What is leadership, anyway? And what does it mean to you?

By Bernie Divall, Professional Advisor for Leadership on 29 June 2020 Maternity Services Leadership MSWs - Maternity Support Workers

Recently I’ve been considering the challenge of defining leadership. I’m not alone in this: it’s been said that there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders!

I was asked to write about my perspectives on leadership for an article in the Institute of Leadership and Management’s magazine, Edge. I concluded that to me, leadership is about developing people and helping them reach their full potential. This focus takes us away from a traditional, hierarchical idea of leadership, because it’s not necessary to limit the word to particular roles or positions within an organisation. So in my role at the RCM, leadership development is about supporting midwives and maternity support workers to be the best they can be – in whatever role they currently hold or might want to hold in the future. I work on the principle that understanding leadership as something we own within ourselves is a good place to start – identifying which characteristics we associate with leaders and leadership, and then exploring which of those we feel we have access to, and which we might need support in developing.

Closely connected to this is some work we do in our leadership workshops – something of a thought-provoking ice breaker, in which we pose two questions. The first is, ‘Do you consider yourself a leader?’ The response is commonly a roomful of shaking heads and denials (and you may be surprised to hear this applies among all our groups of midwives and support workers, wherever they happen to appear in an organisational hierarchy). The next question we ask is, ‘What characteristics do you associate with leaders and leadership?’ Workshop attendees are invited to discuss this second question, and from that we compile a whiteboard full of adjectives and descriptors. The words in the image come directly from an MSW leadership workshop, and the point is, when we then ask people whether they can see any of those descriptors within themselves, of course they can. Which begs the question, why then would you not consider yourself a leader?

These questions enable participants in our workshops to begin a new thought process, around what leadership means to them. Our hope is that once people take ownership of leadership as something available to them, they can shift their thinking away from the idea that leadership sits elsewhere, far from their daily work, perhaps happening in a distant board room, and we can agree that leadership begins with the individual.

This is the self-awareness element of emotional intelligence, the cornerstone of contemporary leadership thinking. If we begin with understanding ourselves, we can think of our qualities as leadership – wherever in an organisation we’re currently situated. The RCM’s leadership offer is entirely founded on this principle – that self-awareness is the starting point for all things leadership. As the adjectives and descriptors above suggest, it’s something midwives and maternity support workers are adept at. Perhaps such exercises can help us all take ownership of those descriptors and explore what they mean for us in the workplace – at this point in our careers, and long into our potential future.