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Lessons in leadership from Greta Thunberg

by Susie Hills | Aug 16, 2019 | News

So the ‘grown ups’ are getting another lesson in leadership from Greta as she sets sail…

Here are my three top lessons in leadership from Greta:

1. Speak truth to power

Greta has shown us that radical candour is vital, that it’s ok to make your audience uncomfortable – in fact sometimes its kind to do so. She has travelled to our seats of power and has looked ‘leaders’ in the eye and told them that our house is on fire.

Greta wants us to change because she cares passionately about our future. Because she cares she tells us the truth. She lets us feel uncomfortable, in fact she wants us to be uncomfortable because the truth about the climate emergency we face is more than uncomfortable – it’s terrifying. She holds up a mirror and pushes us to look. She isn’t being ‘nice’ but she is ultimately being kind – she wants to save us.

We are all seeking feedback from others as we work. Even the most successful people I’ve worked with have sometimes asked, ‘Was that ok?’. We rarely get honest, kind feedback; we usually read between the lines and listen to our own inner critic. I was talking to someone who gives training, and they said that in every session the participants avoid giving critical feedback to fellow participants, because they are uncomfortable. But without that critique how are we to improve?

Great leaders will give us honest feedback (sometimes uncomfortably so) because they want us to succeed; they are championing us and our careers. They don’t avoid a ‘difficult’ conversation because of their own sake (to avoid discomfort) – they have the conversation for our sake (to help us grow). I am grateful to the boss who told me to “have an opinion”, to the boss who invested in voice coaching for me (“your voice lacks gravitas”), and to the boss who said, “It’s not enough to be good at what you do, you need to be known for being good at what you do.” All these feedback moments felt hard, but they helped me more than those bosses know. If they hadn’t have been honest then I would not have learnt.

2. Know your stuff and keep it simple

Greta relentlessly focuses on the facts, the evidence. She knows her stuff and has clear messages that she repeats…. and repeats… And she checks we are listening – ‘Is my mic on? Can you hear me?’.

She pushes us to focus on the facts. She is clear. She makes complex information simple for us to digest.

The best leaders are able to tell a simple story of ‘what good looks like’. They evidence their view with robust data, yet they handle that data with flair and imagination. The combination of data, evidence and story is powerful – it creates a clear vision of where we need to get to. The keys to success lie in keeping it simple and having the determination, and patience to repeat it often.

The best leaders have clear, powerful messages and they repeat them.

The best leaders have clear, powerful messages and they repeat them.

3. Walk the talk

Greta is absolutely living her values and challenging our views of what it’s ok to do. She shames the leaders who fly in jets to Davos as she climbs into a yacht to sail the Atlantic. More beautifully, she says, “I am not telling people what to do” as she heads off. No, she isn’t telling us. She is showing us. She is challenging us to change. She has the grit, determination and patience to spend two weeks sailing the Atlantic to make her point. She doesn’t ‘cop out’ and hop on a plane and then offset the emissions. She lives her message. Uncompromisingly. And interestingly this behaviour is so ‘provocative’ that grown adults with power feel the need to joke about and bully her via Twitter.

How many leaders really lead by example? How many go above and beyond to model the behaviours and values they espouse? People won’t believe or trust in someone who says one thing and then behaves in another way.

And if they don’t trust you how can you lead? How can you create psychological safety if you aren’t trustworthy?

If you can’t create psychological safety, people won’t feel safe to stretch themselves and take risks. They won’t get the best from you. Time and time again we hear that people don’t leave bad organisations, they leave bad managers. They don’t want to work with people they can’t believe in, people who don’t or won’t walk the talk.

One of the gifts of getting older is learning from younger people. It’s a joy to see young people like Greta challenging the ‘grown ups’ to do better. There is much we can learn. Most of it we may already think we know – but knowledge is nothing without action.

What have you learned from Greta?

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education leadership.