It’s hard to define leadership, in fact, it’s borderline problematic. My perceptions of leadership and yours, are a construct of our education, beliefs, and experiences as both leaders and followers. Creating a handbook or doctrine on leadership, designed to be passively consumed by others, therefore seems contrived and artificial. However, by reflecting on my personal journey through the Laidlaw program, this essay aims to tease out how effective leadership marshals a sense of “us”.
Everything I knew about leadership as a 20-year-old
- Leaders need to be people-pleasers - because running for leadership positions always involves a popularity contest
- Good leaders don’t just amplify the voices of individuals, they synthesize the voices of the collective to make the whole movement greater than the sum of its parts
- You learn most as a leader when you are forced into situations outside of your comfort zone
- If you want to be taken seriously as an advocate you are going to need a Ph.D. or years of professional experience
- The perspective of young leaders, despite being crafted in passion, determination and intelligence is too often infantilized and dismissed by “adults”
Laidlaw Leadership Training Program:
Despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic, I was fortunate to be a Laidlaw scholar of 2020/2021, as the imperatives and impacts of leadership are no more acute, and boldly accentuated than during periods of crisis. So, we were learning in ‘real time’.
I was fortunate for the crossover between the research focus of my scholarship – the social psychology of climate change leadership - and the scholarship’s leadership program since the intersection of the two elevated the insights I gained from both strands of the program and provided me with access to leading theorists on leadership, my supervisor Professor Stephen Reicher and his colleague in Australia, Professor Alex Haslam.
Above all, I was fortunate for the shared group membership of Laidlaw Scholars – a dynamic, engaged, and agentic group of thinkers – through and with whom, I was able to develop a sense of leadership as a partnership process.
Our network of Laidlaw scholars came to represent a platform for mutual influence and honest interrelations. Being able to regularly interact with this cohort allowed me to draw inspiration from their enthusiasm. Everyone had a different specialty, a different passion, a different goal, and yet there was a commonality to the rich support the group provided its members. So, while I can’t quite manage to wrap my head around theoretical physics, or the intricacies of art history, we were at some level, all coproducers of the pool of research projects, invigorated and reinforced by the strength of our numbers.
By recognizing leadership as a group process, we were able to respond, in some part to my earlier criticism on the marginalization of young leaders, since by working in teams we allayed one another’s imposter syndromes and accrued a collective confidence.
The importance of listening as a leader was central to the regular presentations and workshops. However, importantly I also learnt to listen to the unspoken, which often had much to say about the ‘mood’ of the group. The best example of this was during our first online leadership day. After the excitement of Hospitalfield, it was difficult to make the adjustment to an online format. We missed the variety of conversations over dinner, the impromptu debates, and tangential discussions that had previously punctuated our leadership weekends. These frustrations were an “unavoidable evil” of the transition to online learning, however, whilst there was no elected leader amongst the scholars, we learnt to listen, not just to what others vocalized, but also to the way their posture and reactions told a story of their experiences. With the knowledge that we would be starting another workshop the following week, I took the opportunity to provide some feedback to the organizers about the need for longer rest and ‘nature’ breaks to allow us to step away, to reset, and ready ourselves for the next session. This feedback was well received and with a few adjustments, we were able to engage more closely with the material the following weekend. This was just a small instance of spontaneous organization and leadership, but it taught me the importance of being attentive and present in any situation and the importance of listening out for the needs of the group even when these needs aren’t overtly verbalized.
Everything I knew about leadership as a 21-year-old
- Leaders who aren’t well-liked by the people they lead, struggle to get the authority and support that is needed to direct real change
- Good leaders are in tune with the mood of their group. They don’t just listen when they are spoken to, but intuitively keep their finger on the pulse so that they can proactively stand up for their followers and convey their needs to others.
- Everyone’s comfort zone is different.
- To be taken seriously as an advocate, or campaigner you need some form of formal leadership training
- It’s harder to dismiss the passion of a group of young leaders. There’s strength in shared group membership
Summer 2021 - Leadership in Action Project
With the arrival of the summer of 2021, came the initiation of the Leadership in Action (LIA) Project. Whilst I had initially been concerned that the pandemic or my own inexperience would limit the scale and impact of my project, I came to realize that it was the assumptions that I, and not others, were making about my abilities, that threatened to stymy my ambitions.
I had always wanted to work on a campaign, that gathered support for pro-environmental policy reform and contacted the Climate Council, Extinction Rebellion, and Greenpeace. While I was unable to find a volunteer opportunity, curiously I found that I was not so much frustrated by the rejection, but by the monopoly, these organizations commanded and by the consequent homogeneity of their climate campaign communication. Informed by my Laidlaw research project on the psychology of climate change communications, I knew that the status quo formula of fear-based campaigns and using outside spokespeople were ineffective and that advocacy, like leadership needed to build on shared social identity.
