity in leadership, as well, it always sort of makes me think about...I think we all try and do that as leaders in modern creative workplaces, particularly. We try and be authentic, and then we stray into wanting to be liked. And then we stray towards the very famous TV character, David Brent, from "The Office," where we turn into actually the worst boss ever, you know.


Declan: Cringe worthy.


Will: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, Orla, in your experience, how do we avoid being authentic but also being very know, wanting to be one of the guys and be liked and basically be David Brent? How can I avoid that?


Orla: How can you avoid being David Brant?


Will: Please.


Orla: I suppose the word maturity springs to mind when you when you ask that question, and also the trust equation. So I think it's reliability, credibility, and intimacy divided by self-orientation. So, self-orientation in this case, in the David Brent case, is to be liked, not necessarily for who I am, but for who you might think I am, or trying to put on a show. So what we want to do as leaders is we want to be credible, so I know what I'm doing. We want to be intimate, warm, engaging, that EQ piece, reliable, so I walk the talk. So if I say something, I'm going to do this. But I also, my self-orientation, the reason, back to that thing, the why. I'm doing it not for me, not to further my own personal goals, but actually to achieve an aim that is a collective purpose that we all understand and are bought into.


Will: Because that's one of his hilarious flaws actually, thinking about that character is that he's in it for himself. He's actually horribly selfish and petty.


Orla: Yeah, that's exactly it.


Will: He doesn't really believe anything. He's just there because he can't get a better job that he really wants.


Orla: And maybe just to Declan's point as well, what he's relying on all the time is his authority. So he has a position as a manager, or a leader, a manager [inaudible 00:12:26], so it's an authoritative, he can reward and he can coerce, and he can punish, which he does. And that only gets you so far. And you can only do it, you know, once or twice and then that's it. Your bank of referential power or the credibility you've built up, you're eating away into that all the time.


Will: Just on that, because you your bio, it says that you've worked in public and private sectors. I'm interested in how that plays out across those sectors and is it different? Do you find people struggling with those issues more in private or in public organizations?


Orla: I think it's back to understanding the context within which you're working. So what are the rules of the game? What are the norms? What are the behaviors, what's acceptable? And then knowing yourself, and your values and how you operate, and there's a kind of a melting of the two a little bit. In terms of how people struggle, I'm wondering, actually, it's more a question. As the younger generation comes into the workforce, it's more egalitarian. And so coming into a workplace or a culture that's very hierarchical, very command and control, that, to me, I think is a definite conflict and challenge.


But I'd also say if I'm going to take up a new role, one of the key things I need to do is sit down and understand the culture of what I'm stepping into. And in interviews, we spend an awful lot of time going, "Absolutely, I know exactly what's going on." But what we need to do is actually understand...I talk about the iceberg, what sits underneath the waterline? What are the norms? What are the behaviors? What are the cultures? What are the values? And therefore, how do they align with me? So as a leader, will I be effective in that space?


Will: And you're right. There is this new variable entering leadership, isn't there, of, well, Millennials, well, Xennials, really, for want of a better word, you know, people who have just graduating from university. We don't quite know, I don't think anybody's perfectly pinpointed what it is about their upbringing that's made them think differently about authority. How's the military dealing with that, Declan? Do you know?


Declan: Well, before I directly answer that, but just to broadly address your point about Millennials, I think, in terms of their leading and managing, we have done them a little bit of a disservice. We infantilized them to some extent. And I think that starts not exclusively, but it can start at home, with good reason. People are very protective of their kids. I mean, the days of when...all of us probably experienced, being able to [inaudible 00:15:00] the long summer evenings [inaudible 00:15:01]


Will: I think that's definitely a contributory factor.


Declan: It is definitely. Now, it's understandable. And I don't think it's the only factor.


The other problem I would identify, based on some of my own personal experiences, institutions, educational institutions, universities, colleges, schools, I think, probably third level more so than schools have a tendency to overprotect, and also to run to the students and treat them as consumers. So students can't deal with something that's a bit pressured. You see it now with the university managements. They will straightaway seek to alleviate their fears and listen to them in a way that's not helpful. Because the students aren't experts. They have a problem, they have a complaint, it mightn't be relevant. And nobody is willing to turn around and say, "You know what, guys, this is one that you're not expected to know all the answers. It's a learning curve. Now, suck it up and get on with it and see how you do. We can't make everything right for you."


