Authentic Leadership

Simon Sinek: Start with why by marcoderksen CC BY-NC 2.0

Simon Sinek: Start with why by marcoderksen  CC BY-NC 2.0

This week I contributed to a “learning lunch” for colleagues here at UWE. The topic for this episode is authentic leadership. It’s a re-run of a leadership insight I delivered a couple of years back on a course entitled “Leadership in Action”. This is a Vitae course offered to researchers (both students and staff) to allow them the time/freedom/space to practice leadership in a variety of settings. This particular course was one sponsored by the South West & Wales regional hub of Vitae.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before in the context of communication of research, being able to explain the “why” of research is a valuable thing in my view and key to good communication.

Below is a summary of what I said about authentic leadership.

Much of the insight has been taken from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and his TED talk based on the same topic..

I ended the segment by showing my favourite TED talk featuring Benjamin Zander who, for me at least, is the epitome of authentic leadership in action.

Image Attribution

Simon Sinek: Start with why by marcoderksen available at under a creative commons 2.0 licence. Full details

Leadership in Action – The Prequel #LiA

This time next week I will be one of the facilitators on a course entitled “Leadership in Action”. This is a version of the Vitae course offered to researchers (both students and staff) to allow them the time/freedom/space to practice leadership in a variety of settings. This particular course is one that has been sponsored by the South West & Wales regional hub of Vitae which allows places to be offered free of charge to researchers from within the region.

The course is structured to allow all the participants the opportunity to take the lead on one of the series of case studies that examine leadership in different contexts. All participants will also have a ‘buddy’ who will be there to offer one-to-one feedback. All of this will be interspersed with “leadership insights” that we facilitators will offer up in bite sized chunks to, hopefully, inspire researchers on the course to think about. These insights are really just thoughts on leadership from our perspective.

The overarching theme for this Leadership in Action course is “Authentic Leadership” and my insight is all about finding the “why” of what we do. I’ve written about this sort of thing before so it was perhaps not too difficult for me to produce a summary of what I’ll be trying to get across.

Here’s what I’ll be talking about.

Much of the insight has been taken from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and his TED talk based on the same topic..

Touching the Void & becoming more resilient

Last week I attended a course commissioned by the South West & Wales Vitae hub entitled “Focus on…Resilience”. This was a course aimed at people who support the development of researchers with an enticing topic that seems to be high on everyone’s priority list, even if the attribute of “resilience” might at first appear a little vague.

So it was with a little trepidation that I fumbled with the cellophane wrapped DVD entitled “Touching the Void” that we were given to watch as a prelude to the workshop. What did a documentary film about a couple of adrenaline junkied, risk averse, young alpine mountain climbers got to do with being a resilient leader? Being a typical last minute kinda person, I watched this film the day prior to the workshop. Basic plot; two young climbers (Simon Yates & Joe Simpson) with experience of climbing alpine inclines make a successful attempt to ascend to the summit of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes via the extremely difficult West face.

They of course do this and, with almost bare faced cheek, climb it in the Alpine style of making the ascent in one long push with a minimal amount of equipment. The problems begin on the descent via the North ridge. First, Joe Simpson slips and badly breaks his leg. This leaves his partner with the nigh impossible task of getting him off the mountain by belaying him down using two ropes tied together with the difficulty of having to negotiate the knot through the belay plate by slackening the rope.

A critical point is reached where Simon lowers Joe over a ridge and unbeknownst to him, Joe is unable to climb up or get a secure hold on the ice to provide the slack on the rope. He is left hanging with his weight slowly destabilising Simon’s own footholds. Finally Simon makes a decision to cut the rope holding his partner who falls some distance into a crevasse but survives. Fearing that Joe is already dead, Simon looks for but fails to find Joe so descends the rest of the mountain alone until he reaches basecamp.

The remainder of the film then focuses on Joe’s struggle to get out of the crevasse and then painstakingly crawl, hop, hobble, scrabble and fight his way, inch by inch, down the mountain until he reaches the basecamp, exhausted, broken and on the verge of death.

The story was undoubtedly moving and it evoked a lot of conflicting emotions in me and still left me with many questions as to the relevance of this story to learning about being more resilient in the workplace. Yes, I was sure that there were some lessons to be learned but couldn’t reconcile the life or death situations faced with my own experiences.

On the day of the workshop I was determined to remain open to what I would face and not be clouded by my emotions, to try and keep objectivity front and centre. I was relieved then when I met the facilitator, Rachel McGill for the first time. It was clear that she had much credibility in this field of development and demonstrated an empathy for the concerns I’d had.

So what was it all about? Let’s start with resilience as a term and put some sort of definition around it :-


“Having confidence in who you are and what you do, so that you create, build and take opportunities; ‘bouncing back’, knowing you will find a way through uncertainty, change and even crisis .”


Much of the first part of the workshop was then used to break down the concept of resilience in relation to leadership qualities, a process that Rachel descibes as the “Resilient Leader’s Elements”


The four elements are described as “Clarity of Direction”, “Resilient Decision Making” [grouped together as “What I do”] and “Awareness”, “Leadership Presence” [grouped together as “Who I am”]. Rachel’s company, Sunray 7, has developed an online assessment/questionnaire that probes these four areas giving respondents a snapshot of areas that they might want to develop to improve their overall leadership style (and by this we mean leadership in every day working scenarios not as “boss” or “CEO” of many people).

All of the participants of the workshop had completed the questionnaire and we collectively found hints/tips on improving things from people who do it well. It was an eye opening experience and provided much food for thought about the different attributes required to be a resilient leader.

So, what did I get from the day? I learned a lot from others in the room who clearly performed well in other areas of the Resilient Leader’s Elements than I. It was clear to me that there were things/lessons/ideas that were discussed as a result of watching the “touching the void” documentary. Personally the things that will stay with me for a long time are about the techniques that could help me be more aware of others and a line from the film about decision making in a crisis. 

“Keep making decisions, even if they are bad ones and act on them”

This approach will always throw up new options as a result, provide the basis to rescue a situation. This is not afforded by taking no action or decision, the likelihood is guaranteed failure.

Of course, I still have my reservations about the film itself, I question why the director/producer put both Joe Simpson and Simon Yates back on that mountain when it wasn’t clear as to what value it added and was clearly traumatic for the pair of them. Maybe one would be better reading the book that it was based on?