Lessons in leadership

Over the last few days I have (among other things) been reflecting on leadership. Partly this has been triggered by my nomination and place on the shortlist for Digital Leaders 100 (not already voted? You can do so here. Please!), and partly it’s down to a number of projects I have going on right now.

The place on the Digital Leaders shortlist has taken a bit of getting my head around if I’m honest – and some of the reasons for that are articulated in this article by my fellow nominee Helen Reynolds. Imposter syndrome is something I get attacks of most days, on some level, but I’m also astounded that I could be rewarded in this way for something I love doing so much!

But putting that aside I have been thinking about what qualities leadership involves and where it comes from. Increasingly I think leadership is coming from different places, maybe from all places within an organisation. I certainly feel this is reflected in the number of practitioners shortlisted in the local government category of Digital Leaders and in the progress we’ve made with LocalGov Digital.

And I’ve also reflected that in this form of leadership, you can’t be a leader on your own, you need other people. It’s a team sport and as many others have said more eloquently before me leaders should seek to make more leaders…it’s about inspiring and empowering a team.

I’ve been inspired, empowered and led by many great people, often outside of a traditional employment hierarchy (although I have been well led there too, especially so right now). So, for all the people who’ve shown me great leadership and helped me form my ideas, and deliver digital stuff, this award nomination and shortlisting is yours as well as mine – thanks!

Beyond where it comes from and who it involves I’ve reflected that the leadership I’ve benefited most from has had some or all of the following qualities. I’d hope that I bring some of these into my own work and personality.


My parents taught me lots of things and both my mum and my dad indirectly showed me qualities of great leadership in our family life, but also in their own careers.

I’ve written before about how inspiring my mum was (my dad is too and I’ll write about him sometime) but it’s only recently I’ve really begun to appreciate what a fabulous leader she was too. The 18th of June, when the winners of the Digital Leaders award are announced will be a bittersweet one for me regardless of the result, as it is also the second anniversary of my mum’s death. There’s lots of personal feelings I have about that but also some reflections on what qualities my upbringing have given me in my professional life.

And if I had to distill it to one main thing it would be empowerment. Both of my parents supported and encouraged me in what I wanted to do (even when they didn’t fully understand why I was interested in something, for example writing about music). They put as many opportunities in front of me as they could. They were both great role models as people and as professionals. But empowerment is the thing…

It is testament to them both that I never really questioned whether my own career choices were open to me, the only wobble was around my own ability (back to imposter syndrome again!). My mum was a great female role model; because she’d pushed the boundaries of what was the expected norm for women’s careers, she’d eased me own professional passage.

Leading by example (and I refer you again to the post about my mum) they showed me how important being empowered is but also how important, and rewarding it is, to empower other people. This has probably been the biggest influence on my view that leadership is a group, rather than individual activity.

Reassurance, ambition and safety zones

Being a mother has taught me lots about leadership too. That there are often people looking to you for signals, that often people ignore the signals you’re giving off. That respect and likeability don’t always match exactly.

But from my two boys I highlight the need for reassurance, both as a leader and as someone being led.

My boys are brave, imaginative, articulate and determined. These are good qualities for a person to have, I think. But even with confidence you still need reassurance to help you make steps. My children set goals (get to the top of that really tall tree really quick) but will sometimes need some reassurance that they have the ability to give it a go (“of course you can climb up there, I’ll be right here”) or to understand reasonable boundaries (“that’s high enough now”).

It might be trees with my boys but that same bolstering and boundary defining happens in the workplace too and a leader needs to be someone who can see a journey to the stars, while keeping their feet on the ground and most importantly reassure others that they can look up too.

Collaboration and geese formation teamwork

A lot of my work now is based on collaboration. LocalGov Digital is founded on this principle and born out of connections built up through online networks. Digital has enabled collaboration to become easier and for me it’s a no brainer, particularly in a sector like local government, not to seek out opportunities to work together for the benefit of all.

This fits well with a teamwork model I’ve been interested in for a while – geese formation. This shows what teams can learn from understanding why flocks of geese fly in formation. Any team that can take on these behaviours will be strong and efficient but as with most things the theory comes easier than the practice.

Leaders need to be able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the people around them and support individuals to perform as well as find ways to balance the team so the unit is stronger. Seeking out and forming new teams, sometimes on an informal basis, is just a way of bringing more benefits to the direct flock.

Having courage and feeling the spirit of punk rock

Despite never questioning whether I should pursue a certain type of work, project or interest my confidence in my abilities to suceed at it has’t always been so steadfast.

I’ve been grateful to have been supported to gain (and retain) confidence as well as see courageous leadership both in LocalGov Digital and at Louder Than War. From both I’ve been encouraged in the power of the DIY approach and in not just knowing, but living, the idea that just because you’re working outside of the normal structure doesn’t make your work less valuable.


I am sure there are other qualities contributing to great leadership and other people who are contributing to my own outlook but like with most of what I do I’m learning as I go along and adjusting my ideas based on experiences.

What are your thoughts on the qualities of a leader? Leave me a comment or let’s chat on Twitter.

Voting is open in the Digital Leaders 100 awards until 2 June and I’m shortlisted in the local government category. You can vote for me here and I’d be thankful to you!

If you’d rather read my words about music you can find them mostly on Louder Than War.

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