Weaving business and people together

On being very ordinary.

June 26th, 2015



Like many others, I was very saddened by the untimely death of Charles Kennedy, an ex-leader of a political party in the UK. Many fine words have been written about his character and qualities. I had no personal connection with him so I won’t presume to add to those, but I’d like to comment a little on what the reaction to his death says about how we experience and evaluate leadership.

The qualities mentioned most often in the eulogies to him were his ability to relate easily to others, whatever their background; his strong connection with his origins in the Scottish Highlands; and the way he took a stand on fundamental issues to do with his political party and his country. In the instances which stood out, it was a stand which isolated him at the time, but in the rear-view mirror they look like exactly the right things to have done. He was popular without being populist, because of his ability to connect. He knew what mattered to him and he stuck to his principles, but without rubbishing other peoples’ principles or views. And above all he was profoundly human. In fact one of the best eulogies simply said ‘he speaks perfect human’. He could talk to anyone, he was funny, and he was one of us.

How hard this seems to be for so many of us. To just connect at an ordinary human level, regardless of role, position, education. It’s a matter of simply being more interested in the person in front of us than we are in our self, letting go of the need to be impressive, to know more, parade our clever credentials. And in particular letting go of the fear of being judged, or the desire to judge. We all judge and are judged, nothing makes that go away, but the FEAR of it is horribly debilitating and being the sort of person who makes that fear go away in others is a glorious skill.  I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few leaders who can do that, but they are rare enough beasts. Women are often more comfortable with ‘just plain talk’ than men are, but sadly, to sound ordinary, difficult as it is, often isn’t a quality that gets us to the top. We can be very seduced by people who ‘look like’ or ‘sound like’ leaders, not realising how much this picture is formed by unconscious bias. On which topic, more to come later, in a different blog.

For now, I’d like to ask a question of HR people out there. HR functions have a huge amount to contribute in assessing skill. How do you ensure HR systems can identify and promote people who look and sound ordinary, who don’t self-promote, don’t use business jargon, but who speak in ‘human’ and quietly get things done? Those managers and leaders who create little islands of co-operation, positivity and creativity and make things just look efficient and problem-free. Who aren’t tall, don’t have the right accent, and may even be ginger. Whose ordinariness is utterly extraordinary. How do we build a future where a leader described so well like this is not so out-of-the-ordinary:

‘On a continent where the fear of Germany is hardly dead, Merkel’s air of ordinariness makes a resurgent Germany seem less threatening. “Merkel has a character that suggests she’s one of us,” Göring-Eckardt told me. Germans call the Chancellor Mutti, or Mommy. The nickname was first applied by Merkel’s rivals in the Christian Democratic Union as an insult, and she didn’t like it, but after Mutti caught on with the public Merkel embraced it.’  (George Packer in the New Yorker)

  1. Insightful and beautifully written Anne.

    by: Clare Watts on June 29, 2015 at 8:10 pm
    • Thanks Clare! X

      by: Anne Owen on July 1, 2015 at 10:47 pm
  2. I was also sad to hear about him leaving us – I really liked Charles Kennedy and for all the reasons you describe. Very interesting way of putting it Annie; ordinariness. He could relate to ‘ordinary folk’ but I never thought of him as ordinary. I’m working with a client that wants to develop more courage in their culture – in how they think and act and choose. And in these early conversations I can see that the word courage evokes ideas of Greek heros and actions of daring. Your blog is making me wonder about the gift of ordinariness and how this sits alongside courage. Making courage an ordinary action I suppose. But then its not courageous is it? Hmm…

    by: Greg on June 30, 2015 at 8:22 am
    • I often think it takes a huge amount of courage and confidence just to be oneself in a professional context. That’s why it’s so appealing and unusual…

      by: Anne Owen on July 1, 2015 at 10:49 pm
  3. Really enjoyed your blog Annie, great insight. I saw this type of leader in action years ago in a business that took leadership development seriously even at the very top. I remember an Executive visiting my site and being courteous and genuinely interested in the people presenting to him, much to the discomfort of the newly appointed site Director who wanted to keep tight to schedule and impress. The visiting Exec not only gave each of us time to present fully, but asked questions that managed to animate each presenter and lift the whole thing way above the going-through-the-motions exercise it had started as. I witnessed a lesson in ‘being human’ (and so did the site Director) and found it inspiring. I saw lots more of that when I subsequently attended the leadership development program at the same business and have never forgotten it. But (speaking now as one of those HR people you are appealing to) if you find yourself in a business whose leadership team is more about being cut from the same cloth and intellectual one-upmanship, you’re faced with a challenge in even having a conversation about leadership skills, let alone assessing them. If you can get your voice heard, you have a chance. I was recently asked to be part of a selection process for a senior role in a business I’ve worked in for just over a year, so had the chance to assess candidates against the type of leadership skills you describe and to illustrate why that style was so important to the role. My contribution was noticed for its novelty factor – nobody had ever done (or been asked to do) that before. And that’s not dissimilar to other businesses I’ve worked in sadly. Senior leadership recruitment often bypasses HR completely, and the same thinking will dictate the quality of internal leadership promotions unless an alternative view is allowed in.

    by: Caroline on July 1, 2015 at 10:34 am
    • Once you’ve experienced that level of leadership it’s hard to live with less isn’t it? And hard to know where to start the conversation.thanks Caroline.

      by: Anne Owen on July 1, 2015 at 10:53 pm
  4. I like this post because it reminds me again that it is not about getting tasks ticked off the list at work – it’s about being real, human and open to connection with others that really ‘gets things done’ – if we still want to think in those terms! Thanks for writing. Gx

    by: Gemma on July 5, 2015 at 3:11 pm


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