Who Can Call Themselves a Leader?

By Helena Clayton, Leadership Development, Coach, Consultant & Facilitator

Introducing our 2nd guest blog contribution from Helena Clayton, the director of Helena Clayton Leadership Development, coaching, consulting, and facilitation.

We are pleased to feature her writing as part of our mission to develop an ecosystem of strong supportive partner relationships, toward the collective pursuit of achieving better business for a better world.

We hope you find joy and inspiration in her thoughts on the evolving criteria for leadership as we have.



Who can call themselves a leader?


I was talking to a group of emerging leaders recently about how a crisis reveals our faultlines – both personal and systemic. And about how this pandemic might have got us thinking about what we want and need from leaders and leadership. And how we might want something that’s different from what we’ve got now.


Sure, it’s my job, after 20 years of working in leadership development, to always be thinking about leadership and what it means. But I notice my thinking has shifted significantly recently. I notice I’m not only thinking about what’s in the leadership box, but more about what a different box altogether might look like.


It seems to me we’ve used the title far too lightly up until now. I have an increasing sense that leadership carries a very particular set of responsibilities, and that it should do, especially for these days. I think we need to use the term very sparingly. It doesn’t feel right to hold a senior role in an organisation and automatically call yourself a leader.


But these times we’re in are making me want to get really specific about what makes someone a leader and not a senior (maybe VERY senior) manager.


For example, I’m wondering if you can say you’re a leader if you only lead within your organisation and not within the wider world? Can you say you’re a leader if you don’t know what you stand for – and that you are taking a stand on something – and that you can articulate that if asked. What about if you have done no personal development work whatsoever and have little or no sense about who you (really) are, what core assumptions you work from, what are your values or what your deeper and maybe problematic motivations or drivers are?


So let me test out a few things here – say a few things out loud and as provocations and see what I (and you) think:


What if … what if no one has a right to call themselves a leader in their organisation unless they are:


  • Looking beyond the needs of the organisation and actively working towards social or environmental change. If you work in an organisation but your efforts are only focused on sustaining that organisation, and serving the needs of that organisation, then you can’t say that you’re in a leadership role. Leadership, for these difficult times, should also mean that we and our organisations are working towards solving intractable social and environmental issues. A leader needs to be an activist in some way, involved in ‘vigorous campaigning to bring about social change’. This is the idea of ‘being in service’ to something bigger than just our small patch of land and stepping up to the responsibility that goes beyond ourselves to others to ease the suffering of others in the wider world. Our biggest corporates are increasingly as much if not more influential than government in creating change and they are too powerful not to be playing a very active part in the big world issues.


For me this would mean building into all my leadership development programmes things like: education about the climate crisis; initiating a project to improve rough sleeping in your town; setting up a social enterprise to support Syrian or Iraqi refugees, say; or volunteering at a food bank.


  • Provoking the system. For me, these times require that we don’t just maintain the status quo and keep things going – this is the role of a senior manager, perhaps a VERY senior manager – but not a leader. Leaders have to also be actively working to change things. They have to be ‘agitators’ in their organisational system. Someone once said to me that the mark of a leader was that ‘they were always up to something’. A client of mine in a huge global food business has the job title ‘positive trouble maker’. That’s what leaders should be doing, I think – biting the ankles of the layers of management above them and poking and prodding and provoking so that the system is disturbed and can change.


In a leadership programme, how about a research activity to learn about practical activism for system change – maybe from Extinction Rebellion or Greenpeace,  from community organisers in the US or from a young political activist in Nigeria – and learning new ways of changing a system.


  • Creating workplace cultures that are loving. That’s right I did say loving. And I don’t mean empathic or compassionate or kind –  although (obviously!) I do also mean those things too. But I use the word love intentionally because the other adjectives don’t go far enough. Love is so much more than care and nurture. It’s not only softness. And it’s certainly not sentimental. It’s powerful and robust. It’s also about taking a stand for something, holding strong boundaries, and actively protecting people from harm. And love demands radical acceptance from us which, given that a leadership responsibility also means a responsibility for people, we have to learn how to fully accept all difference and welcome things we don’t like and find ways to see the human being behind every piece of behaviour we find wrong or bad (which is so much easier to say than do). Because when we face a world that actively harms, then we need to create workplaces that make a contribution to tending to that harm.


To talk about love is often taboo and certainly distinctly unusual in our organisations. But what if your senior managers went through a leadership programme like this one – focusing on ‘leading from love’? What if, as one organisation has done, we build a Top team leadership programme solely around love, authenticity and vulnerability?


  • ‘Doing their work’. Leaders need to undergo deep and potentially radical inner personal growth work that helps us ‘get out of our own way’. This is way more than taking a 360 to get a better sense of our strengths or gaps, or working with a psychometric, as useful as that is. This means going much deeper into areas like understanding how any ‘slow trauma’ from our childhood is still being played out in the way we behave as adults; working with our vindictive and negative inner critic and understanding its influence on us and finding ways to not let it be in charge; exploring our ‘shadow’ and working with the parts of yourself that we keep hidden but that still find ways of ‘coming out sideways anyway.


How might things shift for the better if all leaders experienced either a course of counseling or therapy or worked with a coach with a ‘deep psychology’ background? What if all your Top Team experienced something like The Hoffman Process?


None of these things is easy. All involve risk and courage. All involve reimagining leadership as something that very few people are equipped and ready to do.


But it feels right to me to demand that no one take the rewards of leadership unless they’re also willing to make an active choice and step up into the full responsibilities of what we need from leadership today.


If you could over-write our current leadership paradigm with one that’s more suited to these times, what would your version include? You might more to stimulate your thinking in this similar blog of mine on ‘eldership’. And of course, PTHR is also in the business of reimagining our workplaces and so there will also be plenty to provoke new thinking in The Energized Workplace or Transformational HR.

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