How I became a (non) expert in leadership

Emily is co-founder and Journey Guide at Unity Effect.

By Emily Johnston, co-founder of Unity Effect.

One of the questions I am often asked when I tell people that I co-founded a business that runs leadership development programs is: what qualifies you to do that?

Are you and your co-founders trained psychologists or coaches? Do you have some kind of certificate?

You look like you’re in your early 20s — surely you haven’t had much leadership experience?

Who creates and runs your programs — please tell me you’ve got some experts hiding in the wings?

Firstly, no. We are neither trained psychologists nor certified coaches. We have no pieces of paper which qualify us to do what we do.

I studied sustainable development and my co-founders have diverse backgrounds ranging from sociology, to journalism, to — of all things — timber science and forestry.

Secondly, I look kind of young but I’m 28 — although admittedly not so much older as to change the assessment of my experience level.

And as for the experts hiding in the wings — the real, legitimate experts in leadership — well, at the beginning we thought we needed them too. Now we run the show, behind the scenes and onstage too.

But let’s back up a bit, in case you are wondering how a group of four sustainability-timber-loving-journalist-sociologists found each other and then decided to have a crack at creating leadership trainings.

It’s time for a new kind of leadership

Emily Johnston at the last ChangemakerXchange ( in Berlin.

Something we share in our team is a curiosity for social change and a deep belief that we need a new kind of leadership to deal with the kind of complex social and environmental issues we face.

And we felt that no-one was teaching us this kind of leadership — especially as young people, the next generation of leaders. In fact, when we looked into it, we discovered that most leadership programs out there are aimed at people who are already leaders, something which is evident in both the language and the price tag of the courses.

Not only that, but the kind of leadership we mostly found out there was an old paradigm of leadership: in fact, really rather management than leadership.

We found it kind of insane that there were very few offers aimed at developing the next generation of leaders with the leadership capacities of the future, which seemed to us such an obvious step towards navigating the choppy waters of our times and steering this crazy ship of a planet towards a somewhat less scary future.

So of course, the obvious solution was: to create our own program. Obviously.

Act first, plan later: learning by doing

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Our first program was kind of a disaster.

We pulled together different expert facilitators on different topics we felt were relevant to the topic of leadership and kind of jumbled it together into a ‘program’. In all fairness, each facilitator was really good at what they do, and led really amazing workshops. It’s just that the program itself had no real coherence or clarity, because we kind of just got started without thinking about it too much.

This may, at first glance, sound extremely naive and chaotic, which in many ways it was.

Yet on the other hand, I’m pretty sure that if we’d actually given it more thought — or more in depth research or better planning — we may have become completely overwhelmed and never actually started.

Alternatively, we may have stayed in the planning phase much longer and ended up with a program of only slightly better quality — and a lot of wasted time.

Because you know how we learnt to create leadership programs? By creating leadership programs.

Being an expert in becoming an expert

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

That’s the thing with being an expert these days. The skills we use on a day to day basis are often far away from what we actually studied.

Partly that’s because the academic world and the ‘real’ world of work tend to demand different things of us (I, for one, have never been asked to write an essay in any job I have ever had. Nor have I been told that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source of finding out things).

But there are other reasons too. How many people do you know who have actually stayed in the same job — or even the same sector or career — over the course of their career path?

Ok, so your answer probably varies depending on the generation and sector you come from. But from where I’m standing as a 28 year old who looks 22 and studied environmental social science (what even is that?) and is now running a leadership development business, the answer is: not too many.

But it’s not only that. It’s also that the kind of skills we need in today’s globalised, digitalised job market are changing rapidly. So pretty soon, the skills you learnt are going to be from an outdated operating system, whether you stay in the same field or not.

This is clearly not news to anyone. Yet we still wait for experts to show up.

This is not to say they don’t exist or that they shouldn’t exist— obviously we need experts (experts, please don’t leave us!). It’s just to say that these days there is also a value in being an expert in becoming an expert in different things (and sorry academic world, but this is where Google, blogs, Wikipedia, YouTube and every other academically-questionable source of knowledge really comes in handy).

Working with questions instead of answers

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

And that’s the thing with leadership too.

We know that the way we need to lead these days is changing. The world is simply moving too quickly to keep doing it the way we did in the past.

We have to learn to be ok with not always being the expert, with not always having all the answers — because sometimes it’s just not possible to have them.

Instead, we have to learn to create space for collective wisdom and creativity, recognising that a more innovative, appropriate or effective answer might come from someone else, if only we are prepared to ask, and then to listen. In our complex and uncertain world, we have to get good at working with questions instead of answers. We have to practice being ok with stepping into the unknown. And as leaders we have to embody deep trust in a way which allows others to do the same.

So even now as we’ve gained more experience and ‘expertise’ in running our leadership programs, we never present ourselves as the experts in the group. It is always a group of people going into the unknown together, and our job is to create the space and trust for the group to share, explore and learn from each other.

Sure, we give them tools, methods, frameworks and all that stuff. But that’s not where the real learning and development comes from.

It comes from being courageous to try one of those tools in your team and reflect on how it goes; from gaining a new perspective on a challenge you’re facing by being really listened to in your peer coaching session; and from being willing to be vulnerable with each other.

There are so many times I’ve been amazed by the quality and depth of answers we get from a group when we frame a topic as a question.

For example, we might start a workshop on values-based leadership with a question like: why do you think it’s important to know our values as a leader? We could have simply given an introduction on why we think it’s important, yet by doing so we’d miss the beauty of hearing all the different perspectives, experiences and knowledge that leads to a much more enriched answer. We learn a hell of a lot more ourselves, and it’s empowering for the group as well.

Relax: you’re a leader, not a super-human

Photo by T.K. Hammonds on Unsplash.

So I guess in a funny kind of way we have become experts of sorts.

Experts in becoming experts, experts in creating trust in groups, experts in asking questions.

But when it comes to leadership itself — with all it’s depth and complexity — I’m not sure if I would even want to be an expert.

Because there’s a beauty in the curiosity and beginner’s mindset, and in the naive courage, which lead us to start our own Leadership Journey.

As leaders we don’t always have to be experts, nor do we have to be perfect, have all the answers or know what will happen, because we are leaders, not super-humans.

And sometimes we just have to start and trust we’ll figure out the answers along the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *