Heads’ Connected: The power of humility

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Girls don’t want to be leaders. So ran a headline in The Observer last Sunday, based on a survey of 1,358 girls aged from 9-18. ‘The #girlboss has lost her lustre’, the piece went on, pointing out that in the survey girls ranked ‘being a leader’ as the lowest of 17 attributes for future work.

Hmm. As ever, the devil is in the detail. The full report was much more nuanced about girls’ attitudes to leadership. What it revealed was a damning indictment of how leadership is presently defined – especially political leadership.

Respondents observed that government seems to lack ‘competent, honest and thought-through leadership’. Leaders have failed to create a system and culture ‘that people can trust and have confidence in’. The girls in the survey identified positive leadership as being about teamwork, never giving up, taking responsibility, ensuring individuals are understood and appreciated. They saw leadership as behaviour that is worthy of respect, and they saw the goal of leadership as being to empower and inspire. They were not rejecting the idea of leading: they were rejecting the idea of leading badly.

The danger in any political culture is that leaders are drawn disproportionately from a group of people who are convinced of their superiority and their right to lead. Where leaders start from a position of arrogance and entitlement, where they hold an unshakeable conviction that they see solutions where their inferiors see problems, the result is dispiriting. Half-baked plans, unchallenged by debate, are presented as brilliant solutions that no-one has considered before. Opposition is dismissed as timidity or stupidity. Consequences are not considered. Consultation is for losers.

It has often been observed that the only people who should have power are those who don’t want it. It feels like a delightful but absurd fantasy to imagine a different type of politics and a different definition of a politician. Someone who perceives and struggles with the sense of responsibility. Who is aware of their ignorance and fallibility. Who listens first and talks last, and whose one fixed point is compassion.

Such a model of leadership may be an ideal, but the path towards it starts with humility, and perhaps with reluctance. The headline of the article was, as all headlines are, a daft over-simplification. But in the end, if it contains any truth, there is some hope in that. A politics of respect and compassion may sometimes feel like a pipe-dream: but if we can help give those young people who are reluctant to lead enough sense of responsibility, enough hope and enough assurance to give it a try, then it may just inch just a little closer – to the benefit of us all.

Mr Will le Fleming

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