The Gift of Leadership

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“The time has come,’ the Walrus said,

To talk of many things”

Lewis Carroll (1871) “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Through the Looking Glass..”

As the year comes to an end and thoughts turn toward the festive season and the start of a new year, it’s worth reflecting on where we’ve been and where do we see ourselves heading in the new year. The festive season of course is a time of giving, a time of giving a present to others. The word present of course does not just mean ‘a gift’. It could also mean to share information, as in ‘to present on a topic’. It also references time, the here and now! In fact, one could connect the two meanings to suggest that time in the ‘here and now’ is a gift that isn’t always appreciated for what it is.

When a business undertakes a ‘Situation Analysis’, it typically asks three questions.

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where would we like to be?
  3. How do we get there?

These are equally good questions to ask yourself, personally and professionally. To understand your own situation and context is to better understand your work context, your team context and your leadership context better. Like it or not, the team is made up of individuals, each with their own story, each worth listening to. As Max Ehrmann famously wrote in his classic ‘Desiderata’:

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

Max Ehrmann. (1927). Desiderata.

There is very little doubt that the COVID19 pandemic has continued to make for a challenging year. From surviving extended ‘lockdowns’ and wondering if you will still have a job by the end of the year to health challenges (related and unrelated to COVID19), through to social dislocation from friends, family, and colleagues, the year has thrown out many challenges. For some, this may lead to seriously considering becoming part of ‘The Great Resignation’. If you are unfamiliar with this, read my previous article: ‘About the Great Resignation’. With a new variant of COVID19 circulating, a pessimist may well predict that the new year may just be an extension of this year, and then some! Support for this notion can be found in a  McKinsey report about ‘The Great Resignation’ entitled, “‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours.”

“Among the employees in our survey, 36 percent who had quit in the past six months did so without having a new job in hand…of employees who are at least ‘somewhat likely’ to quit in the next 3-6 months: 64% would leave without a job in hand.”

Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Bill Schaninger (2021). ‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours (8 September 2021). 

Whilst employers might bemoan phenomena such as ‘The Great Resignation’ and even view it as a threat to the survival of the business/organization, an astute leader would also see it as an opportunity to recalibrate, realign, repurpose, redesign and even rebuild the business. It is very much an opportunity to focus on the human dimension of the business, employees, suppliers, and customers. Consider retail businesses with an online shopping facility, forced to close their stores to customers during a lockdown, repurposing their stores as distribution centers to fill an increasing demand for online orders. The upshot of this is keeping permanent staff onboard with some meaningful work, even if on a part-time basis. Why might it be important for leaders and leadership teams to think outside the proverbial box during the pandemic? The Well-being of staff is certainly one very strong reason. According to a 2020 Gallup study, 8 months into the pandemic, “34% say their mental health is excellent, down from 43% in 2019.” The Gallup study also noted a difference between physical and mental health, especially during the pandemic.

“Previous research from Gallup’s ongoing COVID-19 tracking survey in April found that although majorities of Americans said they could continue following social distancing guidelines as long as necessary before their physical health and financial situation suffered, less than half said the same of their mental health. Additionally, in April, U.S. adults’ life evaluations fell to a low point last seen during the Great Recession.”

Megan Brenan (2020). Americans’ Mental Health Ratings Sink to New Low (December 7, 2020).

In a follow-up Gallup study, published one year on (December 3, 2021), very little has changed.

“Americans’ “excellent” mental health rating remains at a 21-year low amid the COVID-19 pandemic, holding at 34% after dropping to that level a year ago. Before 2020, this measure of Americans’ emotional wellbeing consistently reached 42% or higher, averaging 45% from 2001 to 2019….While COVID-19 is seemingly taking a toll on Americans’ mental health, there has not been any appreciable change in ratings of their physical health. Currently, 27% of U.S. adults say their physical health is excellent, and 51% say it is good. These ratings are similar to a year ago and close to the averages for the 21-year trend. Americans’ current assessment of their physical health as excellent trails their mental health rating, which has been a consistent pattern since 2001.”

