Wednesday, 23 April 2014

IFLAS public lecture: Leading with Words in a System Stacked Against You

Ryan Heath with University
of Cumbria Vice-Chancellor
Prof Peter Strike
Ryan Heath once lost his job for publishing a book with a swear word in the title.

But that same decision made him stand out from the crowd enough to secure his current role, which he describes as “the most fulfilling professional relationship of my life”.

The lesson? Be different, be true to yourself, and believe in the power of words to make a difference.

Personal qualities

With a talk entitled 'Leading with Words in a System Stacked Against You', Ryan delivered the second IFLAS public lecture of the spring season.

Speaking to MBA students and other guests, he outlined the personal qualities he believes enable individuals to become agents of change within complex organisations.

The spokesperson for European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, Ryan (an Australian) told guests that as an ‘outsider’ in Europe, four key qualities have allowed him to gain influence and make change:

  • Optimism: “If you’re a pessimist you probably don’t think there are a lot of ways to make the world better.”
  • Bravery: “You need to be willing to take risks with ideas and risks exploring the edge of your own talent. The obvious practical example is that you have to be willing to lose your job.” (Ryan has lost three jobs through speaking his mind, but that ultimately led him to a role where his views were valued).
  • Self-trust: “You have to look after yourself, because no one else is going to. And you shouldn’t worry about making enemies; if you’re not getting some people off side you’re not making a difference.”
  • Being different and proud: “You need to be different in order to get the chance to make a change in a big organisation.”

The power of words and the political ends they can be put to

A great speech can transform the world. Ryan points out that orators like John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, or more recently Barack Obama have used the power of words to bring about change.

Ryan understands this power - and so does his boss, Neelie Kroes.

But he points out that many leaders in the corporate sector fail to grasp the importance of being part of a dialogue.

Ryan Heath speaking at IFLAS

Ryan said: “The quality of public thought from our executive class is very poor indeed. These leaders don’t see themselves as corporate citizens who contribute to a democratic atmosphere – they enter the debate to promote or defend numbers or lobby for a particular interest.”

When Kroes was European Commissioner for Competition, she confronted the leaders of the finance sector head-on when they failed to join the public discourse on banking following the bail-outs of 2008 and 2009.

She told them: “I am here to listen, not to please. Some banks may be too big to fail, but they are not too big to restructure. Some banks are still in denial. If it takes some tough love to face up to your responsibilities, then that’s what I’m prepared to offer. The banking sector is in no position to lecture governments right now and the public is in no mood to listen.”

Ryan said: “By holding the dam wall against the banks in 2009 we saved taxpayers billions of Euros and made it possible to create the ‘banking union’ that has just been written in to law. This could not have happened if Neelie Kroes did not lead with words every day.”

Ryan Heath was introduced
by Dr David Murphy, the
new deputy director of IFLAS 

Now Kroes is European Commissioner for Digital Issues, Ryan and his boss encounter similarly blinkered corporate leaders.

Facebook bosses Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg come in for particular criticism for their approach to addressing some of the world’s problems.

Ryan said: “The problem is that the answer is always ‘more Facebook’.”

Bill Gates is an exception among digital leaders, Ryan says, because he is prepared to step away from his immediate context within Microsoft in order to innovate.

And Kroes continues to use the power of words to fight for causes she believes in – such as calling a group of Vodafone executives ‘a roomful of thieves’ when they complained about plans to ban mobile roaming charges in Europe.

Although Ryan’s experiences centre on government, his ideas are relevant to any individual in a large organisation – like the sustainability leaders studying programmes with IFLAS.

Ryan said: “We need to keep power accountable and explain that to its face. Leaders need to talk to people directly and advisers must dare to give honest advice in private so that better decisions can be made in public. If you can contribute to that then you can make a difference in a system stacked against you.”

These inspirational ideas also lie at the heart of the IFLAS agenda – as we search for ways to challenge conventional views and find new ways to move towards fairer and more sustainable societies.

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