And I have a big problem with that because I dip in and out of third level or I'm teaching, I'm not part of the staff. And sometimes I'm dealing with trying to manage expectations of course directors who quite literally don't understand what I'm about. They're not interested in the quality of what I'm trying to deliver. They're interested in me manipulating that to meet the needs of the students, instead of interrogating whether the students are getting what they really need.


And so that brings me back to a point that I was reminded of when you were talking to Orla. The leader, a good leader, particularly today, needs to be aware of boundaries. That's one of the things that David Brent, in his selfishness and also his weakness, he wanted to be liked. And whenever things wouldn't work, he'd run back and hide behind his authority.


A good leader realizes they can have friendly relations, should cultivate friendly relations, but they're not the friend. You know, there's a difference. You have to relationship management. It's like good parenting is about you're not the kids' friend. I don't know what you think, but I cringe when I hear people say, "Oh, my mother is my best friend or my father is my best friend." Now, I've been a little bit harsh. But the thing is you when you have to enforce authority, you can't be have to leave that space. And then when it comes to it, and you do enforce it, it won't be harsh. It won't be a jarring thing.


So the old phrase, which was redolent in the military, familiarity breeds contempt. I would adjust that for the modern era and say, familiarity breeds complacency. And to come around this back to what you were talking about today with Millennials, and I do think they get bagged [SP] out a lot. But I do think...I don't think we're managing the process too well. They get complacent, because they have been reared in an environment, if I can be simplistic, where they're told, "Your opinion counts for the same as everybody else's," which is foolish, because somebody, if they've been taught something by somebody who's further up the hierarchy, their opinion shouldn't count in that way. It's not contextualized property in our rush to be equable. And as a result, they aren't developing the resiliency that they need for the modern workplace.


And your point about how are the military managing it, they have had to adapt the training environment. It's certainly not as harsh initially as it was when I went into it. I don't think that's a bad thing. It starts at a level that's appropriate to the cultural landscape today, but then it does move, it brings them along, so they won't be trained soldiers otherwise, and particularly with regards to special forces and more, more hard-edge versions of soldier.


What has happened with that is they're still turning out very formidably physical and mentally tough people, but they're developing their capacity to be intuitive and to exercise initiative. And that's a good thing. So, you know, militaries are learning from their mistakes, but mainstream society, I don't think so.


Will: That's a really interesting point, isn't it? But I wanted to ask you, Orla, about that. Would you have any advice for someone who's just stepped into a new management role, it's maybe their first management role, and they've got to manage people in their 20s. And they've heard that managing Millennials is a nightmare. Would you have any advice to that person?


Orla: And so I'm just actually thinking about David Brent and wanting to be liked. And so the first thing is, you know, if you're a leader, then there's a good chance you're not going to be liked because you're there because you're bringing in change. And one of the, I suppose, the soundbite I'd have in my head is leadership is about distributing losses at a rate people can absorb. So it doesn't matter what age they are.


Will: It's about distributing losses.


Orla: ...losses at a rate people can absorb.


Will: [inaudible 00:19:43] through that.


Orla: So if I said to you, "I'm going to introduce some change, Will, and you're going to win the lotto," how do you feel?


Will: Great.


Orla: Fantastic. If I said, "I'm going to introduce some change, Will, I'm going to take away your bike."


Will: Oh, I don't like that.


Orla: There. See? So but I might need to take away your bike for whatever reason, but I need to kind of introduce it to you at a pace that you can absorb, maybe I give you an alternative or whatever it is. So it's about bringing in change, cultural change, how we do things. It's not the norm. So regardless of what age group you're leading, it's having that in your mind. And that's back to that point about not necessarily being liked but being understood.


And I think in terms of working with younger generations as well, and back to Declan's point, they need to know why they're doing it. They're not buying into it because it's a good job or it's X, Y and Z. They're buying into it because they're interested in it. They want to learn potentially something new and they want an experience. So part of that is hooking into understanding what's in it for me, but also that they understand the why and what's our purpose here, and we're part of a bigger picture.


