Veronica Lysaght

Leadership Coach

Veronica Lysaght

Veronica Lysaght

Veronica Lysaght is the founder of Leading with Humanity. She believes that courageous, compassionate and inspiring leadership is needed to deal with the crises we face in the world at the moment and that this style of leading is something we can all achieve. Her mission is to play her part in making leading with humanity an everyday reality.

She has a background in business, journalism, counselling and association management. She is an ICF certified Integral coach and has more than 20 years’ experience coaching.

Women pave the way in leading … or do they?

A few months into the pandemic, articles started appeared in the western media analysing how the virus infection rates were lower in countries led by women, but as Veronica Lysaght finds, the headline is not the whole story. It is true, some women leaders did excel. What is more important is how they led and what we can all learn from them about leading. Veronica draws on her research with those who lead for social good, to see what we can learn from those leading in a new world.

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,’ goes the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel, the Go-between. COVID-19 means the world before it is a very different place. The pandemic has exposed our human fragility – and our connectedness; how the actions of those in another country or continent can have an impact on the whole of humanity; it has changed us and given us an opportunity to not return to the pre-COVID19 world, but instead to look at what we would like to create in the future. In leadership development, the global crises of climate change, pandemic, as well as social and racial inequality, give us an opportunity to forge new ways of leading and to leave behind out-dated models of hero leadership and self-interest.

The leading we witnessed 

The pandemic highlighted a schism in the way leaders in the public eye, act; there are those whose self-interest is evident and those whose interest is in service of others. It is as if styles of leading are becoming polarized, with those in public roles – like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon becoming flagbearers for a way of leading that places people at its heart, encourages listening while remaining curious and flexible. For example, Jacinda Ardern recorded a vlog during New Zealand’s first lockdown, where she appeared in old clothes, talking about how putting a toddler to bed can be a ‘messy business,’ and subsequently urged New Zealanders to be kind to each other.

Just across the Tasman sea, Dr Josie McLean, 2020, author of ‘Big Little Shifts,’ says ‘hero’ leadership has had its day. She says there is a bigger process going on where we’re in a transition from mechanistic leadership to more living systems, where the role of a leader is to be ‘more facilitative and nurturing.’ She compares leading to being a gardener of people and the human environment.

‘It is by nurturing, supporting, questioning and encouraging diversity and curiosity that you will shape a team or organisation that is by its nature, innovative, adaptable and flourishing.’

Leah Windsor, at the University of Memphis, and her colleagues noticed that during the COVID pandemic, the countries doing well (in terms of low numbers of fatalities) were led by women. They decided to investigate and their research concluded that ‘…women who lead these countries are able to successfully manage crises like the pandemic not because they are women, but because they are leading countries more likely to elect women to the highest executive office in the first place, and because those countries have policy landscapes and priorities that pre-dispose them to manage risk better (Windsor et al, 2020).’

In other words, the culture of the countries that did well during the pandemic is more open to leadership styles that are inclusive of the qualities of ‘…empathy, compassion, listening, and collaboration. These are distinct from the characteristics associated with the exercise of traditional managerial, supervisory and controlling power. (Champoux-Paillé and Croteau, 2020).’

Leading is a team sport

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen; New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern; the German chancellor, Angela Merkel; Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen; and Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister did not save the lives of their citizens on their own; they collaborated, listened and made tough decisions while at the same time showing compassion for their people.

Other researchers consider that part of the reason these leaders did well during the pandemic was because their way of protecting people was focused on making citizens feel safe and secure, leaving behind other forms of protection, which rely more on physical strength (Johnson & Williams, 2020). There is no doubt both male and female leaders showed strength, but in this case, it was the leader’s strength to be vulnerable, to empathise with people, that made a difference in their societies; For example, Jacinda Ardern appeared live on Facebook, direct from her home, to both comfort citizens and urge compliance, thereby demonstrating how communicating with others, particularly important across language and cultural differences, is fundamental to whether people check-out or accept what you’re saying. Part of leading is about explaining your decisions and how they make sense.  This ‘sensemaking’ is about ‘…providing a shared language that enables clear communication’, says Suze Wilson from Massey University, New Zealand.

This was a quality Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel also knows. Nicknamed “Mutti” (Mommy), she expressed compassion for how painful social distancing and isolating the elderly would be, because in hard times:

 “We show affection by staying close, and by reaching out to each other. But at this time, we must do the exact opposite.’(Merkel, 2020).

