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Leadership lessons from outgoing VLDC chief

Leanne Ansell-McBride, CEO of the Victorian Leadership Development Centre, is stepping down to take up a new role in the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance.

But before handing in her VLDC lanyard, she left some leadership lessons picked up from leaders she admires — from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela and FDR — for their love of learning and humility to the actions they take to the actions they take to build trust and help the team succeed.

Love for learning

People look up to leaders who have the humility to admit they don’t know it all. Not being the first to share your views also encourages others to share their views, which leads to more informed decisions. Leaders who let their team know they are always looking to learn set a good example for others and promote a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Mahatma Gandhi was known as a lifelong learner.

Lead by example – role model desired behaviours

As leaders we are often trying to create cultural change. What the leader does and does not do has the biggest impact on culture – not the ‘agreed values’ and the wall charts. How you treat others, and what you focus on in your work, will set the tone and the culture for the organisation. Gandhi was a leader who was noted for walking the talk in every way. Think about the last difficult interaction you had – how did you role model respect, impartiality, accountability, honesty or transparency – key VPS values?

Similarly, what you don’t do or focus on sends an equally powerful message. What Nelson Mandela didn’t do was as powerful as what he did in unifying South Africa. He held no bitterness, he did not seek self-glory and he didn’t hide his faults or failings.

Use relationship skills not power or position

The importance of the mix of soft and hard power has been the subject of many of my leadership blogs during my time with the VLDC. In hierarchical environments such as the VPS I have seen many leaders use their positional power, or the positional power of others, to drive issues forward. While this may be effective in the short term, it will not create buy in to long term, sustainable change. At the VLDC we have had little formal power to drive the changes necessary for the success of the centre. Building the relationships necessary for the Centre to succeed has been critical for the Centre’s success.

Cultivate a culture of trust

In addition to building strong relationships, cultivating a culture of trust is key to leadership success. Research consistently shows employees who feel trusted show higher levels of engagement and go over and above to deliver what is required. Theodore Roosevelt once said ‘the best [leader] is the one who has sense enough to pick good [people] to do what [they] want done and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it’.

Listen twice as much as you speak

Linked to a desire not to admit when they don’t know it all, some leaders are too eager to share their views, often by telling. Effective leaders listen twice as much as they speak, and proactively elicit the views of others, rather than positioning themselves as the ‘expert’. Gandhi is quoted as saying ‘it is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err’. Next time you are in a meeting with your team or critical stakeholders aim to listen twice as much as you speak, and ask more questions than you provide answers.

Make it about others, not yourself

Mandela said ‘it is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership’. At the VLDC we have focused the spotlight on program participants and the work of our Board, rather than the actions of staff in the Centre. We have used the ‘power of positive reinforcement’ to drive the changes we have required for success across the VPS. As a leader, never under estimate the power of ‘thank you’ – thanking others each time you succeed. Research from the London School of Economics shows that teams respond with extra effort when they have been thanked by their boss. It also works up the line – bosses rarely get thanked, and like to be appreciated too!

On that note – thanks for reading! It has been a privilege to work with all of you and lead the VLDC for the past six years.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.