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Three steps to being a leader

Table sign says "She believed she could do it. So she did."
Image by​ Hello I’m Nik using Creative Commons Licence 2.0 

Anyone can be a leader – whatever their role, background, or seniority. That was the key message from our Director of Delivery and Customer Experience, Dan Cook, in a recent ‘Coffee break learning’ interactive session with PDS staff Our editor took part. Here are the key take-aways.

Dan started the session by posing a question. "What is the difference between managing and leading?"

“Management is about the here and now, leadership is about the future, the strategic direction, was one response. Other attendees thought leaders were the risk-takers to bring about change, or people with a strong willable to translate vision into reality and not easily blown off course.  

No single definition of leadership 

What was clear was that there is no single definition that everyone agrees with. Dan highlighted the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of articles and books on leadership. 

He explained that the traditional view of management is that it is about processes such as planning, budgeting and staffing which are used to keep an organisation running smoothly in the short to medium term. Leadership is more about envisioning, influencing, and motivating 

What makes a great leader? 

Whatever the differences between them, Dan was clear on one thing. As he said, “you do not have to be in a senior position to be a leader in an organisation.” 

Dan asked everyone what they thought were the characteristics of a great leader? “The ability to empathise,” was one suggestion. Being inclusive and practising what you preach,” was another. “Being brave and open, admitting your mistakes,” was also mentioned. 

Attendees were then asked to vote on who of six well-known people they felt to be the best leader, including Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. All six garnered votes, but Mandela won by a small margin to Martin Luther King.

Judge a leader by the breadth of their influence

How is it possible to judge a great leader? Dan felt that the way to do this is by the breadth of their influence and impactand it is something he considers in his own role in PDS. How far am I able to improve things? How many people am I able to improve outcomes for? 

The discussion moved on to how anyone can be a better leader. 

Dan revealed his own three-step model to becoming a better leader. He stressed that this is an ongoing process with no end, it’s iterative and requires continuous practice and reflection to get better at it.  

Simple diagram of Dan Cook's 3 step process
Dan's own 3-step process is one that anyone can adopt

Understand yourself 

The first step is, Dan argued, the most critical. Without it, progress cannot be made. Leaders with high degrees of self-awareness are more effective in their roles, have better work relationships and report lower levels of stress and that’s been backed up by research”, said Dan. 

He added: Be reflective. Think about your strengths and weaknesses. Understand what you are good at. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be great at everything. 

Dan used himself as an example. “When I'm not good at something or it is not my strength, I'll tell my team or the people I'm working with, and ask for help. 

Know your values, what you stand for

There’s more to it. Get feedback,” added Dan. Know what people think of you. Know your values and what you stand for,  and what you are not prepared to compromise on. What motivates you? What biases do you have and how do they impact your success in persuading and leading others? 

Habits we develop as an individual may not work when we want to be a leader because the role demands that we support and develop others. That needs emotional intelligence to be able to read people well and understand what matters to them. 

Being able to stand back as something is about to happen or is happening right then and choose a different path and behaviour. That’s the most important part of learning about yourself,” said Dan. 

Develop your leadership style 

What kind of leader do you want to be? It’s best, said Dan, to match your personality and values to the kind of style you adopt as a leader. “Otherwise it won’t be authentic. That’s why it’s important to know yourself in step one: they work together.” 

He then talked about the range of leadership styles that people use. “There are hundreds,” said Dan. One style may not be enough. I like to think I’m a bit of a mixture. One of my favourites is inclusive leadership.

Choose what fits with you. Try it out, do something intentionally different and see if it works for you. 

It’s important to be able to flex your style. “Situations demand different parts of youso you have to respond to the environment you’re in. Sometimes you need to take a back seat and let others step in and perform the leadership role. You don’t need to try to be everything. That’s all part of the awareness that you need as a leader, adds Dan. 

Learn, practice, embed 

The third step that ties it all together is adopting a learning mindset. Dan talked about the PACE model: 

  • Pick a goal 
  • Appraise (tell) others of your goal (to improve something) 
  • Collect ideas
  • Elicit feedback 

Dan stressed that this is a journey and a continuous process and that it’s vital to demand feedback, not just ask for it.  

“You need to know what people think of you as a leader and use the reflections of others to improve your style and approach. It never ends. Every leader is a work in progress. 

Anyone can be a leader 

Dan’s talk ended on the subject of how to be a leader at work. It’s open to everyone. Job grades don’t matter. 

“In the workplace, leadership activities can be really simple ,” said Dan. “You can be the go-to person on a certain subject, you can be someone who listens a lot and builds consensus, you can be good at coming up with ideasyou can make people feel valuedyou can be someone with your own values who acts as a role model. 

That’s leadership and it can be in any team, in any setting. If you have a passion for something, lead from where you are. 


Find out how great leaders inspire action in this inspirational TED talk by Simon Sinek.

It’s a great time to be part of digital in PDS and Parliament. Take a look at the latest PDS ​job ​vacancies​ – worth checking regularly. ​

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