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7. How important is listening within Leadership?
Episode 73rd May 2022 • Women Emerging Podcast • Women Emerging
00:00:00 00:31:17

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Leadership is both very very hard and really quite simple? We put this to the test on this weeks podcast.

Uma Chatterjee covers hard, linking  it to the source of good leadership being self awareness. And that self awareness is wonderful and terrifying at the same time.

Liz Bloomfield covers simple, she links this to the source of good leadership being listening. Hard intense committed listening.

But Selvie Jusman sets the podcast off on the right tone as she describes the enormous impact that bad and good leadership has had on her. She reminds us just how crucial leadership is.

My answer to the question? It’s hard. Simple things often are.

Interested in what you think?


Julia Middleton 0:26

g on an expedition throughout:

Julia Middleton 1:13

I've told you now in the first seven podcasts all about the expedition, the what, the why, the how, the passion behind it, the determination that we have to disrupt. Last week, I told you a little bit more about what came before the expedition, what Women Emerging was doing for the previous 18 months that led up to the expedition, and about the weekly films and gave you the very best, I hope, from the weekly film so that you have a sense of where we've come from. Thank you all for your continuing lovely words. Your encouragement, you're sharing, you're recommending and starring and telling us your reviews of the podcast. I'm going to choose one from Andaleeb because... kind words, but also really, I think an important thought. As she says, the only thing I wanted to add, Julia, is about leadership, is that vice versa. Some people are born to be leaders, and they have to learn to work for others, and follow others, which for some is very, very hard. Powerful thought Andaleeb. Thank you for sending it to me. Please, please, everybody else carry on sending the message. They matter a lot.

Julia Middleton 2:33

Over the next few weeks, I think we're going to get a little bit deeper around the issue of leadership. Each week, as you know, we're speaking to more of the 20 expedition members. And so far, you've met nine of them. And this week, you'll meet another three as we turn to leadership. But as we do turn to leadership, I thought we should sort of set it off by talking to Selvie. And she can tell us a little bit about what the impact as a young woman in financial services from Indonesia, who's experienced both good and bad leadership. I asked her to tell us what the impact of good and bad leadership has been on her.

Julia Middleton 3:21

So what's the bad leadership that you've experienced? And to some extent, what impact has it had on you? And tell me about good leadership and what impact that has had on you.

Selvie 3:32

Yeah, so I guess, like good leadership and bad leadership to point that out, like we experience it in like home, school, in the workplace. And I think coincidentally, I did have experience, I experienced both bad and good leadership. I would say like, identify bad leadership with something that is more result focus, something that is, you know, very much KPI driven, or very much like, it's very individualistic, whereby I care about myself and you are under me, therefore you need to do the things that I asked you to do, whereby, like a certain expectation have already set in place. And if you don't deliver, then you fail. And I think it is an environment whereby you are being taught... like it, it is very much like a punishing environment. If you fail to deliver something, then I'm here to remind you that, you know, you didn't manage to do what you should do for our team. So I felt like that is the bad leadership that I have experienced. And to me the feeling, it was pretty much, you feel like every day you're walking on an eggshell, you know, like you feel you feel fearful, like I feel fearful of committing mistakes, even though like actually, I think committing mistake or doing something wrong is how you learned but it is an environment whereby not supportive of that. Whereas in a good leadership, the way I think about good leadership pretty much is a very nurturing environment, an environment whereby, you know, when I even think about it, I feel happy, like, I will smile when I think about. It is an environment whereby I feel valued, appreciated. And I felt like my leader cares about me as a person. And I think what surprised me the most when I first experienced leadership was that I felt 'Oh, you know, you care about my opinion, even though I might not know much'. And it also involves, like, love in a way like, genuine care, patience, forgiveness, when I commit a mistake, people will forgive me for committing that and even like, oh, you know, let's take a look at why you, you didn't do well in this or that, that kind of feeling that I get, I feel like we are in the same team, we are in the same boat. And to me, because of that, I felt there is a alignment of interests, it's very nurturing. And it is pretty much like when I asked Julia, you know, I need to finish this work. The reason is, because I really want my team to do well, versus saying like, Julia, you know, I need to finish this work. Because if I don't complete it, my boss will give me a very bad review. I think that's very much a two different perspective. Leadership is something that motivates me internally, a good leadership makes me want to stay where I am. It encourages and motivates people. And even if let's say you ask right now, in my current position, I do have a very good leader. And I felt like one of the, one of the biggest thing, or one of the hardest thing for me to leave his job is the people, the leader. Because I felt like it feels like an environment, a very good environment whereby I can continue to grow. And I do have, I know that I have a good support system.

