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Nicolette Veltman

The leadership we need now with James McCulloch

Inspire Group CEO Dan Tohill interviews Inspire Group Asia CEO James McCulloch on the topic of Leadership, how this area of work has evolved over time, and what we need to think about now in terms of making the biggest impact.

In this episode we explore:

  • How the essence of great leadership can be hugely simplified. It’s purely the ability to both direct and inspire, through focusing on being not doing.
  • The four most important factors in making leadership development effective.
  • How to evaluate the impact of leadership development and determine if leaders are in fact improving their own performance.
  • Common barriers to implementing change.

Listen to episode here:


Or read the interview summary below:

One of the biggest impacts on our health, happiness and wellbeing is where many of us will spend around 10,000 days of our lives: work.

And the biggest influence on those 10,000 days? The leadership we experience and practise.

Still not convinced? Well, think for a moment about the worst job and the worst leader you’ve experienced. And your life at that time; how you felt, and how it impacted the people and parts of your life well away from work.

Yes, the impact and reach of leadership is huge. And, in the current challenging times, arguably even more so.


But leadership is complicated

Given the number of books written about it, you’d certainly think so. 

But actually, hold on a moment. No matter what certain supposed experts will tell you, the essence of great leadership can be hugely simplified. It’s purely the ability to both direct and inspire, through focusing on being not doing.  Or, to put it another way:

Leadership is a way of being

Ok..... but how do I become a better leader?

First, practice. The right sort of practice - with real people and real scenarios. You need to actually practise those real conversations. It can be difficult and requires a lot of vulnerability. But the best place to start would be to think about the conversation you've been putting off. Or that colleague that you need to have a challenging conversation with. That is the best place to start; dive in and practise having that conversation.

But that’s only the beginning. It’s also important to understand that a great deal of leadership development is unnecessarily complicated, and doesn’t make a real impact where it needs to - on the lives of the leaders themselves and those around them.

With any organisation and individual, time and money is precious. 

So, before you embark on any form of leadership development, you really should understand the four most important factors in making leadership development effective:

  1. Context is key: context is a critical component of successful leadership.  A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another.
  2. Keep it real: tie leadership development to real on-the-job projects that have a business impact and improve learning. 
  3. Mindset first: becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behaviour, but this also means adjusting underlying mindsets too.
  4. Measure results: when businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that these initiatives won’t be taken seriously.

And if I had to choose just one? It would be to focus on context, and making sure that whatever you are doing to develop yourself as a leader, and those around you, it is relevant to your current challenges and culture.

How do you know if it’s getting better?

There are many ways you can evaluate the impact and determine if leaders are in fact improving their own performance. But one of the fastest and most effective ways is to track back to the key pain point. What is keeping them up at night? What's stopping them from getting home to see their family? Then, assess if their change in behaviour has actually improved those pain points: as lasting behaviour change only happens when we believe it will make an impact on something we deeply care about.

Barriers to implementing change

A common barrier is that there can be a million reasons not to do the hard stuff like having those difficult conversations. There will always be reasons to procrastinate, i.e. 'they look angry' 'the office is too noisy today' etc.

The key is to take a deep breath and just do it.

We've been conditioned to play out the 'what ifs' in our minds. What if it goes really badly?  But, how about, what if it goes really well? Often, it won’t be nearly as hard as you imagined.

Actually, leaders are just doing too much

To focus on all of the above, you also need to address the number-one leadership issue we see:  leaders are simply trying to do too much. The more senior you get, people think they need to do more to justify their worth. They then have no time to balance their lives. 

So they don't have time to have those important conversations, or have time to respond to the needs of people in their teams. 

Leaders also need to take time to look ahead and strategically plan for the future to anticipate what is coming. They also need time to just reflect and dream. Many leaders will say 'I'm so busy already, how will I find time to to do this strategy and have better conversations?' The key is to flip it around and see what is taking their time already. They'll be sure to find time to fight fires, so stocktaking where their time is already spent is an important place to start.

As a leader, you have to design in the time to think. And this means delegating, and taking on less yourself. That ‘stuff’ is not yours anymore.

Impact not effort

And finally, leaders need to think impact not effort. In the words of famous US golfer Gary Player, "the harder you work, the luckier you get". And it’s true - but I’ve learnt the hard way that it is impact, not effort that really matters.  If you can achieve the same results, or better, and have more time and energy for the (other) things you love, happy days!

Because, after all, that’s what really matters.

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