Complex, unforeseen and rapidly emerging challenges will not be solved by leaders at the top of the hierarchy with a false sense of control. Diverse, distributed leadership is needed if we are to have a hope in hell of tackling issues of inequality, climate crisis, a public health pandemic, a tenuous economy and failing trust in institutions.
When we look to leadership as a single point of light, we throw our own knowledge, lived experience and fledgling ideas into darkness. But when we see leadership as a circle of light, defined by everyone brave enough to step forward and contribute their impact, we can far more easy push out into the unknown, the uncertain, the uncomfortable… illuminating blind spots and finding new pathways as we go. This is what I call leading at the edge. It’s simply choosing to do the next brave thing, again, and again.
I’ve spent over ten years studying leadership. Often as the youngest person at the table, regularly as one of the few women. From this vantage point, power structures are far more easily perceived. So are empowerment structures. Of all the myriad of diverse leaders I interviewed for my book The Leading Edge, every outlier was a natural systems thinker. Every change maker asking the sharpest questions had been sliced and diced by society into one underrepresented group or another. And every successful individual made me see that there is no such thing as a natural-born leader, that is simply an organising principle of privilege. We unlearn leadership as we learn our place in the world, not the other way around.
I’m regularly challenged on my belief that we are all capable of leading the change we care enough to make. Criticised for youthful naivety, or Pollyanna-style enthusiasm, or the perception that it must have come easily to me so I wrongly assume leadership is a given for others…. When in fact it is quite the opposite.
Growing up, I always had the big dream, the fire in my belly, the inner feisty social-warrior streak, it’s true. What I didn’t have, and longed for, were people around me who fuelled my fire, patiently answered my incessant questions, and encouraged me to action my ideas. Our education system is not setup to scale entrepreneurship, so much as to weigh in on established ideologies. As our skills gap widens, formal education becomes rapidly obsolete, and our expensive university system struggles to fund itself, we need to reclaim our own learning journeys to lead in the knowledge what we know in the economy.
On my own journey, I have been a bit of a loner, working all hours of the night to fight imposter syndrome, pushing myself to achieve more than I believe is possible to prove others wrong and keeping parts of myself that didn’t feel socially acceptable locked away. But this honourable mention scoring middle road to leadership denies all that we have to offer once we arrive. Right now, status determines the state of us when it comes to public leadership.
Is it any wonder that our future plan still seems to have been resting largely on population growth and the continuation of feeding fossil fuels to China? ‘Resting’ is the operative word – and it’s not the verb we need. Australia ranked last on climate action in a recent UN Sustainability Report. We slipped 4 places in the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook to 22nd overall, and we come in as the 79th most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows public trust is drastically declining across government, media, business and institutions. With the trust gap widening between people who trust leaders and people who do not, debate is becoming increasingly polarised and solution building, dislocated.
Where is change going to come from?
When it comes to privilege, I believe that everyone with a voice living at this point in history must repay that privilege to future generations by using it. For my small part right now, I have documented every valuable actionable leadership lesson I’ve been lucky enough to learn at the feet of change makers both well known and unforgettable. In The Leading Edge I’ve created a framework of mindsets, methods and mastery in the hope that it will provide emerging leaders of all ages and walks of life with the inspiration to invest their individual ability to lead our collective future.
The ‘adults’ don’t have it in hand, and change will not come from the top. So for every change-maker, of every age, with a curious, excitable, adventurous kid kicking around inside of them, it’s time to play our best game. Leadership is not as complex as they make it out to be. There are no rules. It’s simply choosing to step beyond our comfort zone and do the next brave thing, over and over.
We need to break open the notion that leadership is exclusive. It’s not. And in today’s world more than ever we simply cannot afford for it to be. I believe everyone was born to lead in some way, and leading from the edge means harnessing the state of mind, the processes and the artistry that will arm leaders like you for impact. The world needs ‘all of us’ – both individually and collectively – to step forward and lead the change we care enough to make.