Experiences of Leadership

by Orla Nugent

Posted on Jun 12, 2020

Our 'Modern Mindset' series of podcasts look at ways in which we can all be more productive and how productivity is key to juggling your digital marketing career with your personal life.

This lively discussion on the meaning of leadership covers it all - from early mentorship to loneliness at the top, learning humility and being authentic, with Orla Nugent discussing starting her career as a female engineer and Declan Power's experiences grounded in the military. We even hear mention of Bruce Springsteen and, of course, David Brent (from The Office). Host Will Francis brings it all together in this three-way chat about leadership. 


1. Orla Nugent, Deputy CEO of the Higher Education Authority, Ireland

Orla has 20+ years of 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 in 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.

2. Declan Power, Adjunct Lecturer, NATO School

Declan Power is a security/defence analyst and writer. He is also an adjunct lecturer on Conflict, Security and Fragile States at TCD and works with the European Commission on projects involving counter-terrorism (CT) and countering of violent extremism (CVE). A former career soldier, he served in the three combat arms of the Irish army on a variety of operations both at home and abroad. He continues to deploy on UN and other missions.

In addition to attending the military college, Declan has also completed a degree in journalism with Dublin City University and is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies from Trinity College Dublin and the UNHCR’s Emergency Management program. He has studied and instructed on various civil and military crisis management courses, including UNOCHA’s Civil-Military Staff Planning Course, NATO’s CCOE School and the UK’s Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies (BCIS).

He also wrote Siege at Jadotville (Maverick House 2005), one of the few books dealing with the Irish experience of UN service during the Congo mission. The book was adapted for film as the award-winning ‘Siege of Jadotville’ directed by Richie Smyth.

Experiences of Leadership - Transcript

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. Today is the modern mindset where we explore those soft skills that are so vital to develop in your career. I'm Will Francis, and I'll be talking to Orla Nugent and Declan Power, who both work to help others improve their leadership skills. Orla teachers project management, coaching, and leadership, drawing on many years of experience in senior roles in both public and private organizations. Declan's experience is in security and the military, where he shows people who operate in sometimes extreme circumstances how to lead, survive, and succeed. Welcome to the podcast, guys.

Orla: Thank you.

Declan: Thank you.

Will: And you are clearly both experts, great experts in leadership and it's your job to tell people how to be leaders but you are leaders yourself. What is leadership to you in your career, Orla?

Orla: That's an interesting question. It's making me think. So what is leadership to me in my career? I suppose it's a combination of a position and generating or inspiring others to work with me towards a goal. And that goal might be multifaceted. So it might be short. There's probably a short-term win but there's probably a multi-year goal at the end of it. Sorry. Now, Will, at the back of my brain, it's got...

Will: No, that's perfect actually. It's a really nicely crystallized explanation of what leadership is. It's great.

Orla: Okay. So yeah, so it's a mixture of your position. But the other thing I'd say though, as well, and I'm just thinking about leadership and career, is taking the opportunity to actually do something beyond your comfort zone. So that's demonstrating, I suppose, a desire to expand our knowledge and my expertise. And that's probably how I would have developed my career in terms of taking on projects that were beyond me either putting my hand up to them or being tapped on the shoulder and asked to go for them. And then by doing that, building my confidence and my credibility.

Will: So you're saying that you've grown as a leader through basically being pushed to new challenges and...

Orla: Or pushing myself to new challenges.

Will: Yeah. Because that's not something I suppose we traditionally think about what leadership is. We just think it's a role and it's about organizing and delegating.

Orla: Yeah. So I'm an engineer. So my career, to start out with, would have been a programmer, very technical. And then as you progress and you get better at it, you get tapped on the shoulder to lead maybe be a team leader in a small team. But I suppose over time, I realized that I prefer to work with people than computers and I preferred that engagement piece. So that was I suppose a natural choice for me to just work with people and then work with larger teams as I went along. So a lot of my learning was done on the job, so to speak, and learning from my managers, my bosses, having mentors, even though I didn't know what a mentor was, but looking to people who could advise me or give me insight to how I was doing stuff and getting feedback. So a lot of scars and... but a lot of positive experiences as well, but they buoy you up and give you that confidence to try the next challenge.

Will: Declan, you offer insight from your background in defense, the military world to help people develop their own leadership skills, but how do you employ leadership in your job?

Declan: Yeah, I think I employ it differently according to the objectives required and that has been fundamental to my experience of it as well. So while the military is a big part of my formation, it's not... it hasn't been an entire career within the military. It was something that laid a lot of good building blocks. I wasn't at a terribly high level within it. But because of the work I did and the particular rules I found myself thrown into, I was working with people at a very high level. And that gave me an insight into leadership, both at a formal and informal basis. And that's where I began to learn about the whole idea that a hugely authoritative institution couldn't rely on that totally. And there were lots of different models and roles. And I learned from the people in those environments.