Megan Brenan (2021). U.S. Mental Health Rating Remains Below Pre-Pandemic Level (December 3, 2021).

None of this should be surprising, though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned. ‘Well-being’ goes beyond the mere absence of illness and includes a person’s overall sense of wellness, purpose, and fulfillment. The Victorian Health Department (Australia) says:

“Wellbeing is not just the absence of disease or illness. It’s a complex combination of a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and social health factors. Well-being is strongly linked to happiness and life satisfaction. In short, wellbeing could be described as how you feel about yourself and your life.”

Victoria Department of Health (2020). Wellbeing (May 27, 2020).

Leadership is about the present, about being present and seeing it as a real present, a true gift to humanity.


Given that our working life consumes 7 to 8 hours of our day, often 5 days a week or more, effectively 1/3 of our daily life on most days of the week, the social and moral imperative for employers to consider more and more, the ‘Well-being’ of employees, is enormous. The pandemic has very much thrown up the underside of almost every organization and as a consequence, the areas where the greatest improvement needs to be made. John Wooden captured this very well.

“I worry that business leaders are more interested in material gain than they are in having the patience to build up a strong organization, and a strong organization starts with caring for their people.”

John Wooden Quoted by Richard Sheridan (2018) Chief Joy Officer (eBook). New York. NY. | Penguin. p138.

In the same chapter, Richard Sheridan goes on to elaborate on both the why and how he was able to create a culture of caring at Menlo and concludes that it is an ongoing but worthwhile challenge, daily.

“That’s caring for your team. And that’s joy…Our focus is to develop an entire culture of caring and not specifically caring by leaders or even for leaders. However, by choosing to require caring from our leaders, we must provide a fertile environment for equipping our staff to grow into the role of being a caring leader. Everyone at Menlo must develop this ability to care for others. It is only in this practice of caring that our leadership corps will grow into this great, and quite frankly, challenging territory. This is one of those areas we must never be satisfied. There will always be room for improvement. There will always be room for learning.”

Richard Sheridan (2018) Chief Joy Officer (eBook). New York. NY. | Penguin. p150.

Mark Crowley in his excellent book ‘Lead From The Heart’ also noted the connection between caring, wellbeing, and thriving (as opposed to surviving). This almost brings us full circle, as at the start of this article thriving v surviving was alluded to.

“Honoring, valuing, caring for and developing people individually, making people feel connected to work and its mission all create the sense of well being that people need to thrive.”

Mark Crowley. (2011). Lead From The Heart (eBook). Bloomington, Indiana. | Balboa Press. p55.

Tom Peters, over the decades that he has been writing and researching excellence in organizations, in his groundbreaking work, ‘The Excellence Dividend’ annunciates the language reflected by behavior that would hone in on the ‘Well-being’ of staff and customers and in turn, build a caring culture, a community.


Be explicit. Use these words—damn it!—not HR gobbledygook equivalents:

Listening – Caring – Smiling – Saying “Thank You” – Being Warm –

Nice – Empathy – Better People – Character – Curiosity – No Jerks

Tom Peters (2018). The Excellence Dividend. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p109.

Whichever way you bounce the year up, it has been challenging, largely on the Well-being front, fueled to a large extent by COVID19. It has been a year where an almost universal call has been heard to be more caring to each other. For employers and workplaces, phenomena such as ‘The Great Resignation’, which may well continue into the new year, is a wake-up call to everyone, that there is room for improvement, for growth and a willingness to learn from each other. Leadership is about the present, about being present and seeing it as a real present, a true gift to humanity. There is every reason to believe that more than ever, the new year is going to require real leadership to emerge from leaders who can transform their organization through caring and the pursuit of excellence by leading from the heart, not just the mind.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams

Quoted by Richard Sheridan (2018) Chief Joy Officer (eBook). New York. NY. | Penguin. p107.

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