Helen Killingley, National Emergencies Trust / 26 July 2023

From impostor syndrome to empowered: How Helen Killingley transformed her perspective on leadership

Here, five game-changing lessons she learned at the American Express Leadership Academy in London.


Helen Killingley is the Assistant Director of Operations at National Emergencies Trust, which works to raise funds for survivors and their loved ones impacted by national disasters within hours of occurrence. Helen's work within the organisation covers everything from overseeing the distribution of appeal funds, to ensuring equity and fairness across the Trust's behaviours and decision-making. 

In July 2023, she attended the American Express Leadership Academy in London as part of its 57-strong cohort of non-profit leaders from the UK, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Here, she takes us through the key things she learned during the transformative experience. 

Imagine for a moment that you are in a room alongside 56 inspiring non-profit leaders. Each leader brings their own set of stories bursting with successes and challenges at every turn. Next, add a host of authentic guest speakers sharing their wisdom and inspiring us with their experiences, as well as numerous sessions and workshops led by the magnificent Common Purpose curators and facilitators. Combined with all of this, you meet leaders who actually invite you to immerse yourself in their practices, showing you how they operate. I know how all of this feels, because I experienced it during a whirlwind four days at the American Express Leadership Academy in London.

It might not surprise you that I was having what can only be described as a big dollop of “imposter syndrome” as the Academy kicked off. I was definitely not feeling “good enough” for what was to come. But the participants I'd met during the two online sessions were nothing short of inspiring, and this inspiration kept me going, along with the support from those within my organisation to immerse myself fully.

Aware of these fears, but ready to dive in, our cohort packed our bags and set off to London, or, in my case jumped on the tube for a full four day in-person experience.

At the start of the immersive programme I'd naively thought there was a 'How To Be A Great Leader' manual. Pretty quickly I lost this perception as the course facilitators encouraged us to peel off the layers of the mental onion and look within and understand our why. The hours whizzed by. Through a variety of visits, presentations, group exercises, and self-reflection we were encouraged to see leadership through a different lens, and add our own layers to our onions.

The programme was truly transformative by design. It enabled us to have a unique opportunity to learn from each other's experiences, address current and future challenges within the sector, as well as gain insight from key leaders in social, public and private sectors.

I took a lot of learning away from the week, and all of it centred around how to be a successful, authentic leader with the tools and awareness to create lasting impact.

Here are the five key takeaways I walked away with:

1. Create flexibility within a framework: Set an ambitious vision, devolve power, and make inclusion the norm (whether up, down or sideways) so everyone feels empowered and supported to drive change within the framework, from the ground up. Also know when to step back to avoid stifling others, which can lead to demotivation.

2. Be intentional and true: Be values driven in how you operate as a leader to build trust. This will enable your team to thrive as they find a common purpose (!) and stride towards it together through challenges and by supporting them.

3. Communication and storytelling is key: Communication comes in many forms, whether this is through active listening to understand and overcome challenges or in reiterating the vision and framework to others in order to align your purpose across the organisation. Always remember to adapt to your audience, speak with presence and share knowledge with clarity.

4. Lean into the power of partnerships and networks: Helen Keller says, "Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much". We all know this to be true, so be vulnerable, reach out to others when you need to, and explore ways of working together - both individually within a trusted network and on behalf of your organisation through partnerships and collaboration. Be open to failure, because no matter the outcome, there will be an opportunity to learn.

5. Be self-aware: Build your personal resilience and understand the ways and circumstances in which you operate best so you can respond more effectively to the challenges and changes around you. You can't help others unless you help yourself – and it's ok to say 'no'.

Stepping back into the real world I can't help but see each of these leadership methods and traits in a new light and with a new appreciation, particularly within the non-profit sector. 

I work at National Emergencies Trust, a pop-up charity that launches fundraising appeals within hours of a disaster in the UK. We work with other charities and groups to distribute funds raised in a fast and fair way in order to support those impacted.  By embracing these leadership takeaways, I feel better equipped to serve survivors following disasters, and to work effectively with other entities to ensure that no one is left behind in their time of need.

As the core part of the programme came to a close in July, I knew this was just the beginning of the end, both with Common Purpose, and my own journey towards leading beyond authority and being an agent for change.

A huge thank you to my peers at the National Emergencies Trust, and all the inspiring leaders who joined me on the Programme - I know they will continue to challenge and support me going forward. Another big thank you to the fantastic team at Common Purpose, the American Express Foundation and all those who gave their time, shared their experiences so authentically to help inspire me as a future changemaker. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next. 


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