And just one simple takeaway was I realized how motivational it can be if you get somebody who has rank but who doesn't rely on it hugely and who leads his team by making people feel that he's working with them rather than they're working for him so that you become invested. And you would get individuals of all ranks who would put in long hours because they were all invested in the objective because they all felt they had to create the way to attain it. And that really resonated with me. And I think anything anybody listening out there who has been in the military will understand this, it leaves us with the foundation, you don't have been a general to have learned how to lead. No, I learned the principles of leadership at small units and slightly large unit level in the military college. But it was being engaging in being mentored that really gave me the foundation.

And then when I went out of the military, I got the opportunity to lead on a bigger canvas. You either go on to, you either stay in the military, where you climb up the the ranks and it's a pyramid, or you can get out. And those of us who got out at a reasonably young age after 10 or 12 years found that the doors had opened because we were using the lessons we had learned. And so I found myself then in leadership roles in more formal leadership roles abroad. Sometimes in a context, as I said earlier with the UN service. And on some related projects. And then I found you couldn't rely totally on the corporate or military-type structure because you had these myriads of people with different cultures and backgrounds.

And you had to go from being a formal to an informal leader and you utilize every tool that you had, that you had learned, and you learned along the way. And that experience, particularly abroad, working with a mixture of cultures, made me quite adaptable, I think. And it taught me lessons and it taught me that I couldn't rely on the typical things that people think. It taught me how not to mistake management for leadership.

Will: Yeah. And, you know, you guys have mentioned some kind of management and leadership frameworks. I mean, what came first for you? Did you formalize your kind of organic understanding of leadership that you developed over the years with the kind of academic stuff? Or did you have to kind of learn it from textbooks to some degree?

Declan: Well, certainly when I was in the military college, like all cadets are taught about the principles of leadership. But a lot of that doesn't seem real and it's very textbook stuff and it wasn't... and there was a lot of other things as well. And I've often had this conversation with former comrades at reunions and things, 10, 15, sometimes 20 years later: some of those principles would then make sense. You'd find you had stored them away and they would come out for use in the most unusual ways. So I think it's a combination. You learn by doing. You're not anything when you have attained the qualification. You have a framework. And then it's by doing and applying it that you actually learn. So that's where the mentoring comes in, the personalities you meet.

One of the things we talked about in the webinar, Orla mentioned that I'm trying to... We've talked about it as mentoring but there was the...

Orla: Sponsor, was it?

Declan: Yes. And the importance there of the role modeling as well.

Orla: Role modeling, yeah.

Declan: And role modeling I think was hugely important for me. And that's how I learned to know of a lot. There's a lot of things that you can learn in a formal textbook setting that you won't often remember until you've gone through this process. And the role modeling and the experience of sort of like the old-fashioned apprenticeship. And there's three key personalities I can think of, some who were in the military, some weren't, who formed that role with me.

And I think everybody in their journey towards attaining leadership skills and abilities needs to have that kind of relationship. And I think, for this has become particularly important is the advancement of women in the workforce into leadership positions. You know, women are traditionally known to be very good at conventional learning and do very well in university. And people ask the question, "Why does those high marks attained in school and university not translate into high positions in the workforce?" Now part of that we all know has to do with the fact that women also tend to be the primary caregivers and they're juggling and they're making value judgments. But also it was because there wasn't this mentoring, informal mentoring, and that's been addressed now. I think you would know more about that, Orla, at this point.

Orla: Yeah. So I think I would say that sponsoring is actually more important than mentoring. So mentoring is a great way to learn. But you need somebody to sponsor you in an organization.

Will: What does that mean? What's that look like?

Orla: Okay, so what that means is, there's somebody higher up in the organization who is at the decision-making table. So that when choices have been made about opportunities or promotions, that they know who you are, what you're about, what you've achieved, and what you can contribute. So your name goes into the pass. So you're part of the conversation. So you're effectively in the room but via that sponsor. So it could be a mentor or sponsor, but the sponsor is usually there to sponsor you, to bring you along in the organization. And that's really, really important. And I think probably the networks are more male-based, previously. So now we've got more women coming up through the ranks, but also men are more awakened and aware of diversity and what good that can bring to business decision making. And so therefore, there's more proactive approaches to ensuring the greater gender balance and diversity.

Will: And how do people, just so listeners are clear, how do people in companies go about getting a sponsor to bring them along? Obviously, they need to prove themselves in some way to have potential.

Orla: Yeah. So I think you can. I suppose you get to know your organization, you get to know the leaders. And I suppose over time, you're proving yourself, you're showing yourself as a competent, reliable contributor to the organization's goals. And as Declan talked about earlier, you're developing relationships. It's not networking, it's not transactional, it's a relationship. And you're committed to the organization. And by virtue of that person mentoring or sponsoring, having you in their mind when the decisions are being made, they're committed to your development within the organization because you're part of that picture. You're part of that journey. You're part of the future.