Julia Middleton 6:54

Thank you Selvie. I think we've all, I suspect we've all experienced or observed good and bad leadership. And in truth, it's been delivered by both men and by women. Leadership is without doubt, easier said than done. My own view is that it's...that leadership is both very, very hard, and very, very simple. I took this thought to two other members of the expedition and with it Selvie's thoughts to other members, uma in India, and Liz, in the US.

Julia Middleton 7:35

Uma first on, it's very, very hard. She expresses this utterly beautifully. But before she does, I asked her about a word that Aisha, if you remember Aisha, in podcast five. Aisha gave me a word called 'justajoo' for an expedition. It was an intriguing Urdu word. And I thought I would test it on Uma.

Julia Middleton 8:07

Uma the other day, Aisha who's on the expedition, who's from Karachi, she sent me an email and she was trying to explain to me the word 'justajoo'. 'Justajoo' or 'jastajoo'?

Uma 8:19


Julia Middleton 8:19

Why does that word make you smile as well?

Uma 8:22

It's a very warm word. It's a word that talks about the innermost or instinctual spiritual desire for some thing or somebody, I think the innateness of love, warmth, and pure desire, it just makes me feel... it just brings a smile to my eyes and my lips. I think that's why.

Julia Middleton 8:44

Because does it actually mean a quest?

Uma 8:47

It is an expedition. It's an expedition. It's a quest. But the, you know, the source of this expedition, the source of this quest is not only to find something. It's not only the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's the seeking, which is beautifully pleasurable in this kind of an expedition.

Julia Middleton 9:11

So it's, it's a beautiful word for the expedition. It's a beautiful note. Right I've got it. Why, why do you think leadership is so hard? I mean, last time we spoke, both of us were in floods of tears, and we were miserable about the world. But we were also miserable about being leaders in the world I think. Why is leadership so hard?

Uma 9:37

I think there are couple of things you know, as we grow into leadership, I think there is a awareness. There's a lot of self awareness and awareness is a double edged sword. You know, it brings a lot of pleasure and confidence. Awareness brings a lot of pleasure and confidence because it's an authentic way to live, while getting in touch with reality. However, awareness, also, I think, brings its share of pain. The meaninglessness of existence, the sheer despair and hopelessness or limitation of human capabilities. So I think one of the reasons leadership is hard is because of this. More self aware you become you, you need to co-hold the pleasure of authenticity, and the pain of certain kinds of things that are beyond our control. So that is one of the reasons I think it is hard. The other thing I think, Julia, for me, I think, and this is what I find in many leaders, I mean, young leaders and working with so many emerging leaders, I think in situations of crisis, in situations of difficulty, when we are very emotionally triggered, usually there is a human risk, the human response is binary, either there is fight or flight. That is, it's black, or white, or it's right or wrong. And when as leaders, when we are emotionally triggered, and we, you know, this is the first response that we go to, you know, this binary response, and then you know, as leaders, this is not it. Leadership is so much more, and you need to explore the pattern of choices that we are making, we need to do that. And sometimes you don't get that time, you don't get the... you don't get the luxury or the permission to pause and be ready to jump into action. And as I think self conscious and aware leaders, as empathetic leaders, we realise at some point, that the binary response was not called for. It required a more complex, diverse, a more rounded approach. And it's painful. It's difficult to you know, that that self realisation that I should have taken a pause. I need not have jumped into it right away. I think for me, that has happened, you know, in situations of crisis.

Julia Middleton:

And you end up that evening, forgiving everybody except yourself.


Harshest to ourselves.