Will: Yes, indeed. And it is funny you talk about having to, you know, manage expectations and negative losses, because there's definitely in a something web, because people can see how everyone around the world lives, most young people have seen what it's like to work at Google, or Facebook, or one of these Silicon Valley companies where there's like, you know, a slide from the first floor to the ground floor and there's free dinners and free parties and pizza and beer every Tuesday night.


Orla: Very seductive.


Wil: It's very seductive, but I think it's... Have expectations been raised, perhaps? I mean, it's a very leading question, because I'm sort of pushing for a yes. But do you see that or not?


Orla: I see the other side of it then. So you've got people who work in organizations like that, and then they're trapped because you end up with long hours. You don't need to leave the building. Everything you need is on tap.


Will: That's [inaudible 00:21:42]


Orla: Exactly. So, you know, initially, I have to say it's very attractive. And if I was starting out my career again, I'd be delighted to work in an organization that had all of that available to me. But I think after a couple of years, and as you develop and mature within your role, you have different needs and your life changes and you want that life balance. So you start to question what's valuable to me, what are the values of this organization. So the shift begins, and therefore, you might take a...


We talked about balcony and dance floor earlier in the webinars, you get off that dance floor of the canteen's always open, the yoga's up in the pad or whatever, I can slide down when I'm going home in the evening, to okay, let me stand back and look at this organization. Let me look at what's my work-life balance here? How healthy is it? Am I still getting what I need from the organization in terms of career progression and learning opportunities, and yet, I can still have a, you know, have kids, get married, get out in the evening, whatever it might be. And so yeah, so to me, it's about that balance and maturity and our changing needs as we progress.

Will: And given the way the world's changing, do you think that, you know, are all these hierarchical company org charts becoming outdated? Are they still being used by the most progressive companies? Are they just necessary?


Orla: Well, I think it's, you know, as organizations get bigger, we need to put structure. And we talked about it earlier as well, it's about understanding what role I have within the organization, and then those clear line of communication. And when you say those two words to me, that's starting to introduce some kind of structure to it. So whether it's a hierarchical structure or a flat structure, this still needs some structure, it has to be clear lines of communication, and that, to me, is a structure.


And then I think we start bringing in our own competitive nature. And, you know, I might think I'm better than Declan as X, Y, and Z, so therefore I should be a little peg higher or paid a little bit more. So I think our own natural competitiveness then starts bringing in that community hierarchy.


So to me, I don't think you can get away from structures. Probably different types of structures, but certainly, I don't you can get away from them.


Declan: As a leader, you have to have that awareness then to match the capacity to the structure. And so I totally agree, structure is hugely important, but maintaining it for tradition's sake, which can happen, so you can' adjust, you adapt the structure. You are constantly aware of the need for the structure. So the good leader will have an intimate awareness of the capacity of his organization, of his team, and will harness that knowledge from the team about capacity as well. So they will adapt, and they will know if they're overreaching themselves as well, which has been a classic case of you've seen people who've done very well, companies that have done very well, and then they hit a point. And they can't see it themselves because they've gotten a bit of a group think.


And just coming back to a point that you were both talking about, Google, that struck me, it reminds's a much more pleasant version, in many ways, of a military barracks where everything you need is there and you buy totally into the organization. And that's fine for a period. One thing we learned with small militaries like the Irish military, I think the Australians, the Canadians learned this too, where the younger...the young junior enlisted soldiers are in that environment for a period. But when they start to get married, whatever else, it's better, in many respects, that they live off-base, that they engage with the community, that they have a whole rounded life. Those that are surrounded by the military all their life, it can kind of go back to that infantilization. So you've men of 38 years of age, who still think they're 18. Now, it's great within one environment, but it's problematic as you're trying to move them through the organization and get the best out of them.


And that's not peculiar. You could say this about Google as well. They're probably delighted. They have a model that keeps everybody within the mothership. But then by the time those 25-year-olds become 45-year-olds, and you're relying on them for the next level of strategic guidance and development, will they have that? Because they have been so within this orbit, Google orbit, that they are not exposed to other influences and ideas.


Will: Well, yeah, and of course, there's lots of questions around whether that's even a healthy, you know, work-life balance, very much like you talk about with those national armies, you know. Okay. And you know, what's interesting listening to both of you talk is that so much of the information that you...the knowledge that you've got is new to marketers like me. And it all highlights the fact that leadership is still a massively underserved discipline. It's not talked about enough. It's not integrated into personal development in workplaces. And yet, it's such an obvious problem. People get promoted into jobs, management jobs, and they've gone from employing their skill to having to then manage other people to employ that skill without any preparation or training. Why do we still do that? Any idea?


Declan: I think, you've sort of touched into it, I mean, a lack of awareness of that, a lack of awareness that leadership is not a one size fits all skill set or art, and it's something that has to be constantly in a fluid state, and the individuals who practice it have to constantly update themselves, expose themselves, interrogate themselves to get the best out of themselves. And I think you could say that about any profession. You take medicine, for example. You don't stand still or you won't advance. You take business, you take the world of IT, it's all about moving forward.


Orla: And I wonder as well, because within organizations, you have people who are individual contributors and people who are people managers. So on your career path then, if you...and maybe the people manager is the higher-profile job. So, I think coming back to the individual, we need to see, "Oh, where is my strength? What do I want to do?" Being a people manager, people leader is a difficult job. Being an individual contributor has boundaries to it. So I can begin and end and I, you know, probably have a zone of influence.


And so I think, as an individual, we need to think about well, what kind I want to get into this fray? Do I know what I'm getting myself into? I think for organizations, it's almost a reward, when sometimes it's not a reward, because I might not be ready for that step. I might be suited more to the individual contributor role. And I do need to develop my skill from being a really good expert and doing X, Y, and Z, to actually been able to step on that balcony, look across what's going on, look for the interlocutors, look for the interfaces, so it's a completely different mindset. And companies, I think, sometimes see it as a reward and forget about that step.


Will: Because there's a financial reward attached to it. That's why, you know...and I mean, in my world, you see that in ad agencies all the time. Designers, for instance, who are made art directors or creative directors, and they love designing and yet, now, they've been told they can't just sit and just design all day. They got to look at other people's designs and critique them and deal with clients, and it's not as much fun anymore. The money's a bit better, but so that's it. That's a perennial problem, I think, throughout industry, but just do you see certain industries or companies are better and worse at preparing new leaders? Or do you see any trends around that?


Declan: Do you know, just as you say that, I think companies are getting cleverer. But I think also individuals are getting cleverer. It's a combination of the way the education process, education and training. So there's some of the techniques that the principles have been brought into a degree, postgraduate courses, and then people are taking it and owning it themselves.


And one of the things that struck me just as you were talking there, there was an individual I worked with some years ago, in an educational institution, and he was a big picture thinker, and he really innovated and he brought that institution to a whole new level. And I've often talked about him with older colleagues who knew him intimately and revered him. And it was because he knew his capacity. He wanted to innovate. He wanted to strike new fronts and relationships. And as a result, what he wasn't good at, he knew as well, sweating the small stuff, the important attention to detail. So he would quite willingly delegate and be quite clear to people. "This is what I expect you to look after. Don't come to me with those issues, unless you really need to." And so the day-to-day management and administration of the institution was done by others, because he was secure enough and comfortable enough in doing that and was good at appointing, and those people stepped up to the job because they were imbued with the trust. And then he was free. He was jettisoning all that baggage.


It reminds me a little bit of Michael O'Leary at times. He's not the ideal, but he quite focused...very much focused on what he enjoys doing and he's quite adaptable in ways where he, you know, the old stories about him going down and emptying the baggage of the planes along with the guys and playing a bit of indoor soccer with them and then he's back. But he never...everybody knows where they stand with him, because he's quite abrasive as well. And it's not ideal, but I'm just saying he's, you know, he's good at jettisoning what holds him back.


Will: I mean, yeah, the modern-day popular examples Elan Musk, isn't it? You know, he's the CEO of Tesla, bought...and he's a visionary, but he loves to sit and design at his computer and come up with ideas and, you know, make them come to life.


Orla: And I think just back to your question there about, do we see organizations that do this well, and I think it's down to budgets. So you've got large organizations who are investing in a talent pipeline, they're trying to bring young people through, there's a certain amount of fall off as you go up the pyramid. So they're going to constantly invest in their people and in leadership development, and they create corporate universities and all of that. But it's the smaller organizations which could be, like ad agencies and things like that, that every man counts and so even giving time away from the office for somebody to develop those skills...


Will: Could be charging a client for that.


Orla: Absolutely, yeah, exactly. But that's short-term gain, isn't it? Because at the end of the day, somebody's gonna get frustrated and leave because they're not getting that development. And to your point, they're probably not doing the job that they want to do anymore. And, you know, that's a dissatisfied person. I think they say 75% of people who leave organizations leave managers, not the company.


Will: That's interesting, isn't it? God, so I mean, because I was gonna ask you, you know, what the costs of poor leadership are and who suffers the most? What do you think?


Orla: I think people in organizations have the most, but obviously, the costs are, you know, your customers, losing business, your commercial edge, all of that. But at the end of the day, and I think there was...Gallup did a study a couple of years ago, and they said 30% of employees are actively committed to doing their job, 50% are putting in their time, and 20% are actually discontent. So that's that dissatisfaction. And then we're left a very small number of employees who were actually the visionary that you talked about, Declan, actually trying to pull the organization forward. They said, I think ,it's about a half a trillion cost to the economy in a year. So there's a financial impact, but there's also a human impact, which people don't talk about. So back to 75% of people who are leaving because they're dissatisfied, and we're not tapping into that as leaders, because we probably don't know how to do this. Because all of a sudden, we've been just given this great promotion and we don't know necessarily how to tap into that people management, people leadership side of things.


Will: Absolutely. I mean, now you say, when you think to any friend, think back to any friend complaining about a job, they're complaining about a person, and it actually makes them can make them very upset, and a lot of cases, very angry, upset, resentful, and belittled, and all kinds of things.


Declan: And, you know, that's something as well. It's not just about the people that leave the organization. There's a lot of people that can't, for your mortgage, family reasons, leave. And then you have...and I have to thank Orla for reminding me about this in the document she shared with me recently...about adaptive leadership, but you have a concept called work avoidance. It resonated with me because I've seen it so many times where people just...they're not interested in change, because it hasn't been communicated appropriately, it's too sudden. It's people, you know, relying on authoritative management styles. And then these people, they don't leave, but they become dead weight. And they start to look for scapegoats for how they feel within the company, which leads to an even more toxic climate. Oftentimes, they'll be the ones, these people will be the ones, when they're asked, "What annoys you most," and they'll talk about leadership, but it's not the leadership. It's the authority that's at fault here, and the fact that there is no leadership.


So you can alleviate a lot of these things if you've got a flexible, adaptable and agile leadership mindset within an organization that realizes that this is...there's a constant flow, and you have to be examining, and that if you get into a complacent, authoritative mindset that seems like it's providing stability and security, you know, you're back to the iceberg. You're only seeing the tip, and you're not understanding what's going on and the perspectives and the situation, your situation awareness is at fault.


Will: Yeah.


Orla: And actually, just on that...what you're just making me think of as well, you asked what the cost was, and I'm going to say it's bad decision making, because of all those factors. Because people have left, the people that are left, there's a resonance within the organization that there's discontent there. And then as you said, you've got people acting out and you've got that challenging environment. And then how do we make good decisions if we're in that space?


Will: Indeed. Now, both of you have name checked this idea of adaptive leadership. Orla, I know it's something that's of particular interest to you. Just tell me in a nutshell what that means.


Orla: For your listeners, I'd say you can Google "adaptive leadership" and you can learn about it in four minutes. Somebody who's done this. But in essence, so Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky developed this concept, and it's all about better diagnosis of problems, and the idea that leadership is an activity, so it's not a position. Anyone can lead from any position within the organization.


Will: It doesn't have to be in your job title [inaudible 00:36:23]


Orla: It doesn't have to be your job title. Exactly, yeah. And the whole idea is that enabling better diagnosis is understanding if we're presented with a problem or a challenge, that isn't something that we understand, is it clear cut, if it is, then it's very technical, and it goes into the concept of authority. So that's something that we can just do by rote. Whereas when we get into adaptive problems, and adaptive problem solving, that's where we need to bring in perspective, we need to bring in learning so that we can understand the problem or possibly understand the solution. And that whole idea of getting on the balcony and observing and bringing in all our data points and then moving towards interpretation.


Will: Yeah, I understand that. It's about not just applying the blunt fact of your authority.


Orla: Exactly.


Will: And actually taking each situation as new and worthy of assessment and contemplation and also working collaboratively with people, getting them on board rather than telling them what to do.


Orla: Yeah, exactly, and understanding your stakeholders, so having that whole piece of understanding the system within which you're operating. And I should also say Marty Linsky has a TED Talk as well on adaptive leadership, so if your listeners want to...


Will: You sent me a link to that before in this podcast. It's very good, actually, I agree.


Okay, just thinking forward, a couple of things to ask you to close on. I'd love, from both of you, just some very short top tips for someone thinking about or having entered a new leadership role. Declan.


Declan: I think, first, is to map out who's who. The Dutch military used to have a phrase, "Who's who in the zoo," and we were talking about [inaudible 00:38:09] stakeholder awareness. It's the same thing. Just take pause, say very little, try and project that warmth and benignness, so you're not a threat to anybody.


And take your time to figure out because there is the observable hierarchy. Let's go back to the tip of the iceberg. And this is the same in all organizations, let me add, whether it's an informal, whether it's Google. Let's just take, at one end of the spectrum, use the Google concept of leadership and corporate management, and if the military... Even in the military world, you will find that there are a lot of important leaders without authority. And the same is going to happen. It might be harder to figure out at first.


And if I could use just a personal example of this. I was faced with a problem in a remote part of South Sudan during the Civil War there in 2014, where we needed to get access into an area controlled by the rebel forces. It was a conventional type of civil war. But the problem was the district governor there was being very obtuse and awkward and he was been slow to issue the permissions that the UN needed to move about. And he wasn't very literate. And he also didn't...he was very keen not to project weakness. And this was a huge problem. And if you went out at full on, it was going nowhere, and it was a brother of the leader of the opposition forces.


Anyway, a very clever Canadian woman figured out after a while that this guy relied hugely on a woman who was a local teacher. She spoke all the tribal languages. She spoke French and English, and she was well-educated, he was semi-illiterate, and she was the power behind the throne. I'm simplifying it a little bit. Identifying or figuring it out, finding points of communication, she was the unblocking force. You go into a new company, you need to figure out who are the titular people in charge, who was the power behind the throne. You know, it could be the tea lady. Be nice to everybody, as they say. The receptionist in a company knows everybody, knows their faults and weaknesses, because they're seeing them coming and going at all hours of the day and night, you know. Paying attention to those things. These are the basics of intelligence gathering 101, but a leader has to be able to gather those things and make sense out of them.


Will: That's great. Orla, what would you say? I've just landed myself a new management job, help.


Orla: Help, help. So as Declan said, I think that one of the most important things we can do is just sit in reception of an organization and watch how people react to the receptionist and people coming and going. But I would probably say three words that spring into mind. One is listen. So listen, listen to the organization, listen to yourself, you know, gather all that information, as Declan says, learn as much as you can about how it operates and what's going on. And then there's something about a sense of leaving, so if you've taken over a role from somebody else, and they were revered in the company, well, listen to that.


Will: [inaudible 00:41:03]


Orla: Yeah. And understand that, you know, there's a gap there, there's a loss, you know, you're filling this gap. So how does the organization feel about that? And what does that say about you? What are their expectations of you? Is that that you're going to be the new Declan, or the new Orla, but you know, that you'd be like the old guard? So what does that represent to the organization? Because what you want to do, I suppose, is belong, everybody belongs to the team. You're new to the team. So it's about establishing your belonging within that team.


Will: That's a really good tip. Yeah, thank you. Both of them are. And one last question, actually, before we wrap up, again, thinking towards the future, do you think there's a role for, I mean, I'm a dad, my son's only three. But I wonder if there's a role for teaching leadership to kids. And if they could benefit from that or whether we should just maybe not bother them with it until they come of age? What do you think about that?