Declan: Yeah, I think and the rapport that you build, people need to be aware of that. That the person who does that little bit more in the environment, in the office, or whatever, that stays a little bit later when there is a bit of tension or a crisis or something like that, the upper echelon would appreciate that. And then vice versa, that person will appreciate that upper echelon, you know, has a conversation with them from time to time and explains what they're doing. That's how that mentoring, informal mentoring starts.

Will: Though, if it's so relationship-based, is charisma a very important attribute to have, to have a good chance of being sponsored or becoming a leader? Is charisma important for leadership?

Orla: I can't remember the study, but either then...when you say charisma, I think is that an extrovert or an introvert? So then the question is so if you need to be an extrovert, does charisma mean you're out there loud and raucous and bringing it? Or is it a quiet charisma that you're fully committed to what you're setting out to do and therefore by being that... and that passionate, maybe it's passion actually.

Declan: Or attitude

Orla: Or attitude, yeah. That you got that passion.

Will: I think you have a magnetism and it can be a quiet magnetism.

Declan: Yes, exactly.

Orla: Yeah, that's it.

Will: And it can be an extroverted magnetism but people are drawn to you. And they, for some reason believe in you. They believe what you say and they believe in you and they have a sense of potential and sometimes that sense can be misplaced and sometimes not, but because you're making it sound like quite an organic process. I just wonder what the role of charisma is because that brings us on to the question of, can leadership be learned or is it an inherent thing that you've either got or you haven't got? What do you think about that?

Orla: So I believe it can be learned. And I can't remember the statistic but it is very high anyway in terms of developing our skills. But I think it's back to what we said earlier in terms of the webinar. It's about developing our self-awareness. And if you think about leadership, the way I think about leadership, you've got EQ, IQ, and PQ, right?

So IQ is I know I'm the expert. I know my field. I can be relied on for information. And I've developed that competence. So even think about...you talked about ad agencies there earlier, so the creative and all of that space.

And then the EQ is the relationship piece. So I know myself, I know how I can interrelate with others, and I can control myself so that I'm appropriate for the situation that I'm in and therefore I'm bringing people with me. I'm meeting them where they are and making sure I'm getting that good kind of influence piece, not Machiavellian, but influence for good.

And then the PQ to me is that profile piece. So it's how well am I now within the organization? What is the story that others tell about me when I'm not in the room? So that, my resonance around the organization or around my sector and what I do. So I'm building that up and therefore then I become a go-to person or a name that pops up in conversation when we're trying to think of somebody to lead out on a new initiative. It's like, "I saw Declan do." Or, "I saw Will do X that he was really good," or "She was really good." So it's that personal piece, that profile.

Declan: Reputational management, if you like.

Orla: Yeah. And it's the relationship building. I think, you know, people are challenged sometimes when they talk about networking because they think, "I must get out and get lots of business cards and get to know lots of people." But it's actually, you don't need to know lots of people, you just need to know a couple of good people, have them in your corner because of the person you are and the engagement you have and the credibility that you're bringing with you. And then it flows.

Declan: Totally. And just going back to the charisma thing in terms of that and linking it in with something that Orla was saying there about the reputation management, the PQ side of things, somebody once said to me, be the first one to design and disseminate your own propaganda and be the last one to believe it.

And in a way, the essence of the good charisma side of it. Like when you said charisma, it's a loaded term. We think of you, as you've said, somebody who kind of dominates the room with their laughter and chat, and that's one side of it. But there's a spectrum. And as you quietly said, you appropriately said, the quiet person can project. I'm thinking of people who have an interest in Gaelic football, Jim Gavin, the (successful) Dublin manager. And I knew Jim not that well but he was the class ahead of me in the military college in the Curragh. And he was always a very quiet guy. But I mean, he resonates a certain type of charisma that was the glue for the Dublin team and their success. You know what it is too? It's about finding your style. There's no manual for this.

Will: You can't just read, buy a book from W. H. Smith in the airport and just adopt someone else.

Orla: And become...

Declan: Or just I thought, "Michael O'Leary (of Ryanair) has been really successful, I'm going to..." You can learn from his style, but you've got to find what's your style. So if you're a quiet and not too demonstrative person, trying to be valuable is not going to work. It's not authentic. But if you look around at different styles, you will find what does work.

And I'm just reminded, for those who were interested in military history, Bernard Montgomery, the famous General Montgomery of the Second World War: he was a small, diminutive man, very fussy, but he created a huge rapport with his troops in the Second World War through little things and he didn't wear the classic general's uniform. He wore the tanker's black beret and he wore a flyer's sheepskin jacket when he was leading the troops in the desert. And it made him very enigmatic. It stood him aside and he didn't look like the typical aristocratic general.

And then your General Patton on the other side, who is this nearly Trumpian type character, full of all kinds of outrageous statements, slapped a soldier in an aid station for he had suffered from shell shock and accused him of cowardice. But still Patton had this bond with his troops, they called him "Old Blood and Guts." And somebody once said, what is said, "Our blood and his guts." But still people believed in him and he had this ability to galvanize sentiment. And that's why the allied leaders put him in charge of leading the troops to roll through swiftly occupied Europe once the invasion had occurred. So they were two very different personalities and they both had their own type of charisma.

