Five lessons on social leadership

By Robert Wood, 2021 Westpac Social Change Fellow and Creative Director at Centre for Stories

In May this year, I had the opportunity to spend a week with an amazing group of leaders, who are all recipients of this year’s Westpac Social Change Fellowship. With their support, I learned a lot about what it takes to become a leader, about how to lead no matter where you stand, and why leadership matters when you are working for purpose and values. There were five lessons that I want to share with you now:

  1. Personal Success is not Organisational Success:

We often tell ourselves a story that personal success is equated with organisational success, that our job defines us, that our career determines our identity. Learning to create a useful separation between those things means leaders can keep things in perspective and become more effective.

  1. Experience Matters

Your experiences, especially the ones that seem less relevant, can be to your advantage if you know how to leverage them. The job you first worked, the time you captained a soccer team, all those holidays all add up to the experiences you can draw on in connecting with and leading others.

  1. Enjoy Leading

Have the confidence to be there, and do that by taking pleasure in how far you have come. The doubt might linger, but if we question it with a sense of fun, then we can help others see their own qualities to become leaders as well.

  1. Be Curious

Ask questions of yourself, your team, your organisation. Scale up the big and small questions to find out more so you can make better decisions for yourself and those around you. This is about how curiosity drives innovation and results.

  1. Tell A True Story

Stand in your truth, speak your truth, and tell a story about why it matters to you and those around you. Being a leader also means being honest, about your vulnerabilities, about your learning, growth, opportunity. Tell others the true story of how you have come to be where and who you are.

Leadership in the social change space can come through lived experience or professional expertise, but both matter to our teams, our causes and each other. It is founded on the belief that I can help in some small way through enabling the lives and voices of others on a daily basis.

I want to finish with an observation. It is a story of care, but it shows that leadership is not a position but a practice, a way of being in the world rather than the title, or the corner office. Leadership is about service. I learnt that from watching my cohort of Social Change Fellows during coffee breaks for the past week.

People would get coffee for others. People would pour it in cups so it was accessible. People would make sure others were being looked after. It was an innocent gesture, a subconscious one, a small aspect of the day; and yet, it was telling. It told me that in between the busyness, in between the breaths of anxiety and excitement, that we can come up for air when we look to the little random acts of kindness that brought us here. That care of the self through attending to others is a practice of leadership that allows one to stay grounded and humble, to see leading others is a privilege to be earned through small sacrifices that accumulate into scale and structure and systems. So, remember to breathe, remember to meditate on that cup of tea and be the leader you were always meant to be.


2022 Westpac Social Change Fellowship applications are now open. Apply or nominate someone today.