It’s not about biology

It is the demonstration of these traits that is more relevant to leading well, than the gender of the leaders. Maybe it is time to change what the gold standard of leadership looks like and encourage transformational leaders who

‘…have higher standards of moral and ethical conduct; lead with a stronger vision based on values and ideas; embrace divergent and innovative thinking; and are conscious of the developmental needs of those around them. (Kwan et al, 2020. P15)’

Overall, the pandemic has come at a time when many people were questioning what makes effective leadership – we can see this with the mindfulness movement, the growth of compassion circles, the holocracy movement and the growth of coaching as examples of ways of leading driven by listening, compassion and openness.

In many more organisations, leaders are embracing the traits of listening, supporting their teams and acting with curiosity and compassion. Not-for-profit organisations often have  value and/or mission statements that embed caring in some form, but do they practice these or do they just occupy space on a website to reassure visitors of good intent?

It is not authority that makes someone a leader; instead it is developing trust with those one works with and building relationships that will assist anyone to lead. Leading takes curiosity and courage to be flexible when you learn from others. It also takes setting aside your own agenda and listening for what is not being said. This is about letting go of your ego, or in other words, growing-up – and it makes a difference in leading. Rooke and Torbert (1998), found a very strong correlation between stage of ego development and success in organizational transformation processes. It makes sense then, that leaders focus on their own development as well as those people and systems around them.

What can we learn from the emergence of leaders for social change? Over the last year, I have interviewed dozens of people from around the world who’re doing good, about how they lead; I looked for people whose leadership has made a difference and found myself talking with educators, social entrepreneurs, activists and many others.

The results of my research reflect a move towards the qualities effective leaders displayed during the pandemic. The people I spoke to have a number of ‘ways of being,’ and ‘ways of doing,’ in common with each other. In short, they:

  • have a purpose and are able to articulate it,
  • know their values and live them every day,
  • listen – really well,
  • focus on people,
  • act as a role model in everything they do and
  • are aware of themself, others and systems around them.

These behaviours and qualities create leaders who exhibit humanity in their values and leadership style.

I turned this into a graphic to summarise – see figure 1.

The leadership model is a diagram of over-lapping circles, because good leaders bring their whole selves into how they lead; for example, if you have a value of inclusion, you are going to practice that value and make decisions that align with it, whether you’re at home, work or hanging with friends. It will permeate every aspect of who you are.

In addition to the model, some of the values I observed in the people I was privileged to speak with were courage, holding onto their integrity even when it meant being vulnerable, staying humble, not getting defensive when criticized and the list could go on. Were they extraordinary people? Yes and No. Yes in that they demonstrated the ways of doing, i.e., listening, acting as a role model, and bringing their values into what they did every day and No, because all of these qualities are available to anyone to practice.

Every day, in my previous work as Strategic Regional Director across Europe, the Middle East and Africa for the International Coaching Federation (ICF), I met leaders whose focus was on people, on listening, on responding to those they served. They worked to bring about a world where humanity was at the heart of what they did. They demonstrated that leading with a focus on people, was not unusual, and within anyone’s grasp.

This style of leading may seem new, but it is also a style growing from awareness that the world has changed. Many do not wish to return to the past. Instead, we have an opportunity to follow the example of those who have demonstrated that humane traits of leading are the ones moving to the fore, and are the model of leading for the future.

Ardern, Jacinda, 2020. .

Glover, M. Leading across cultural borders: a communitarian approach to global development. International Journal of Public Leadership, 12(2), 154-166.

Kwan, V., Cheung, J., & Kong, J. 2020. ‘Women’s Leadership in the COVID-19 Pandemic.’ Political Insight, 11(4), 13-15.

McLean, Josie. 2020. Big Little Shifts: A Practitioner’s Guide to Complexity for Organisational Change and Adaptation. Partnership Pty Ltd.

Merkel, Angela. 2020. An address to the nation by Federal Chancellor Merkel. Accessed 7 May 2021.

Wilson, Suze. 2020. Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19. Leadership, 16(3), 279-293.

Windsor, L., Yannitell Reinhardt, G., Windsor, A., Ostergard, R., Allen, S., Burns, C., Giger, J., & Wood, R. Gender in the time of COVID-19: Evaluating national leadership and COVID-19 fatalities. PLoS ONE, 15(12).

Ziwica, K. 2020. “Are Women Better Leaders Than Men? It’s Really Not the Point.” Women’s Agenda. Accessed 25 April 2021.