The Big Happiness Interview: How to be an inspiring leader

In a week where the integrity of our country’s leaders has once again been called into question, I am relieved to mine the wisdom of super-coach Nick Williams, author of 19 books, co-creator of renowned leadership programme Leading with Love and the man who has hung out with every spiritual leader from Desmond Tutu to Eckhart Tolle.

Where have all the inspirational leaders gone, I moan?

‘Even the word leadership is loaded – with many negative connotations,’ Nick tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Many of us have felt abused by people in power or excluded by their exercise of power.

‘But we have to remember there have been great leaders too. Gandhi was a great leader, as was Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa and Oprah Winfrey – and this week we’re celebrating 70 years of gentle leadership from our very own Queen.’

Inspirational leadership can do so much good in the world, he says. ‘Which means we all need to step up.

‘We think it needs to be someone else. Why aren’t other people more inspiring, we ask?

‘We find it hard to look in the mirror and see someone with the capacity for inspirational leadership looking back at us.

‘What if it’s your turn to ask – how can you offer inspirational leadership?

‘Inspirational leadership is a choice we make, not a position we have.’

For this week’s Big Happiness Interview, Nick shares how we can all choose to be happy, strong leaders who effect genuine, positive change.

What makes a good leader?

The old way of being a leader was the idea of ruling by fear, command and control.

However, I believe a good leader is someone who draws the best out of the people around them and gets them to do their best work as they work together towards some kind of common goal.

A good leader is someone who inspires others.

Inspires others? That’s very rare. Especially in business.

Inspiration is good business. Often people don’t equate the two.

I co-created a leadership programme with Liz Trubridge, Executive Producer of Downton Abbey, one of the most successful TV and film franchises in the world. She says that leadership is about being the ‘great enabler – you encourage people to believe in themselves to the point at which they believe their dreams are possible’. She’s a truly inspirational leader.

Inspirational leadership is listening to that small still voice within you that is asking you to show up in the world. You can make the choice to boldly and courageously show up to make a difference to the people you most care about.

What stops people from being good leaders?

Often the missing piece is integrity. People are not fools and most people want to do business with someone who they can trust, who has integrity.

When you have the courage and the skilfulness to hold on to your integrity, you end up standing out because it’s so rare.

Yes, we’re cynical for a reason, because many of our leaders have lied and cheated. But honesty and integrity will always win out.

I coached a CEO with a digital platform in the travel media business and he made a few mistakes and didn’t deliver for one particular client. He came back to the client and said: ‘I’m sorry, we’ve let you down.’ And they’ve been so grateful that he has been honest, rather than defensive. His business is now turning over a million dollars a month, and he’s got a lot of happy clients.

He told me in our last session that it all comes back to trust, because the digital marketing space is full of cynicism. He and his company now stand out as beacons of trustworthiness and integrity.

Honesty really is the best policy. Integrity is a leader’s superpower.

A good leader is someone who inspires others

What do you think the relationship is between happiness and leadership?

A lot of people want to be a leader for unhealthy reasons. They want to be able to push people around, they want to be the boss to satisfy their ego, to prove to the world they are good enough, they want to have power over people. They want to be able to manipulate people. So that’s not necessarily going to lead to happiness.

If you want to be a happy leader – ask yourself, why do you want to lead? If your reasons for wanting to lead are to inspire and to bring out the best of yourself and others, to do something valuable, then you will be happier.

Another model of leadership is about self-sacrifice or self-martyrdom with the old script ‘I’ll take all the burdens on my shoulders’. That approach does not lead to happiness. It leads to burnout.

I think it’s fairly rare to see leaders that are actually really happy. It’s a responsibility of people in leadership to nurture their own happiness so they can model it to others. You lead by example.

How do you know that you might need to make a change in your leadership style?

Start with the simple question – are you still enjoying your role? If you no longer enjoy your leadership position and it’s become more of a chore and a duty, something’s off.

A lot of people think you’re not supposed to enjoy their work but that’s just a hangover from the Protestant work ethic. Work does not have to be difficult and painful.

So, you finally admit you are no longer enjoying being the boss – then what?

Part of the old way of leading is command or control and that is based on not trusting other people.

Ask yourself – what can you let go of so that you can move to that higher level of leadership? A lot of leaders are so busy doing, they don’t take time out for good thinking. I encourage my clients to take that whitespace time for really good, high quality thinking to work on their business, not just be in their business.

A huge red flag is being so busy you don’t have time to think. And one of the ways to buy more time is learning to delegate.

How do you handle imposter syndrome?

Leadership is not an escape from how you feel about yourself. It can easily magnify how you feel about yourself – either helpfully or less helpfully.

Visible leadership makes you very visible and can be exposing, so can trigger and magnify your ‘bad’ feelings. Inspirational leadership is about learning to handle your own feelings and inner landscape effectively and maturely.

But how do you do that?

The first thing is to acknowledge that you’re not the first person to have felt wobbly. Nearly everyone on this planet suffers from imposter syndrome at one time in their life.

What we need is wiser elders, who have felt like imposters, who are willing to talk about that, and then offer a roadmap. Many of us try and tough it out on our own and pretend that we’re coping when we’re not.

A huge red flag is being so busy you don’t have time to think. And one of the ways to buy more time is learning to delegate.

Being a leader can be scary. Many of us don’t want to show our vulnerability.

Yes, that true. I coach leaders to take the focus off themselves and focus on the idea or business or project that you are trying to bring into the world. It helps you get away from the ‘cult of personality’ leadership.

It’s not only about your personal charisma but more about getting the idea out into the world. I love the concept that the idea itself has its own intelligence, its own sense of what it can become, and you are simply the midwife or a steward of the business or project. It’s not about you having to come up with brilliant ideas – brilliant ideas are trying to get your attention! This means you have a totally different relationship to what you’re doing.

Liz Trubridge invited me on the set of Downton a few years ago to see a scene being filmed. It was series four and I asked Liz if she still enjoyed doing this. And she just looked me in the eye. And she said: ‘it’s a privilege’. That feels like a healthy relationship to leadership!

Six ways to be an inspired leader:

Assume your best qualities, gifts and abilities are already within you

Some are already manifest, many remain dormant are waiting to be drawn forth. Discover ways for your best qualities to blossom.

Seek to be inspired and inspiring

Come from a place of personal inspiration at least some of the time.

Stoke the fires of inspiration. What will inspire you next? What is your next chapter?

Resist resistance

Understand that inspiration has an ‘evil twin’ called resistance. Resistance is all our ego’s petty responses to the amazing ideas that you have.

Make friends with your vulnerability

Become comfortable with your discomfort. As we step outside the comfort zone, we grow.

Show up

Even in small but bold and brave ways. The world is poorer when our resistance wins and you hide out. It is about sharing the light with others, not taking the spotlight.

Commission yourself

Initiate. Take responsibility. What are your next steps of being an inspired leader? We are all leaders whether we have a leadership position – as parents, family head, team lead, teacher, community leader and world citizen.

Be Inspired, Be Inspiring, Be Yourself (ILC, £11.99) is out now.

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