In venting these frustrations to my peers, they asked “well why don’t you start your own campaign”. Confronted with this ultimatum and without a good reason “why not”, I took the initiative to produce a 60 second TV advert featuring farmers and miners from Regional Australia, compelling their fellow Queenslanders to unite around the imperative of climate change. As a nation, Australia is uniquely exposed to extreme climatic events and extreme policy jostling and regional Queensland sits at the crossroads of that clash. The advertisement needed to adopt an inclusive approach, shaped by psychology research that respected local identities, and elevated the climate change conversation beyond political rhetoric. It will air in November 2021 on the WIN TV network, reaching 400,000 viewers across Regional Queensland in the lead-up to the 2022 Australian election.
From my experience with the Laidlaw scholars’ network and the leadership program, I realized that to optimize the success of my Leadership in Action project I needed to unite a close-knit team around not just the deliverable of the advertisement itself, but the philosophical goal. We are all young and share similar views on climate change, so the philosophical goal came easily however we were challenged as a result of the very thing we were trying to achieve – a non-partisan campaign – to put aside some of our more demonstrative convictions, and language since in truth the spokespeople in our advertisement were also very much members of our leadership process and we had a shared responsibility to respect their identity.
On the more practical side, it was difficult, but we relished the variety of challenges we confronted. My inbox flooded with a perplexing array of correspondence about fundraising, advertising conventions, and even kangaroos – a serious hazard since the filming meant to travel to extreme remote country. Each roadblock seemed like a puzzle, and I enjoyed brainstorming solutions with my team, and at times drawing on my network and theirs, to access the skill sets we lacked ourselves. It felt rewarding to be able to galvanize the support, professional and financial of a diverse socio-political group with a wealth of life experience.
Our team had a shared sense of equity in the project – something I saw as a hallmark of the leadership process, and I was, perhaps unconsciously, treating the followers as ingroup members. And yet when the videographer was unable to start the filming as planned, those outside the team questioned whether I had sufficient parameters in place, ‘was I confident in his ability to deliver?’ I scuttled back to my learnings from Laidlaw and my research supervisors and did two things; I doubled down on the videographer’s internalization of our shared team goal so that he had a desire to do the right thing, and I set boundaries for my team members and encoded them in formal contracts. Leadership theories would describe the former as ‘power through’ and the latter as ‘power over’ and would suggest that the former is more effective leadership. In practice, I suspect that is true, but as a 22-year old, I felt I needed both as a safety net. The filming proceeded without further delay– save for a punctured tire 200km from a township - and with absolute commitment and a real sense of excitement for what we were doing.
Everything I know about leadership as a 22-year-old
- It’s ok to have a safety net
- It’s important for leaders to have a rapport with the people they lead
- Good leaders make audible, the voices of those who wouldn’t ordinarily interact together. Bridging gaps in opinion helps to achieve real, and equitable change.
- When you step outside your comfort zone you are more likely to make mistakes. But when you make mistakes, you improve the fastest
- You don’t need years of experience, or a fancy title to be a leader. Your enthusiasm and perseverance will speak for itself.
- If you don’t see any of the “adults” stepping up to the plate, just Start. Leadership comes from shared initiative, not invitations.
- Not all “adults” marginalize young leaders; some, inspired by the passion of youth are enthusiastic enablers
The Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship have played a pivotal role in the evolution of my “everything I know about leadership” milestones. The stipend gave me the privilege to pursue my passions full time, and the prestige of the Laidlaw Foundation gave me the confidence to approach, and be taken seriously by, highly experienced professionals and researchers across a range of fields, from academia, to corporate, to not for profit. I express my particular thanks to Lord Laidlaw for so genuinely responding to my email at a time which was critical in the planning of my Leadership in Action project.
The weeks of in-depth psychological research provided me with insights into the nuances of campaigning, and I was thrilled to be included in academic forums with leading academics in Australia and the UK. The leadership development weekends armed me with the tools and skills to work on real-life projects, to manage my own campaign team, and to realize the importance of creating honest bonds in order to motivate engagement for the success of the group as a whole.
I would like to sincerely thank the St Andrews Laidlaw Team, the Laidlaw Foundation, and my fellow scholars for their belief in my abilities and for expanding my intellectual curiosity, and ‘globalizing’ my outlook and contribution. I intend to continue my work as a political psychology adviser for climate change communications and am looking forward to remaining within the fold of the Foundation as an alumnus, as I’m sure that “everything I know about leadership” will continue to evolve as I turn 23, 24, 25 and beyond.