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Simplicity in Leadership

When I was first invited to write a piece for the Wellspring Magazine, my first instinct was ‘no way’! I have never written a magazine piece before and I’m not going to start making a fool of myself now!

So, over the following weekend whilst I was washing the car, I started to wonder why this was my initial response. What was I afraid of? I stand up in front of groups of strangers for a living, in addition to 1:1 coaching with often very demanding clients. Surely writing my thoughts down on a piece of paper couldn’t possibly compare, could it? If there was indeed no way I would accept, then what stopped me from saying that at the time, instead of playing along with the idea out of politeness and respect for the person issuing the invitation? I am not known for my inability to speak out after all. And what was it that made me sit and stare at my laptop for 2 hours wondering how on earth would I start to write anything that would be even remotely interesting to anyone?

My guess is, I was experiencing something that, from time-to-time all of us are stricken by so I thought I’d try and identify it in the hope that if I did, I, and those reading might be able to deal with it a little better.

Some time ago, I watched a TED talk by Brené Brown in which she talked about vulnerability which, I recall at the time ‘chimed’ with me somewhat so I searched for it again and settled down to watch it…..4 times! I started to think back over all the opportunities that have been presented to me throughout my career and personal life and how many of these I had turned down or avoided due to vulnerability and shame. I can tell you honestly that this was a chastening experience which left me with a whacking great ‘hit’ of you guessed it………vulnerability and shame! So, this presented me with a choice; either I continue to avoid the things that make me feel vulnerable and stay safe within my little bubble or I take a different view of the above and see if it can navigate a route through it.
Much of my previous relationship with vulnerability originates in the feeling that ‘I am somehow not worthy’, that one day I’ll be found out and that someone far more intelligent and capable than me will expose me. Imagine what raced through my mind when confronted with writing a magazine article for an academy trust full of childhood authority figures, Teachers, Heads and Executive Heads! Well, I have been privileged to coach some very senior people with stellar careers which carry great responsibility and one thing that comes up more than any other is the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’. The feelings associated with this can be crippling, causing stress and anxiety which seep into many areas of their lives. This is nothing new!

Here’s the thing though… doesn’t have to be this way.

Leadership is simple! It’s not easy but it is simple.

When I googled ‘leadership’ this morning I was presented with 9.7Bn results in a little under 0.7 seconds! How on earth are we meant to find what we’re looking for amongst that lot? We all know that ‘leadership theories’ abound, visit the business section of any book shop in the world and you will be presented with a huge choice of ‘self-help’ literature, each in its own way professing to be the silver bullet that will cure all your leadership problems. The real problem is that over the years the two fundamental rules of leadership have been buried deeper and deeper beneath this pile to such an extent that they are largely forgotten. Two simple rules that, if embraced and followed will transform your leadership and inspire those you serve.

Earlier in this column I wrote about shame, vulnerability and the imposter syndrome and how this can be profoundly debilitating. My internal discomfort surrounding thoughts of how my words might be received by those who read this, fears that what I write will be ripped apart and criticised and concern for the long-term effects this might have on my credibility and relationships. I feel certain that many of you reading this will have experienced similar thoughts, especially when confronted with decisions that affect other people. In a roundabout way this brings us to Rule #1 of Leadership. Rule #1 is incredibly simple and everything you need to know about leadership starts from this one principle.

Rule #1 is: It’s not about you

Renowned author, TED speaker and behavioural researcher Simon Sinek imagines a world ‘in which the vast majority of people wake up inspired, feel safe wherever they are, and end the day fulfilled by the work that they do’. Is it not then, that the role of the leader to strain every sinew in ensuring this is the case? Rule #1 of leadership has been recognised for millennia. The ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote ‘The art of war’ in the 5th Century B.C in which he stated: “The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people’s security and promotes the people’s interests, is the nation’s treasure.” Sun Tzu got Rule#1. Jesus said “If anyone be great amongst you, let them be your servant” I am not writing about anything ground-breaking here, I am merely proposing that those whom you have the privilege of leading are entrusted to you for their safety, growth and fulfilment. Consider for a moment the difference between someone who is seen and treated merely as an employee and another who feels as though they are contributing as an important member of a high-performance team. As a leader it is surely within your gift to create an environment in which people can flourish and reach their full potential.