Will: Orla, who were your leadership role models from business or from history?

Orla: I actually don't like that. I don't like the hero kind of question so I don't really have any, but what I admire are traits in people.

Will: But was there anyone growing up that you saw on telly or in the media and thought, "Yeah."

Orla: I was probably more into pop stars really?

Will: But deadly, isn't it in a way, aren't they? Because they take you along.

Orla: But that's the charisma, isn't it? That's the charisma.

Will: We were all singing along with Kylie Minogue in the 1980s.

Orla: That's right. We were...

Will: We believed that we should be so lucky.

Orla: Yeah. You're right.

Declan: But they're thought leaders. They're opinion formers. They're influencers, so sometimes in spite of themselves.

Orla: And actually when you say that then Bruce Springsteen comes into mind, "The Boss." And I suppose and then I'm kind of sitting here going, "Okay, so why would I pick him out?" And probably because of consistency. So there's a consistency to Bruce. You know what you're going to get and there's an accessibility. People have experiences or they've met him or whatever it is, but he's accessible. And he's inspiring with his creative talents. So they're probably the three things. So it's probably more looking at the person and the kind of traits that they have that I admire.

Declan: Can I throw one thing in there? I totally agree, I think he's a great choice. And to use a word that you often use yourself, Orla, he's authentic.

Orla: Yes, he is.

Declan: There's nothing inauthentic about Bruce Springsteen. What you see in the tin is exactly what he is. And I think that's why he has held on to is fame, apart from his talent as a singer and songwriter. But he's so genuine and you empathize with him because he empathizes with people.

Will: Very true. And just to try and crystallize it, I'll ask both of you this, but Orla first, what makes a great leader?

Orla: Okay. What makes a great...? Actually, humility. And I think humility because you know you don't have all the answers and that you're only as good as the people around you. Because we all have our strengths and in order for us to actually move forward, we're going to have to rely on others and the humility of actually employing people who are better than you as well. So, yeah.

Will: And, you know, I can say having managed people myself, I've struggled with that because I've looked into their eyes and I've seen that need for certainty, for answers, particularly in challenging situations, they'll look to you and you realize they want to feel that you've got an answer or that you know everything. And it's hard actually because we feel put in this position of leadership. It's hard to turn around to people and say either, "I don't know the answers" or "We're going to try something and I don't know what's going to happen," which is very often the case in the advertising world, because every time we do a campaign, no idea if it's gonna fall flat on its face, or be this huge viral success or make us famous for the rest of our careers, usually something in between. How do you help leaders to kind of deal with that?

Orla: They're looking for a surety that we'll be all right. So I suppose what does that certainty actually mean and what does it mean for them? So as a leader, there is a sense of providing that space and that surety, even if you don't believe it yourself. But in order to protect the team and provide that direction, you need to create that safe space so that the team can work its magic to get to the end results. And that's why leadership is a very lonely place. Because, you know, if you're the CEO or if you're the project manager, whatever, you probably can't share a lot of the challenges that you're facing with the team because then you're introducing the uncertainty, and people start to doubt that you can actually achieve what you want to achieve because there's so many things that could go wrong.

Declan: Yeah, you could undo all the good that you've done if you start to project uncertainty at the wrong time.

Orla: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. So I think it's that confidence and trusting in the process, trusting in your team, trusting in your people. And we talked about scanning the horizon and forecasting. So it's always looking to the future. Somebody talked about or used as an example of leadership being running interference. So it's about removing the obstacles, running the interference. So to help the team actually get to the end goal. So while you might not be able to be sure, you need to provide that sense of surety for your team and certainty that you will get there.

Declan: I think it's the timing.

Orla: They might look different. Sorry, Declan.

Declan: Sorry. Yeah, timing as well. And as you were talking about that, Orla, it struck me, as you move up the ladder in leadership and you're at maybe at a more strategic level and you've maybe... you're at a CEO level and you've got a number of people, on one hand, you are the image of the company as well. And so you've to... you project and keep it simple what the over... what in military terms, they will talk about the commander's intent, establishing what the commander's intent is because everything flows from that. So a good CEO or a good general or good, you know, somebody who's a good senior general manager will have to be very clear about establishing the objective and creating an element of that certainty and creating, even if they're unsure or if it's a crisis, which is...

One of the key things that I've learned by experience and that when I'm advising others I talk about, in a crisis situation, okay, there was a time and a place to stand back and do a quick estimate of the situation. But if you're the leader, very quickly, you've got to establish some sort of forward momentum because you'll lose the initiative and you've got to engender a degree of confidence, even if you don't feel it. Now that's a real important leadership skill that... And the concept of what they talk about... The U.S. Ranger School in Fort Benning have a statue of an infantry officer and he's looking back with his hand raised up and the caption in his statue is "Follow Me." And that's the concept of the Ranger officer, the Ranger soldier, that other soldiers follow them, that they're giving that certainty.

And they don't know all the answers, but by projecting the certainty, they can cause the favorable outcome. I mean, battles aren't won because everybody knows all the answers. Battles are won because somebody created a forward momentum, a sense of positive self-belief. And business gets over humps. People get from A to B. If you're too risk averse, you'll get nowhere.

Now, but let's look at the other side of the spectrum. If you're a leader, I'll take, again, military history just to use it for a second: Eisenhower in the lead up to the D-Day landings, he had to rely and leverage all of his senior leaders. And at that stage, it was a different... these men didn't need momentum or certainty. They were confident in their own right, but Eisenhower needed their input to make the fundamental final decisions. Should he go? Should he not go? And then that was creating a different enemy. He was able to say, "Well, I'm not sure here, guys. You know, I don't have the answers. I need to know what you think." So there's a sliding scale of time to use vulnerability and a time to certainty.

Orla: And I think it's confidence. So the leader has confidence that they know that that's part of the toolkit that you have as a leader. The ability to be comfortable not knowing. The ability to know what you know and what you can control and what you can't control. And then having trust in your team that the solution will be found.

Will: And, yes, communicating it with confidence, whether you're communicating certainty or uncertainty essentially.

Orla: But also agility though, too, we talked about that in the webinar as well. So if you think about you're shooting for a target, but to be flexible enough and agile enough to know that target might change, and so we might need to de-scope, re-scope, completely change what we're doing. So that ability to not be so fixed that I must hit that target, that actually the context within which I'm working is changing, so scanning the environment, understanding it, and adjusting and adapting as you go.

Will: And it seems to me that for people to respond to that positively, just take a step back, they need to already believe in you and they need to be on your mission and they need to have shared values, shared why. You talk about Simon Sinek, he's very famous for "Start With Why," a TED Talk that made him famous in 2007 and become a very popular idea in the business world. Start with why, take people on your mission, people who share your beliefs, people buy why you do it, not what you do. And so how important are a leader's values and how can they communicate those without being a David Brent standing on the desk and telling everybody in a really cringe-worthy way?

Orla: You make me think of... There's a famous quote I think where John F. Kennedy asked the guy sweeping the floor in...was it Cape Canaveral or somewhere? You know, what was his job and he said, "I'm here to put a man on the moon." So it's that connectedness to the why that we're all part and we're all equally important in the final results. But in terms of the values of the leader and the values of the organization, I suppose, you see, we're all unique and we all have our own set of values and we have what's important to us.

So I suppose, and it's back to that relationship building and connection piece, isn't it? So if I've got a shared value and I understand, and we talked about the Johari window in the last podcast (What is Leadership), so opening ourselves up to being understood and for people to see what's important to us starts creating that connection. And as a leader, that's about that exposure and vulnerability piece so that people know what you stand for and they know that you have their back when the chips are down because that's when it counts.

Will: That's a very good point actually, is about on, yeah, so that they know what's important to you, what really matters to you, and that you'll have, yeah, you'll have their back.

Orla: I'm sorry, Will. As a leader, it's not just the words that you say, but it's the actions, it's the consistency, it's how you are every day, from the small things to the big things.

Declan: I think the actions and consistency, that is so true. I mean, a leader has to be a very good communicator, but we should remember, you only communicate I think, what is it, 7% to 10% verbally. So everything, I mean, I remember in the early days learning about concepts of peacekeeping. And I think this was defined by the British military - posture, presence, profile, it's three things, the three P's. They are bywords I use in terms of leadership awareness, and training. Before you even open your mouth, before you even draft a document, what is your posture like? How is that perceived by the others? Because then that will denote the profile you have in the organization. And the presence that will be established will be either seen as benign and people will buy into it or otherwise. So posture, presence, and profile.

And the other thing I would say to add to that while we're on P words is avoiding displays of provocative weakness. People don't think about that. You can engage, you could be chairing a meeting or whatever else, and somebody could seek to undermine you in a lateral way. An example of that could be they might be aware of your buttons or your psychological or tribal buttons and they inadvertently or advertently press one and you lose your temper. And you've just lost a chunk of power. And you have then made people realize you have feet of clay. Now, the thing is, you can go around that if people... if you make having feet of clay and awareness of honor, you're embracing your vulnerability, but you have to be aware that if you don't control those things, you can display a provocative weakness. And the danger of provocative weakness is, if you're trying to climb the ladder and if you're trying to harness a lot of disparate outlooks of different people to get consensus, provocative weakness can be used to undermine you. That display can provoke a response, you know, a mini rebellion or just people start to disregard you. Your influence gets waned.

Will: Yeah. And you talk about how communication is only a part of it, verbal communication. When we think of leadership skills, we think of standing up in front of everyone at the all-hands monthly meeting. That's the arena for leadership to take place. But you're right, it's as much about how you sign off an email and how you stuff the kitchen and whether or not your office door is open or whether or not you even have an office and how you dress and it's all those small things, whether you talk to the cleaner and the receptionist and what have you.

Orla: And we're talking an awful lot about the leader, right, but there's a really great clip called the "First Follower" and the leader is only a leader when there's somebody following him, as you said. So for the listeners, you should check out "First Follower" because once you have somebody following you, that first follower then encourages others to join. So it's a bit like the other concept in adaptive leadership is about the ally. So if you look at any of the movies, we talked about "Moneyball," in the webinar, you’ve got Brad Pitt and his ally was the statistician. In Jadotville you had...

Declan: Yeah, in Jadotville or in the military world in general, what Orla says is so true because no officer can function well if they don't have a good noncommissioned officer or sergeant. And the Jadotville experience is that Pat Quinlan relied hugely in a man called Jack Prendergast, who was the company sergeant. So he was the pivot between the leadership and the men. And in every organization, you will have people like that. And just as you said, first follower, that's what started coming to my head, the platoon sergeant, the sergeant major. And Monty Don, you know that the famous gardener over in the UK, visited here (Ireland) some years ago and he talked about the sergeant major class, the people who get things done, the people who are again that pivot. They have a lot of experience and they lead by their experience and they're technical experts. And then the people who are in the more strategic levels of leadership, they have to rely on them. They're their first followers. And they're the ones who get things done. And by their credibility, if they're willing to support you, then others underneath them said you're worth following

Will: Just changing tack a bit, thinking back to your own careers and your own exercise of leadership skills, what are the biggest leadership mistakes you've made in your career, Orla?

Orla: I think being too emotionally connected with what's going on. So if I think about, and maybe I, you know, do that in terms of... in trying to influence. So what is the phrase if you have to explain you're losing? And that is...

Will: Yeah, you're explaining you're losing...

Orla: ...if you're explaining you're losing. So in terms of, if you're really passionate about what it is you're trying to achieve and you're trying to garner support, catching myself being just the only one in the room that believes it and not being aware that other people aren't yet convinced, I've lost. So that ability to separate that emotion, this is what we need to achieve. How do I achieve buy-in? What's in it for you to come on board with me to actually help get this over the line? And I'd go back to that concept of balcony and dance floor that really sits with me. So you need to be on the dance floor to be passionate about it, but you need to be on the balcony to see how others are engaging with it.

Will: Yes, you need to put a slight freeze on your emotions and have a bit of a cold objectivity, don't you? I think that's one of the key struggles of management is that balance between that cold objectivity. We have to dehumanize yourself and be a bit more analytical, a bit more robotic, perhaps a bit less human and emotional, but also simultaneously, be with the people and emotionally connected to some degree because if you do detach completely then you’ve kind of lost them. That's interesting.

What about you, Declan? What's the biggest leadership mistake you've made in your career?

Declan: I think I've made quite a few of them. And I think that they all revolve around a key concept. And that was in my earlier days, and again, kind of, I suppose, coming back to my formation in the military, but also I think as a male of a certain ye aras well, my reaction...you heard me talk about the importance of forward momentum and to constantly wanting to develop the ability to whatever...what's the situation react, move forward. As you're doing that, you identify the threats. There's a threat, obliterate it. So somebody who then is engaging in some sort of what I identify as threatening or confrontational behavior, my reaction was to confront it head on. And you could go around it and you could go over it, but why do that when it's so much more fun to go through it?

And that has its purpose and usefulness, but you get to a certain point you have to be able to move beyond that, you have to become more rational, you have to become what you were just a bit more detached and take the emotion out of things. And what I was doing would work in some ways, but it also would get me into unnecessary confrontation, particularly with higher authority. And what I'm fortunate about was that there were two key people in senior leadership ranks who didn't just take me to one side to talk to me about the error of my ways because I was probably too pigheaded for that to work. They just demonstrated the error of my ways, their approach and their attitude to me where they didn't undermine me and I began to see.

I remember one, he's a retired general now, Jim Sanderson is his name, Sandy, who is known as a lovely man, very clever, very adaptable guy. One day he said to me, "You catch more..." let me get the phrase right. "You catch more bees with honey rather than vinegar. And you don't have to be on your assault the whole time.” And he himself, he was a very effective guy in the Balkans back in the '90s. And this just shows you sometimes how you can adapt. He wasn't in a classic military role out there. He was an attachment to our Department of Foreign Affairs. And there were a number of EU officers abducted by the Serbs, including an Irish officer, Jim Fitzgibbon, and there was Irish, Spanish, I think British, whatever else.

And everybody thought they were dead because their armored personnel carrier was found burnt out as if a missile had hit it. And Sandy was on the ground out there. And through a series of networks and lateral communication, all very unusual to be associated with the military, but in the Irish experience, because we're small, we've learned to be very adaptable. And he leveraged all his contacts, all his knowledge, he had credibility backed with the organization at home. So when there was huge pressure on the organization to admit that Jim Fitzgibbon was dead, Sandy's credibility said, "No, hold the line. We don't believe he's dead." And he was proved right.

