For many of us, Sir David Attenborough is an inspirational person. He is one of the most important figures in a generation and presents a message with a strong moral purpose. His recent activity as an advocate, both within the UK and on the world stage, for action against climate change has inspired us to investigate his leadership style.
How does Leadership theory explain Attenborough’s Leadership?
Following many years of work, the leadership scholars Kouzes and Posner in 2011 published the book “The five practices of exemplary leadership”, which as the title suggests explores a number of essential practices for successful leadership. Below we explore how Attenborough’s actions align with the practices highlighted and how you might transfer some of the practices to your workplace.
Modelling the Way – This practice suggests that the example is set by behaving in ways that reflect the values that we are trying to encourage in others. Attenborough has spent his entire life devoting it to nature, the education about its beauty, the practicalities and now in his later years to its preservation. He proves to be an outstanding role model for the sustainability cause because of how he has lived his life, setting an example for others to follow.
In the workplace: Explore how much your leaders are living the change that they wish to see and how aware the rest of the organisation is of excellent role modelled behaviours. Behaviour charters could be a useful tool in helping people to commit to positive action as well as producing something which can be used to show the commitment to change.
Inspiring a Shared Vision – This refers to instilling in others a shared vision by appealing to their values, interests, hopes and dreams. Over recent years due to the relative lack of action concerning climate change, Attenborough’s vision for the future has been unusual with respect to leading for change. His vision highlights the consequences of the path that we are currently on. Although he delivers a powerful and evocative vision for the future and is inspiring people to come together, he reiterates the current crisis to underline the urgency of the matter whilst still delivering a message of hope.
In the workplace: Inspiring those around you to unite behind a common purpose is difficult. Based on the research, Attenborough’s approach of underlining the urgency of a situation is indeed effective. Going beyond what Attenborough is able to do from his position, you should work with those around you to co-create a vision for change. If everyone owns the vision, there is no need to sell it.
Challenging the Process – One of the key parts of being a leader is delivering change for the good. Within this practice, one of the most crucial parts is encouraging new ideas to flourish. Accomplishing this, however, can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. Asking questions, challenging the status quo and bringing people along with you on the journey can be emotionally taxing and requires large amounts of perseverance. Attenborough’s approach to challenging our current practices is based on his expertise, the expertise of others (e.g. climate researchers) and the message of moral purpose which he delivers in his messages. This evidence-based combination paired with his passionate persistence towards his cause is what has given him the necessary foundation to inspire change across societies
In the workplace: Evidence-based practice and data-driven decision-making have both boomed in recent years supported by the increased access to information and the copious amounts of data we have readily available. To make the most of this within your organisation you should allow time for research of best practices and to make sure that you are building effective insights from your data to support your business needs. Through the use of such approaches challenging the ‘done thing’/status quo becomes much easier. As in Attenborough’s approach and as supported in the empirical evidence, evoking change within those currently living the process is best done by explaining it against the ultimate moral purpose of your organisation (e.g. in a healthcare setting this would be to provide the best care for the patients) as this helps people to see how small changes ultimately make a big difference.
Enabling Others to Act – Refers to the fostering of collaboration and cooperative goals. By fostering collaboration, we encourage people to share information and we help to build social norms which align with the collective’s goal in mind. Kouzes and Posner suggest that leaders must be vulnerable and disclose what they believe and care about for this to be effective. This is a consistent message which Attenborough delivers as he regularly calls for world leaders and societies to work together to tackle climate change.
In the workplace: To foster collaboration we must first create the environment for that collaboration. To do this creating a psychologically safe environment is key. If you can provide opportunities for collaboration in which people can openly share and challenge ideas in a positive manner, then you will help to create a culture in which people are empowered to innovate effectively.
Encouraging the Heart – This practice is all about recognising the contributions that have been made so far, no matter how small. Praising the good. This is arguably one of the most challenging practices for Attenborough to engage in given the urgency of the situation and the propensity towards insufficient action provided by world leaders. It is Attenborough’s carefully chosen words and how he goes about praising the actions of the fast-moving many rather than the slow-moving few that help make his encouragement land well with people.
In the workplace:Let people know when they have done a good job. Communicate improvements in performance and thank people for them! Although processes and systems in the business may be innovating and changing with the times, ultimately it is your people who are delivering upon these innovations and delivering your results at the end of the day.
As you can see Attenborough does a great deal of work both from a moral and an evidence-based point of view. Often, we think of great leaders as being all power-wielding and able to enact large transformations quickly. However, as you can see here with the challenge of climate change and (at the at the time of writing) the ineffective measures that have been put in place by our elected world leaders even people such as Attenborough find it challenging to effect real change despite doing a lot of the right things. As we are seeing in the 21st century with the boom of globalisation and connectivity, working and leading collectively is proving to be what is setting successful businesses and indeed societies apart.
We would like to continue to encourage the #2020yearofkindness by asking that you look to practice ‘exemplary leadership’ by empowering those around you by building positive environments with inspiring goals.
How can Impact help you develop leaders?
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). The five practices of exemplary leadership (Vol. 225). John Wiley & Sons.