I learned long ago that my role as a coach is primarily about listening. Listening not with the intent to respond but with genuine interest, fascination and a willingness to understand. Bill Nighy once said: “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t”. If you don’t have the time to be fully present in a conversation then get out of it and re-schedule but don’t be half-in, half-out. I also learned that by asking open questions I was encouraging the other person to carefully consider their response. I am, in a way helping them to raise their own awareness of any given situation but fundamentally this begins with listening. These are basic communication skills that anyone can utilise which in turn can have seriously beneficial effects on relationships. This brings us neatly to leadership Rule #2. Equally simple and equally powerful, leadership rule #2 is:

It’s all about you.

Seth Berkley said “Leadership is not about power, it’s about responsibility”. It matters little what position you occupy, what uniform you wear or whether the name plate on your office door is hewn from solid oak. Leadership is about who you are, what you represent and what you seek to achieve. Leadership is about authenticity, its about turning up at the top-end of who you really are. It’s not about trying to be someone else, trying to play out what you’ve read in a book, its’ about being yourself ‘brilliantly’. Each and every one of us can be leaders in our own way. We all have the ability to make a difference to our worlds and the worlds of those around us.

If you are the boss then your people will follow you but, be aware that they may be following you only because they have to. This kind of followership is easily recognisable about 5 minutes before ‘knocking-off’ time. This is the kind of followership which results in people ‘giving what they have to’ rather than ‘giving their best’. Leaders need followers, this is clear but ‘great leaders’ don’t create more followers, they create more leaders. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Good leaders inspire people to believe in the leader. Great leaders inspire people to believe in themselves”.

Earlier in this piece I suggested that Leadership is simple, which I stand by but, I also said it’s not easy. Leadership requires effort, a lot of effort. It requires investment in people, investment of time and genuine interest in what makes them tick. Many of us are fully aware of the feelings associated with vulnerability, we know how easy it is to allow ourselves to be held back in life, to hide away and not risk making fools of ourselves. Only by investing with genuine interest in another person will we be able to spot the signs that indicate there is much more than is seen on the surface. Also, by investing in ourselves as leaders we will uncover resources previously unknown to us. Learning to listen, not with the intent to respond but with the desire to understand. Being fully present when speaking to our people and learning to ask coaching questions which are designed to raise awareness. Yes, you can take the easy route and simply solve their problem but what happens when the next problem arises and the problem after that? Being the ‘problem solver’ may be good for your ego but it will inevitably steal your time, valuable time which can be spent on far more important and worthwhile endeavours. Engaging with a professional coach is undoubtably the best way to understand the effects of coaching questions but there’s always google.

When the father walks the bride to the front of the church, he may say something along the lines of “I give this woman to be wed to this man” but I suspect that is not what he’s thinking. I imagine it’s more along the lines of “I am trusting you with my precious girl, that you will care for her, keep her safe and support her to become whatever she desires, or woe betide you”. Everyone is someone’s precious daughter, son, brother, sister, husband or wife and they are entrusted to your custodianship. Take care of them and allow them to be whatever they are capable of being.

Rob Smith
RJS Coaching Ltd


First and foremost, I am a passionate, dedicated and ethical coach. I consider it a huge privilege that my clients are prepared to share their journey towards success with me.
I have led something of a charmed life in many ways having been exposed to an extraordinary variety of coaching experiences. From working with prisoners, helping them to re-define their approach to society and break the cycle of crime to coaching high achieving Fast Jet Pilots on their way to frontline service in the UK Military. Much of my time in recent years has been dedicated to coaching Executives & Senior people in the private sector both in the UK and overseas. My services have been employed across a variety of industries such as Banking, Oil & Gas, Media & Advertising, Events Technology amongst many others. I currently coach a portfolio of Education Executives within a leading UK Academy Trust. I am proud to have played my part in achieving many successful outcomes and to have learnt much about myself along the way

I believe that coaching is fundamentally about developing respectful and insightful relationships with my clients which lead to tangible, positive outcomes. Coaching can have highly significant benefits regardless of position or profession because I coach the person, not their situation. My role as a coach is to help in raising the awareness of my client so that they can use the right tools to take them forward towards their goals.

I also have a deep passion for leadership and believe that it is within the capacity of most people to develop and practise in all manner of leadership roles. I have helped a wide variety of professionals to either become leaders or enhance their existing skills.

To this end, I am excited to announce that I will be presenting a series of ‘live’ one hour programmes on Josie TV in January 2022. Each programme will target the whole spectrum of Wellspring leaders in endeavouring to provide insight and self-awareness for your journey through leadership. I very much look forward to meeting you all.