And it was a lesson that I learned a lot from being involved in that process. Because the huge pressure that was on the organization to say that this man was dead and then to maybe walk away from it, and they were being held or sequestered. And it was about communication, the Serbs wanted somebody to open negotiations with them. But nobody knew how to plug into that. So there was a whole lot of different things come out of that. And it all was around that one particular man, Jim Sanderson, and I learned a lot of lessons out of that. And it made me a different man, a little bit more of a thinking man and a little bit more detached and cooler on how I dealt with crisis.

Will: A bit more circumspect.

Declan: That's the word I was looking for, Will. Well done. Thank you.

Will: That was fascinating. And with yourself, Orla, what are the specific challenges that you've found rise into leadership in the workplace as a woman in what has undoubtedly been a series of male-dominated organizations, I would imagine?

Orla: I suppose I never really thought about it. I'm going to be honest. I did engineering. So there was 20 girls and 100 guys in the class. So it never really was something I thought about. I always thought if you were the best person for the job, now that might have been naive, right? And now as I've gone through my career, you can see you've got the 30% Club, you've got Building Business for Better Boards, you've got lots of great initiatives. And I suppose in terms of role models, there weren't very many female role models there. Although I worked in the United States and in Australia, and there were female partners there, and so I probably would have had them as role models without realizing it. I could aspire...they were in the role that was, you know, leading the law, or it was Coopers & Lybrand as they were then, in L.A. and she was an inspirational woman. She led that whole practice, and it was amazing to watch and you just think, "That's something I can achieve." So it actually, I suppose, opened up the opportunity to say, 'Well, actually, there's a woman in that role and I can achieve that."

Will: Sometimes without thinking about it too much, just the pure fact that that exists. It just shows that it's a possible thing.

Orla: That's it. It's that possibility. And you used it before. I think you talked about the word potential. So it's believing in your own potential but also having others to believe in it. And then, as you said, the fact that somebody occupies a senior leadership role, the possibility is there.

Will: And what's the predicament of a woman entering the job market today or certainly management roles today? Is it an even level-playing field?

Orla: I think it's a lot better than it was. I think I would say that probably the work-life balance piece, and that's not just for women, it's for men also, has greatly improved. So, to me, I think in terms of our careers, I mean, we're going to be working for a long time, and we wanted to have a healthy relationship with our work environment. And in order to do that, then we need to respect the draws on people's time, personal time in terms of commitment to family or, you know, caring for elderly parents or children or whatever it might be.

So I'm not a big fan of talking about men and women, I kind of think we're all the same. But I do think for me, there's more role models if... I mean, there's plenty of studies out there that show the pyramid and show that women tend to leave, say, a kind of middle to senior management and then, you know, but I think organizations have recognized that and it's more back to getting diversity back into the corporate world or to the business world so that we're making better decisions. So I think that there's a lot more openness and opportunity now for women and men to come back into the workforce, if they've left it for a period of time.

Will: I mean, we're certainly better accommodating people's different life stages, children, parents, you know, remote working, flexible hours, indeed. But I suppose, what advice would you give a 30-year-old woman entering a management role today?

Orla: I was actually at a 30% Club event yesterday. And I think the key message I took away was put yourself forward, put your hand up.

Will: Do you think it's a confidence issue?

Orla: I don't know if it's a confidence issue or is it because sometimes, and this could be considered stereotypical, but I have seen it and I know I do it myself, I need to have 90% of the competencies to go forward for the role. Whereas a guy might have a 30% of the competencies and think, "I'm already doing that job." So I think it's, it's that we don't need to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, just go first.

Declan: Absolutely right. And I think one phrase that comes to mind, "Fake it till you make." And just to put a bit of context, I'm not talking about in a glib way where you've been a Chancellor will get you everywhere, but we all know that you learn as you go along. And certainly, this is the key lesson I learned from a particular mentor that's, "Get in there. Have a goal. Be confident in yourself and listen and learn. And learn from those around you." And that's one of the essences of learning for leadership that the military I think teach a lot of people where they're trying to get young people to take on roles that they're in command of people that are older than them.

So there has to be a degree of bravado or a little bit... but tempered with that you learn from people and you listen to people. So coming back to our last point, if you're waiting to have all the competencies, you won't have them because some of those competencies you'll only get by doing, having a goal, making mistake, and maybe you'll fail. But to paraphrase Beckett, "Try again, fail again, fail better, move forward."

Will: I mean, that's always been my modus operandi in my career is not trying to get the job I can do but trying to get the job I'm pretty sure I can do. And I'll find out, when I start doing it, that I think that's... you look down the job description, you go, "Yeah, I can do that. I'll be able to work out how to do that." Because if you can already do it all, it's not going to be very good job at developing you as a person, isn't it?

Declan: Precisely.

Orla: Sounds correct.

Declan: People that come, that are fortunate enough maybe to come... the society is much more fluid now, thankfully. You're never going to get rid of hierarchy but make the boundaries more and more fluid, more maneuverable. I think that's the important thing. But one of the thing people who come from the traditional leadership classes or aristocratic class or whatever... I had the pleasure of getting to study with a chap who came from an English background where he'd gone to Eton, and that famous public school, Prince Harry and Prince William went, I think. And I was saying, "What do you think was the key thing?" And he said, "It's not that people came out of there..." This guy was very self-aware for quite a young man. He says, "It's not that people were particularly brilliant or any more brilliant than anyone else, but there were two things that the school used to do. One was it imbued with a huge sense of confidence in yourself. And how did they do that? Because they constantly helped you find things that you're good at and you might be crap at academics. So maybe stamp collecting was your big thing or you were a sports guy or you were whatever. And they focused on that. And you developed an attitude, which at its most simplistic could be defined as, 'Well, if I'm able to do this so well, well, then how bad could geometry be?' And you might not do brilliantly in it but you did enough to pass."

Whereas some of my experience when I was younger in my schooling was an obsession with, "Oh, you're good at history, but you're not good enough at math," or, "You're gonna fail math." And you end up with a bit of a complex. And I think maybe this is something that has happened with women as well that it was emphasized how good...that you have to be better than better. And that that could create a hesitance that, "Am I ready for this yet?" Whereas, you're better off just have a goal, have a goal, give it your best shot, learn from it. If it works out, great, capitalize on it. And if it doesn't work out, don't start beating yourself up about it, you know, move forward.

And this is the thing that I learned from that particular chap who went to Eton. He had great self-confidence and not overweening. He was a very pleasant fellow. People gravitated towards him. He didn't know everything and he learned as he went along, but he never pulled back from an opportunity.

Will: Interesting. That's fascinating. Well, our time is almost up I'm afraid.

Declan: Oh dear.

Will: Yeah, lots of very interesting insight. So I suppose just to end, I'd love to hear just briefly, you know, this topic of leadership, which is becoming talked about more. What does the future hold for the topic? Where is it going do you think?

Orla: Oh, wow. I suppose I feel like I'm at the start of my journey in learning about it. Because, you know, we talked earlier about how did you learn about leadership and I learned by doing. I just think it's going to keep going. I think there's a great level of discovery about us as human beings, about how we interact, about how we operate, about how we can improve what we do and how we relate and our efficiencies and all of that kind of make sense (it might sound like a machine). But I think there's great discovery still to be had. So I think there's great opportunity to keep learning.

Declan: Yeah. And I think also the concept of leadership is changing as society evolves. So like so many things, so many variations of things that have become areas for formal study. And so I think what you're seeing is that there are so many other things now that there is an element of leadership brought into. I mean, if you're training people to be social care assistants, there's an element of leadership awareness and development in that as well. What I'm saying I suppose is that would not be traditionally associated with that because we realize leadership functions at so many different levels.

And then there are the aspects of leadership in a social context, in the family. How do we parent? What's our role in our family? We may have children and be parents. We may have elderly parents. And how you adapt? You've got to change your role, if you're the parent with young kids, and then you're the adult child of elderly parents, you've got to adapt to your situation. In one, you're very obviously the leader. In the other, maybe they're older and they're become more reliant on you, but you're still the kid. So you have to be clever at how you lead.

And that's in my head, a friend of mine, he was a classmate in the military college, Liam Toland, who was quite a good rugby player in his day, writes on rugby. But Liam also is involved in his other career in running a business, a home care for elderly people. And in a conversation he talked to me about how a lot of his job is advising frustrated and very clever professional people who have elderly parents and how to manage the process of looking after them. Where sometimes they go in in a didactic way and say, "You're not able to look after yourself. You've got to go into a home." And the parents, "Go to hell. What do you know about it, junior?" And of course, nothing gets done. The objective doesn't get achieved. And maybe they don't need to go into a home. Maybe the thing is can... but the point is, how do you approach it? If you realize that, in this situation, my relationship is junior, so if I'm going to lead, it has to be through a very informal lateral process, if I'm going to lead change and thought here. So that awareness starts a process that has much more likelihood of success in that situation.

Orla: Maybe I'll add to what Declan said, you make me think of the fact that I think to me it's like a journey of discovery. And so the more we bring different schools of thought together, the more we unlock, I suppose, greater thinking or a greater level of awareness or mindset, all of that so. So I think the more we unpack of what's going on in the world and the more we bring all these theories together, the more insights we're going to gain, in terms of ourselves, our leadership, and how we deal with the future because it's unknown.

Will: And hopefully this podcast is just part of that process of us looking at these things in more detail and getting more clarity on them, which you have so eloquently brought to the topic. And thank you so much, Orla and Declan, for that. I really appreciate it.

Declan: Thank you, Will.

Orla: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity.

Declan: Absolutely.

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 digitalmarketinginstitute.com. Thanks for listening.

Orla Nugent
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.

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