Julia Middleton:

And because we're the leader, we're responsible. Part of the hardness of leadership, perhaps is that it's a bit like motherhood, isn't it? You never get it right. You just have to keep going. And leadership, you're never gonna get it right. You just got to keep going and hoping that you're getting incrementally better at it.


Also, also, you know, Julia, it's difficult as a leader, to be able to express how can the others, how can someone else make me feel more accepted? How can someone else make me feel more loved? Or make me feel more valued? These are human needs, but as leaders, we are often hesitant or unable or don't find space to express how can someone... and we expect people to make us feel like that or to understand us. We don't ask. There's a difference between asking and expecting. And I think as leaders since we are unable to ask, or unable to share, how can you make me feel more trusted, or more loved or more accepting or more human, it becomes becomes a lone journey. It becomes a very, very sultry, lonely space.

Julia Middleton:

Have we almost accepted that it's lonely, and it doesn't actually have to be lonely?


It doesn't have to be and it cannot be. And I think this is what this expedition will look for, search for. Those minds of human connectedness, relatedness and how do we make this journey a more measurable one, a more liberating one. We don't need the same.. we don't want more. We don't want the same things. We don't want more. We just want different as women leaders, I often say this, that we don't want more. Wewant different. And this difference is one of the core differences that we want is that leadership is about connectedness, about being at it together... to the being and becoming together.

Julia Middleton:

Okay, I'm gonna go away and think Uma. I'm very, very glad you're on this expedition with us.


Thank you.

Julia Middleton:

Thank you Uma. Leadership is about connectedness. It's about coming together. And we have to find ways so that it's less lonely and much much more pleasurable. With, with these words ringing in my head, I want to talk to Liz to ask her if it's ridiculous to suggest that just as it's hard, it's also simple. Liz' background is engineering and then the army and then the corporate world and now the NGO world.

Julia Middleton:

You know, my father used to say to me that leadership is, of course, about who you are. But it's also about what you do. And maybe that's where we should start the conversation with Liz.

Julia Middleton:

Liz, no one would deny that leadership is hard and listening to Uma, you can't fail but to recognise how hard it is. But perversely, on another level, sometimes it can be quite simple. Does that make sense?


Completely Julia. And you know, what I see in observing women in leadership roles all around the world, is that the ones that get it right, are the ones that are paying attention. It's not that it's not difficult, it's difficult for them. It's, it is difficult, but also, they have seen the simplicity in just looking at what's around them, observing, listening, really actively listening and then acting. And so yes, they come up against challenges. But somehow, they're able to set aside their egos, and really focus on what they're being told, observing, reflecting and then doing something about it. And I think that's great leadership in its rawest sense, is that ability to pay attention and then act, and that I've seen women do in so many different contexts, in some of the most challenging of circumstances, be it war, natural disaster, or actually, in just day to day living. These women are able to bring that level of simplicity and clarity that enables them to inspire the confidence of those around them. That calmness. And so is it easy? No, it's not easy. But are there ways in which women chart a path that has a positive impact on those around them? Yes, for sure. And I see that every single day.

Julia Middleton:

One of the things that the women who pay attention, what are the sort of...I know this sounds silly. What are the sort of habits? What are the things they do regularly, that sort of make them leaders? I remember when somebody said to me, 'it's just a team meeting'. I said, 'What do you mean, it's a just a team meeting?' A meeting of your team is actually, it's your leadership opportunity. You know, don't don't think of it is just a meeting. So what do really good leaders do that are the sort of basic simple things?


They listen. And that seems an obvious one. But it's surprising how often that doesn't happen in leadership settings. And quite often that can be because ego permeates the situation. But a really great leader, be they male or female, listens, and they make the space to listen. And they don't just listen to hear what they want to hear and pick up on the bits that they were waiting for, with that kind of confirmation bias, but they listen in a really genuine way. And they also look for the other nonverbal cues. They look for how people's body languages, they look how people are behaving with each other. They look at the dynamic in the room, or on the Zoom call, or in the community meeting or or in the team meeting. And they reflect on that. And they ask questions, they ask questions, they get people's perspectives, again, in a very genuine way, not in a way that they're just going through some kind of tick box, get input exercise, but they ask questions, they are curious. And I think it's that curiosity that's only possible when you can set aside ego and admit that you don't have all the answers.


