Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘Authentic leadership has to get the best out of your people’

In an extract from their new book ‘Winning Together’, Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh explore the theme of leadership

Leadership is a never-ending quest, a constant search for better. For some people this concept might seem daunting, like swimming upstream against a tidal wave of theories and methodologies. It is daunting, and it is hard work. But it is important for ourselves and the people whom we lead that we know we can and we will do this hard work.

KATE: For much of my early captaincy I had imposter syndrome on a grand scale, and this had a deep impact on my connection with players and the relationships we formed. I believe people were willing to follow me,even from the beginning of my captaincy,because I led by example scrupulously.

However, I wasn’t getting the best of myself or others because I wasn’t taking the time to get to know myself and others in an authentic way. I spent the rest of my captaincy from 2003 onwards trying to learn this lesson, among others. My ability to be open with myself and others would help me be the best of me and help my teammates be the best of them.

The more I spoke from the heart and lived wholeheartedly, the more players were prepared to follow me and do the same. It was only then that we as individuals and as a collective really began to thrive. This didn’t happen overnight, and I am still wrangling with it today.

Thankfully, there is an ever-increasing depth of new research and with it new understanding about effective leadership. That, together with increased access to psychologists and to popular books, documentaries and podcasts on the topic, means that our leadership horizons are being continually broadened.

Kate Richardson-Walsh
Kate Richardson-Walsh, left PIC: Mark Clews

This breadth and depth of information will support your ability to be open to finding a more effective way to lead. Inevitably, it is going to take a fair bit of soul searching and a need to reflect on your values, principles and strengths as a leader. Having the mentality that you can always do it better is a good trait to lean on when it comes to leadership. That ability to have a curious mind and a desire to be authentic are excellent leadership attributes you can foster and value.

HELEN: Taking time to figure out who you are and consider what kind of a leader you want to be is the first step. But there is also a very important ethical perspective to consider. Some years ago now, we had a coach who instructed his manager to take one of our teammate’s stick bags to the bottom of the drive at Lilleshall National Sports Centre while we were warming up for our session.

The drive at Lilleshall is about two miles long, and when we’d finished the warm-up the coach coolly told our teammate where her stick bag was, and that she had to run to the end of the drive to collect it before she could join in with the session.

We were all a bit confused, to be honest. We even gathered together spare shinpads and a stick for her to borrow, thinking it might be some kind of team resilience test. The coach hadn’t been in the job long, and a hopeful part of us wondered whether it was some kind of weird joke, and all would be resolved with laughs and smiles – a funny story we’d be able to reminisce over for years to come. Sadly, we were miles off. When she returned and joined us on the pitch around 30 minutes later, he just tore into her. In front of everyone he wielded his power over her, and us all, and ripped her apart.

Britain celebrate at the end of a breathless night in Rio PIC: Getty Images

To this day Kate and I don’t get it. The only thing that seems clear to us is that he wanted to let her know, and probably all of us know, that he was in charge. This was his way of doing things, which certainly became apparent over time, and in actual fact he made no apologies for it. You could say he was being authentic. That’s who he was, that’s how he’d decided he wanted to be as a coach and leader, and so that’s what he did. This leads on to a very important caveat to leading from your authentic self: it has to get the best out of your people.

This leader was using his desire to be ‘in charge’ as an excuse to lead the way he did. Other leaders may feel that a perceived inability to communicate is an excuse to lead in a siloed and isolated way. It is easy for all of us to retreat into ‘the way we are’ and use this as an excuse or reason for why we behave the way we do. But we are not static beings.

We can flex and mould our authentic style to different people and different situations without compromising our values and principles. If you lead from within and with the individuals you lead in mind, you will build much stronger connections, create better performances, and foster a greater sense of fulfilment for you and your people.

Winning Together: An Olympic-winning approach to building better teams by Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh is out now (John Murray Learning, Hardback £16.99)

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