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In the first two decades of the 21st Century we have been confronted with three major global shocks. First came the financial crash in 2008 and the decade of austerity that followed. We are currently dealing with the impact of the international Covid pandemic and bridging these two fast moving threats is the ongoing challenge of global warming and environmental decline. Surely, it cannot be clearer that we need to make transformational changes to our ways of life and ways of doing business. Although there are encouraging signs that our national and global leaders are beginning to grasp the urgency of our predicament, we cannot rely on our political and business leaders alone to achieve this. We need new forms of collective and collaborative engagement, activism and shared leadership that draw on the energy and commitment of the very many people that make things happen in our communities. 

If we are to make the 2020s and 2030s an era of recovery and renewal that brings hope for a sustainable and abundant future, we must all become shift leaders within our own sphere of influence. This short paper explores what we mean by ‘shift’, the qualities of shift leadership and how to develop as a shift leader. 

‘…inspiring and mobilizing others to undertake collective action in pursuit of the common good’.                                    (Crosby & Bryson, 2005)

What is shift?

Stephanie Draper  (2013) has argued that many of the vital systems we rely upon are failing and that a ‘big shift’ is required to ensure a sustainable future. Over the last two decades we have witnessed significant failings and catastrophic failures in finance, public health, social care, justice, biodiversity, food, water and energy supply and of course air quality and climate change. The prevalence of these failures and the political inertia in dealing with the associated crises, suggests that a new form of leadership is needed if we are to successfully overhaul and re-imagine 21st Century society. 

‘Shift’ is simply a short-hand for the type of transformation required to resolve our most challenging and pressing problems – such as climate change, environmental degradation, care in our communities, economic and social justice. Whilst these challenges might seem enormous in scale and complexity and relate more to national politics and global economics than to our own individual actions, each one of us has an important role to play in shifting these fundamental issues towards positive and rewarding outcomes – as contributors, followers and leaders of positive change.

Current leadership is not fit for purpose

Our generation is shouldering unprecedented responsibilities for the wellbeing of future generations and the planetary eco-system.  Over the last two decades our financial leaders failed to predict the largest global financial crash of all time and our political leaders struggled to respond to the social impact of this failure over the following decade. More recently, our political leaders failed to prepare adequately for the Covid pandemic, that scientists had predicted, and are struggling to respond decisively enough to protect the wellbeing of populations around the world. Finally, although scientists have been clamouring for political, economic and industrial responses to environmental degradation for more than six decades, international leaders appear unwilling or unable to take decisive, collective action against major environmental issues such as rainforest deforestation, ocean degradation and continued prospecting, mining and burning of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) now predict that a decade of concerted international pro-environmental action is needed to halt the progress of catastrophic global warming and loss of biodiversity. It is time to accept that our political leaders cannot by themselves create the scale of change required to shift to sustainable ways of living, at the pace needed avoid the worst effects of global warming.


The scale of these transformations can seem daunting and beyond the influence of mere individual citizens. But transformational change can happen at scale and pace when people make millions of similar decisions en masse. Just look at how quickly the uptake of mobile and smart phones has changed our world over the last two decades (though not always for the better). This transformation goes beyond individual consumer choices or even who we choose to work for; and extends to the ethical causes and purposes we support. It means shifting our mindset from seeing transformation as something big and complex that happens to us, to accepting responsibility for the many smaller scale changes we make within our families, groups, clubs, neighbourhoods, teams and workplaces through human scale shift leadership. 

What are the qualities of ‘shift leadership’?

We often think of leaders as public figures, politicians or organisational executives – like Greta Thunberg, Angela Merkel, Gina Millar or Susan Wojcicki (Youtube CEO), but leaders also exist at every level of our workplaces and communities. Whist we cede power to people who lead organisations and groups whose aims we agree with – in the broadest sense, leaders are simply people that make a difference and leadership is something we share. The most dynamic organisations and communities recognise this and find ways to enable and empower people at every level, who get things done; people with passion, awareness and the will to make a real difference to the issues that concern our family, friends, colleagues, customers, students and fellow citizens. 

The literature on leadership is voluminous. But over and over again, writers and researchers refer to a handful of core qualities that define effective leadership. In my experience, the labels may vary but writers commonly refer to combinations of the following leadership qualities:

  • Vision, inspiration
  • Resolve, determination, grit, resilience
  • Ingenuity, creativity, innovation, adaptability 
  • Judgement, political astuteness, integrity, values, decision -making and learning skills
  • A service ethic, enabling, engaging and helping others step up and make a difference
  • Deep awareness of self, others and the wider econ-system.

This intimidating list of qualities make it understandable that change-makers commonly feel like ‘imposters’ as they step into new leadership roles. It’s almost impossible to live up to all these qualities, all of the time. That’s one reason why leadership is best shared. It takes many individuals to provide our communities, teams or organisations with this range of leadership qualities consistently over time. Following Peter Senge (author of The Necessary Revolution (2008) and the Fifth Discipline (1994), shift leadership can be defined as,

“The capacity of a human community to shape its future, to sustain significant change”.