And so I think that's the second thing alongside listening is having the humility to admit that you don't have all the answers. And I think in some leadership models, or some kind of, in some leadership cultures, that that is a real barrier to great leadership. People, the leader is expected to be on a pedestal and have the answers and that enables them to project themselves as a strong leader. And yet the people that I see being really effective leaders are the ones that say, 'Hey, you know, I just don't know'. And that inspires the confidence of others to share, to bring their answers to the table, to know they won't be laughed at or ridiculed for coming up with some unexpected suggestion. And, and I think that you know, that listening combined with that curiosity and the humility to admit you don't have the answers.


And then the final step, because I think it's the final step that enables change to happen is to add, is to say, 'Okay, I've listened, I hear I see. And now this is what we're going to do. Do you want to come with me?' And creating a space where people can't do anything but say yes, because it looks like fun where they're going and it looks exciting and interesting and I think those are the steps that that I see, I've seen just in so many contexts and in really, really challenging situations. You know, it's easy to say, well, it's all very well having that kind of listening model, when you're in a nice comfy conference room. But what about when you're in a more hostile situation, or where there are particular challenges, or the situation is just not conducive? And I would say, even more, you've doubled down on that listening and paying attention, because that's when it really matters. And I think the really great leaders do that. They do that in abundance. And when they're under pressure, they do it even more.

Julia Middleton:

And actually, it's interesting, because even if you say to people 'listen', and they say, 'Well, I can't spend the next three or three hours listening', the answer is 'just listen for a minute' would help.


Yeah, right.

Julia Middleton:

It's just the act of listening.


There is always time to listen. There is always time to listen. And the false economy of not listening is what people often overlook in their in such a, an urgency to act, which of course, there's a time for acting, but you have to act at the right moment. And in that urgency to act and that need to be seen to be doing something, they skip over though the other steps and you're right, listening doesn't mean you know, a 30 minute monologue. It doesn't mean bringing people together for a one day retreat where you all get to share. Sometimes it's about one minute. It's about pausing. Tell me what you think, can you give me your thoughts on the situation, your what's your perspective, and that is, you know, that can be, you know, transformative if it's even just a few seconds.


But I think there's also ways where teams can really get themselves into an upward spiral when this is done well. If you get into good habits, as a leader with your team, of having this opportunity to share, teams get really good at expressing what they want to say. So initially, you might find that it's frustrating because people haven't had the opportunity speak. So they maybe take quite a long time to say it. But as you get better as a team, it very quickly becomes a really effective and efficient process of sharing. Because you've built that trust. And you've built that, you know, that space where people feel heard. And so then they're really willing to step up and give their perspective.

Julia Middleton:

And you've done leadership in quite a few different contexts, haven't you?


I have Julia and I definitely work to optimise for interesting during my very varied career. I started out... my leadership journey started in the military, and I was in the British Army in, joined in around 2000, and deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a young officer. And you know, the experiences I had during that very early phase of my career really shaped how I've wanted to show up as a leader ever since I was in southern Iraq during the early part of 2003, and was leading an initiative around engaging the local community in reestablishing the rail infrastructure. And I worked really closely with the Iraqi rail experts. And it was a very interesting dynamic, because initially, my own chain of command, were very apprehensive. They were like, 'Yeah, Liz, you know, you know what you're doing. But you might just have to accept in this situation, that culturally, it's just not going to work. We might have to...'

Julia Middleton:

Why, because you're a woman?


