As 50 of us gathered for the first time on a cold Monday morning, there was a sense of hushed anticipation in the room. Most of the group had been working from home solidly for the past 18 months. I know now that pretty much everyone was quietly wondering what they were doing there, carrying doubts about the week ahead, perhaps worried about reintegrating again after so long in isolation.

It sounds like the beginning of a journey, but I felt I'd been working towards this point for quite a while. 

I'm typical of many women who live with a male partner and their children, in that I carry the mental load for the family. It's also known as the invisible load, but as any working mother will tell you, it definitely exists and it can be a heavy load too.

The minute detail of an average week in our family; school calendars and activities, dental and medical appointments, knowing whose turn it is to take the bins out, making sure there is always a ready supply of clean underwear and packed lunches and food for the dog, is largely kept in my head. 

As if this wasn't already a lot for my weary post-pandemic brain to take in, I was considering the implications of spending an entire week away from home, to challenge myself in a way I hadn't for quite a while. 

Looking at the schedule for the course was anxiety-inducing. It was 5 days, beginning every morning with breakfast at 8 am and finishing after dinner in the evening. I had not spent such a long and intense period of time in the company of people I had never met for many years. I don’t mind admitting I felt overwhelmed. I might even have questioned if I could be bothered. 

Thankfully my better, rational self quickly took over. I imagined a week away from home, on my own, in a hotel where I didn’t have to cook or wash up or walk the dog. Where I wouldn't be making cups of tea at 6.30 am, dashing to the supermarket at lunchtime, and emptying the washing machine at bedtime. This would be time for me to reflect on what more I had to give as a leader, not just in my home or community, but in the world. 

When I looked at the opportunity like this, it was a gift and so I grabbed it.

So I packed my suitcase and set off for London to attend the 2021 Common Purpose American Express Leadership Academy.

So here we were on day one... 50 of us gathered, anticipation filled the air.

Our first task was one by one, to stand at the front of the room and introduce ourselves using the prop of a small object we had brought from home. Something that would say something about us and the kind of person and leader we are. No pressure then. 

As we went around the room, I was struck by how everyone, including those who were obviously shy and deeply uncomfortable, spoke with warmth and humour, and wit. If this is what leadership looked like then I wanted in.

I took a lot of learning away from that week. It was of course extremely well planned, organized and facilitated. But what seemed different, compared to all the other courses I have ever been on, was how quickly and readily everyone dropped their guard.

Themes around Leading beyond Authority, we had unfiltered conversations on topics from equality, diversity, and inclusion to the importance of being brave, standing up for your views, listening and showing your vulnerability. We had outwardly confident and successful leaders openly admitting to imposter syndrome and 'faking it until they made it'. It all felt so refreshingly real.

A model for Leading beyond Authority

Through a variety of visits, presentations, group exercises, and self-reflection, we were encouraged to see leadership through a different lens. Leadership is not about exerting power over others, it is not a one-size-fits-all personality attribute.

Leadership where there is clear authority, budget, and accountability, is the most common type, but true leadership goes beyond this. Common Purpose illustrates this using the 'Circle of authority' model.

The speakers who were invited from a broad range of third sector organizations had many things in common and as many things in difference. What they all had in abundance was purpose and passion for solving some of the most complex problems in society.

To be successful, they have to operate beyond their inner circle, influencing in areas where they have little or no inherent authority. They do this by forming coalitions and networks and crucially by taking a longer view and being prepared for failure and setbacks along the way.

My six key takeaways

As the dust has settled, I've been reflecting on what I learned, both from the Academy and also from those I was privileged to meet and work alongside.

  1. Good leadership is not about holding power over others. It is possible (although not easy) to lead upwards, sideways and down, and across organizational boundaries. 
  2. Be authentic. The most important thing you can do as a leader is be yourself. If you try to be someone else you will either crack under pressure, or be found out. 
  3.  Empathy is a leadership skill. More than ever before the world needs leaders with emotional intelligence. As Mary Portas says, "fairness, kindness, collaboration and values that historically have not been recognized within business" are the future.
  4. Listen deeply. Almost every problem can be overcome if you begin by listening to understand the issues.
  5. Be self-aware. Knowing your strengths is important. Be aware of your weaknesses but don't let them hold you back. 
  6. Collaborate. We won't solve society’s problems by working in silos. The most positive changes happen when organizations and people find ways to work together. Sometimes this requires us to be vulnerable and open to admitting our failings.

As the Academy drew to a close, what I think we all had in common was a feeling that the week, despite the effort to get there, had been exactly what we needed.

After so long of keeping our heads down and pushing on through almost two years of a global pandemic, it was time to lift our heads out of our isolation and see the horizon again. 

Thanks to the team at Common Purpose, the American Express Foundation , and everyone who gave so generously of their time and experience.


Click here to learn more about Leading beyond Authority with The Common Purpose Programme.