This reflects a particular view of leadership – one that recognizes that leadership roles shift, depending on the change or innovation at hand and the people involved. Shift leadership is something we do together. It involves acknowledging, celebrating and amplifying success – helping local influencers mobilise others to achieve the things that matter. These ‘everyday’ shift leaders often take their skills and qualities for granted – and are just as likely to be quiet, humble and gentle as they are to be gregarious and confident. Sometimes it’s simply about being willing to step forward, take responsibility and get things done – and sometimes it’s being ready to follow and lend a hand to a cause or purpose we believe is the right thing to do.

Research also shows that the most effective shift leaders embody a number of (sometimes paradoxical) ways of being. For example, combining fierce resolve (drive, grit, faith) with humility, patience and profound listening; strong vision for a better future alongside deep empathy and willingness to engage with sometimes contradictory perspectives; political astuteness with magnanimity; and deep sensitivity to the fundamental needs of the local context combined with the patience to pick the right time or right point to move or intervene (Paterson, 2017).

What do ‘shift leaders’ do?

Whilst the list of qualities of effective shift leaders might seem daunting, it is reassuring to note that shift leadership is a collective effort. Shift leaders will undoubtedly work on themselves – developing a secure and clear sense of identity, as well as mental, emotional and physical resilience. However, the collective effort to make a positive difference draws upon the multiple skills and qualities of many individuals working towards a common cause. A fundamental act of ‘shift leadership’, therefore, is to identify the ‘common cause’ and marshal intent and collective action around it.

When workers in corporate companies are asked about the best leaders in their organisation, they commonly talk about two key behaviours. First, good leaders listen well, take a real interest in workers’ challenges and ask how they can help their subordinates do a better job. Second – and crucially – they actually do something to help. This simple but fundamental approach to ‘learning alongside’ people is shared by shift leaders, who recognise that it is more effective to tap into the interests and energies of individuals in order to amplify and direct them towards a common purpose, than it is to ‘boss people about’. I am indebted to my wonderful colleague Patrick Scott who, some years ago, described more eloquently than I have ever achieved, how ‘shift leaders’,

‘…build engagement and empower others. They do not have to be in control as long as the collective goals are being achieved. They know that the greatest skill is being able to build a coalition of the willing and persuade others that their best interest lies in committing voluntarily to the common good. They also enable and promote the leadership of others, thus distributing leadership more widely across the system, in the knowledge that this distributed capacity is required everywhere in order to pursue the variety of purposes and complex challenges at stake’. 

Shift leaders:

Catalyse common purpose, shared aims and goals.
Ask great questions that help others learn, achieve and grow.
Identify strengths and develop the capacity for shift leadership in others.
Model principled, ethical and moral practice.
Develop a wide platform of relationships and collaborators that support common aims…

In order to make a positive difference for society and the environment.

Learning to be a ‘shift leader’

There is no training course to become a ‘shift leader’, it is something best learned through experience, reflection and committed action. Although working alongside an experienced shift leader is a great way to learn, it’s helpful to see shift leadership as a ‘learning mindset’ that everyone can step into in the right circumstances. A simple, but important, first step on this learning journey is reflecting on how well we listen to people’s concerns and issues about making change happen, and really working on asking great questions that help them get to the heart of the problem and take responsibility for their own aspect of the solution. This should be an important early commitment to your self-development.

Beyond this, rather than seeking out training, College or University courses to support your development as a shift leader, you might seek out a variety of confidantes and mentors who can guide and support you at the point of need. This will help develop your self-awareness and the wide range of skills and qualities employed in effective shift leadership. For example:

  • Adopting an open, enquiring mind set and refusing to be constrained by current horizons.
  • Establishing a compelling vision of the future that draws on as many different perspectives as possible. 
  • Great listening and great questioning that drive action.
  • Building relationships that; recognise the assets people can bring; acknowledge their needs and fears; whist encouraging constructive dissent over destructive consent.
  • Fostering connectivity between people, groups, organisations and neighbourhoods that inspires an emotional connection with innovation and transformation.
  • Trying things out to explore what works (and what doesn’t work) and embracing failure as a source of learning.
  • Accepting uncertainty and the possibility of multiple solutions.
  • Sharing knowledge and intelligence whilst spotting external drivers that create momentum.
  • Identifying and valuing experienced outsiders as a source of fresh thinking, whilst accepting that no-one in isolation has the single ‘correct’ solution.
  • Attending to your own wellbeing and sharing your own learning about the mental and emotional journey of shift leadership.

Whilst this list of skills might seem formidable, shift leadership is a profound commitment to genuinely collaborative action – best served lightly, with a joyful heart, optimistic perspective and spirit of fun. Finally, following the profound message of Mahatma Gandhi – one of the World’s greatest shift leaders; reflect on the degree to which you demonstrate the change you wish to see in the world. This doesn’t mean being perfect. But staying humble, being kind to yourself and remembering that authenticity and vulnerability are powerful tools to inspire and support others in their own learning journey through shift leadership.