Orla: So I think there's two things for me. I think you can...not about teaching leadership, I think it's about giving opportunities for kids to explore in sport or through learning, that taking on roles or taking on leadership roles, that sounds quite grandiose when you say it like that, but there was an organization that I was on the board of called BizWorld, and that was about bringing, into classrooms, so into primary school, and it was started in California, it's around the world now, and there's an Irish, BizWorld Ireland, but what they did was they bring into a class, kids get the opportunity to create a business. And in doing that, they apply for a job. They decide what the business will look like, they decide who's going to be the boss, who's going to take on X, Y, and Z. But in doing that, kids engage with it in a totally different way. And it's non-threatening, and they're creating this new world. And they have to go and create a movie and actually sell tickets for the movie, negotiate with a dragon to get their funding. So doing that sort of activity builds confidence, and then starts creating those memories of, "Well, I've done that before. I can do it again." Kids then naturally will push forward for those opportunities to take on those challenges.


So I think give lots of opportunities to experiment, to play, to be in those sort of spaces.


Will: I love that. That's great.


Declan: I would echo that and I would take up on the word Orla said there, "play." If you take the business concept you were talking about there, which probably works best for kids who are, you know, secondary school age, if you dial it back then to primary school age, okay, sport is a great place to learn the fundamentals of leadership, but not every kid is sporty. And I think, nowadays, we've made play's very constructed, it's very safe. We could play around, to coin a phrase, with that, at primary school age. And I think if teachers, if it was instituted a little bit within the curricula that there's time given over for role playing, so kids love to play and they love to exercise their initiative.


And if you bring roleplay into the classroom, into that environment, maybe you want to teach kids about road safety. I'm not making this up myself, I'm remembering when I was in third class, we had to teacher, Paul McGraw was his name, and he was trying to teach us about road safety. And he had us take different roles. And, you know, the doctor, the priest, the ambulance man, the guard, the surgeon, whatever else. And he explained the concept and then we played it out. And we all loved it. We enjoyed it. I can remember it to this day, it was 1978 when we were doing it. And I was playing the role of the guard, the surgeon, and I loved the bit of authority that went with it. And there were various other things that he wanted to teach us about and he used that, where we played it through. He kind of gave us the rules of the game, and then, it was a game, but it resonated with us and we all enjoyed it.


Now think about today where things have become more diverse and complex. Think of the use of play at a primary school level where you're not just teaching kids about leadership, but you're teaching them how to lead in a role where we're more gender-aware or more ethnicity-aware. A kid of color could be in an authority position that somebody else might be used to seeing them in. A girl could be given a role that she mightn't have, in her family environment, been exposed to. It's transformative, and all in a very positive way. And it lays down the foundation for those people when they go on to more formal education and training.


Will: Absolutely.


Orla: Just to add what Declan said, so a lot of that work happens in primary school. And I think in terms of kids, for teachers, they start to see the children engage in a very different way, so to help them learn and develop. But also, I'd say we can bring play into the corporate world, and get us to learn through that and relate to each other in a different way. So as part of a leader, having those...I'm not a big fan of those away days, but if you have it as part of a program, then you're getting to understand your team in a different way and getting to see them operate in a different light.


Declan: Environment, yeah.


Will: Yeah, that's true. Those things are very helpful, even just company [inaudible 00:46:04] or basics, or, you know, sports. Well, that's great. That's so insightful. I feel like we've learned so much in such a short time. Thank you very much, really, really great to have you both Orla and Declan.


Declan: It was very enjoyable.


Will: Thank you.


Orla: Thank you very much indeed.


Will: If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And for more information about transforming your marketing career through certified online training, head to Thanks for listening.

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Orla Nugent

Orla has 20+ years international experience working in the Public and Private sectors in senior leadership roles and as a Non-Executive Director.  Currently Orla is Deputy CEO of the Higher Education Authority. Previously Orla worked in Higher Education, Financial Services, Technology, Professional Services and the Start-up sector. Orla has extensive experience of working with organizations during periods of significant change and delivering large scale Change Programmes. Orla’s holds a degree in Engineering, an MBA, Leadership and Coaching qualifications from the Harvard Kennedy School, Institute of Directors, IoD, (UK), and University College Dublin.