Because I'm a woman. And we might have to have some male officers come in and kind of help with some of the communications and I said, well, let's see how it goes, shall we? And, you know, to cut a long story short, sure, what we were, what we found in that situation is that I had opportunities to engage with the local community — the male, predominant male in a way that we were able to set aside some of the other challenges that come in a very male dominated environment, some of the egos, some of the need to be the person in control, the person that is dominant in that situation. And you know, I have so much respect for them for their willingness also, to be open to working with me. We, we found a dynamic that worked so well. For for quite a number of weeks, they referred to me as Madam Liz. And we had a very respectful relationship,. But I was able to talk to them in a way that some of my male colleagues just weren't able to, because it inevitably went a certain direction where it was about being the dominant leader in the situation and and that just didn't happen. And so it was a real eye opener for me, because, you know, rather than my gender being a barrier to us being able to work together, it was actually the enabler. And I think that's, you know, that's something that has always stayed with me when I've tried to think about how I show up as a woman in other situations, whether that was, you know, during my military career, whether that was in the corporate sector more recently, when I've been working within the humanitarian sector, just being open to seeing to looking at the situation with a different kind of lens and seeing where they may may be opportunities rather than just barriers.

Julia Middleton:

You keep using the word ego.


It's a really interesting concept, which I think we could all do to be more aware of in ourselves. It's not something that's specifically gender related, but I think it can show up in that context. And so I think it's something that's really, you know, building levels of awareness relating to that, I think, is really important. Because ego without question has a bearing on how we show up as a leader. Ego is something that will enable us to either be that person that makes the time to listen, that that is able to admit that they don't have all the answers. Ego can either enable that, or it can prevent that. It gets in the way of being able to build, you know, authentic, but meaningful, balanced relationships where everybody is able to bring their full self to a situation rather than feeling that they somehow need to be a people pleaser, trying to say the right thing for the leader that they're working for at that particular time. And, you know, that's, that's where being able to set aside ego, which is just so it's easier said than done, because we all bring ego to every part of our daily lives. But I think it's just an important element of self awareness and team awareness in how that is showing up.

Julia Middleton:

So leadership is about everyday walking on eggshells. That, that sounds familiar. I finish this podcast with thoughts from all three conversations. From Selvie, where she said that the leadership she wants is from leaders to create an environment where I can continue to grow. That sounds right. Good leaders make sure that people continue to grow, who work with them. And that was a very clear message and challenge from Selvie. From Uma, apart from the word 'justajoo', which I have now learnt from two Urdu speakers, one in Pakistan, the other in India, that reflects what an expedition is that has an inner most spiritual desire in expedition. That that's interesting, but on leadership, I particularly... Uma, this concept, that self awareness is both a pleasure and a burden, a pleasure and a pain that we have to co hold, I find that a very useful concept. And from Liz, the false economy of not listening, that is really, really interesting. And her experience that when when things are really, really tough, good good good leaders double down on their listening, when intuitively you would think that they would sort of miss it out. But in fact, as she says, or observes, when the pressure's on, good leaders double down on their listening, and they listen fast. And if their team has got used to being listened to, the team begins to express themselves very fast themselves. And you get, as Liz talks about this upward spiral, which I think is fascinating.

Julia Middleton:

But both Uma and Liz have talked a lot, it seems to me, about the sort of the luxury or the permission to pause, to allow leaders to pause and no doubt in the pausing, to listen, That was very, very interesting. And it all speaks to leadership being both hard and simple. I mentioned my father earlier. I remember him sitting me down at one stage and saying that I needed to learn more about leadership and I, my response was pretty brutal. 'I don't like leaders. I don't like how they behave. I don't like what they demand of me. I don't like their sense of entitlement. I don't like bullies.' It was a long list. And I remember him looking at me and saying, 'Julia if you really want to change the world', and I said 'no, not the world. Yes'. Maybe I want to change my street or my house or my road or my city or my country. Yes. He said yes. 'So if you want to change the world, Julia, how are you going to do it in the 18 hours a day that you are awake on your own? If you really want to change the world, you are going to have to learn leadership and learn the ability to take people with you and tolead people.' And he was right. It's both hard and it's simple and it makes the expedition all the more important so that women say 'if that's what leadership is, I'm in.' Which is pretty well what I said to my father.

Julia Middleton:

Last week was my birthday. I was 64. So I thought I would finish this podcast with a little bit of music.

Sindhuri Nandhakumar:

Thank you for listening to the podcast. Your voice and perspectives are crucial to the success of the expedition and we would love you to become a partner to women emerging. You can do this by subscribing to this podcast and joining the women emerging group on LinkedIn. With us