For a fuller (more academic) treatment of this subject, please see my book chapter on ‘Leadership and the Low Carbon Economy’ at  


Crosby, B. C., & Bryson, J. M. (2005). A leadership framework for cross-sector collaboration. Public Management Review7(2), 177–201.

Draper, S. (2013). Creating the Big Shift: System innovation for sustainability. Forum for the Future. 

Hutchins, G. (2014). The Illusion of Separation: Exploring the Causes of Our Current Crisis. Floris Books.

Paterson, F. (2017). Leadership and the Low Carbon Economy. In F. Baranova, P., Conway, E., Lynch, N., Paterson (Ed.), The Low Carbon Economy: Understanding and Supporting a Sustainable Transition. (pp. pp167-199). Palgrave Macmillan. 

Senge, P. (1994). The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation.

Senge, P., Smith, B., Kruschwitz, N., Laur, J., & Schley, S. (2008). The Necessary Revolution. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.


Shift happens!

The best way to understand what happens in a ‘shift circle’ is to experience one. However, when people ask me to describe what goes on, I usually start by explaining that a ‘shift circle’ is a group of people who support one another to make a difference in whatever field they work or in whatever project they are working on. Lots of people have some experience of coaching these days. Well a shift circle is like having six coaches working with you – all in one sitting!


There are three roles: contributor, supporter and facilitator.

The first job of the facilitator is to bring together a group of seven or eight people who are ready to support one another to succeed in their own individual projects. Although each circle initially comes together for five or six meetings – groups often end up working together for much longer, sometimes to work on a local project of common interest. One circle session might last between 1-3hrs depending the number of people.

At the start of each session the facilitator will establish who has a project to work on and allocate time accordingly. Although the meetings are very informal, there is a clear process that helps everyone get the most out of the interactions. Contributors are, in turn, helped to explore the nature of their project or challenge, imagine the best possible outcome, design steps that are most likely to move them towards that outcome and given opportunity to rehearse actual behaviours they will need to employ.

The group become supporters of this process to help the contributor to make real progress on their project. One of the strengths of the process is that, because the supporters have no ‘vested’ interest in the problem, they can provide insights, challenges and inspiration from a ‘naïve’ viewpoint that add real value to the contributor.

The process sounds, and is, relatively simplistic, but its depth lies in the listening and questioning techniques employed by the supporters. One of the key tasks for the facilitator is to help the circle members develop these skills. The facilator will achieve this by modelling these skills and periodically pausing the session to focus directly on them. Circle members often comment that they have learned as much being a supporter as they have from being a contributor.

Circle members benefit by:

Engaging with different ideas, approaches and perspectives offered as way to make progress on their own or others projects.

Developing their own questioning and listening techniques. Circle members often comment that they have used these techniques to become far more effective at problem solving, delegation, people management etc. back in their workplaces or communities.

The benefits for organisations include:

  • Increased capacity for managing complex projects and effective problem solving
  • Transformational and sustainable development of individuals and groups
  • Improved capabilities in areas such as performance management, developing others and communication.

What’s not to like! If you’d like to know more or try out a shift circle contact us at people-circle-influence


Sadly, John F Kennedy never had the chance to utter this memorable quote from the speech he was due to deliver in Dallas on November 22nd 1963. Nevertheless, its truth is replicated endlessly in the plethora of articles, books and academic reports published on leadership every year – although the implications for leaders and leadership is less commonly explored.

Leadership Development is an industry in itself. An industry I am proud to be part of. In this industry a great deal of time and effort is spent identifying potential leaders and feeding them with knowledge, insight and a host of experiences designed to inculcate a set of skills and qualities deemed necessary to be successful leaders in current and future business contexts. A good deal of this effort is worthwhile and received positively by the participants and their staff. But is it always an efficient use of time, money and effort?

I have seen some leadership competency frameworks that demand managers develop and demonstrate literally dozens of leadership qualities and skills. It’s no wonder stress is rising among middle managers.

What’s interesting is that when subordinates are asked what they value most about their managers they say the best managers do two things. First, they listen well, take a real interest in their challenges and – crucially –  ask how they can help their subordinate do a better job. Second – and even more crucially – they actually do something about the feedback they are given. Some of this is not rocket science!

So, how would it be in our organisations if we taught people how to learn to be better managers and leaders? How would it be if we framed leadership as a ‘learning mindset’ that everyone can step into in the right circumstances?

A first step on this learning journey would be to reflect on how well we listen to people’s concerns and issues about getting a job done, really work on what it means to ask great questions that help one another get to the heart of a business or organisational issue and then take responsibility for our own bit of the solution.

Tom Peter’s is one of the giants of leadership thinking – and he makes this same point beautifully in one of his ‘Little Big Things’ videos. Check it out if you have any resonance with these ideas. I use this clip all the time…

It’s important to stress here that we are talking about learning that is active. Not the passive type of learning many of us experienced in our school or college careers! Now I have to come clean here. I was once a Primary school teacher, still lecture at University – and a purveyor of some passive learning on occasion 🙂 However, my experience screams to me that we can do a much better and more efficient job of equipping people to be leaders in our businesses, public services and communities if we help them to understand how people learn (including themselves as developing leaders).

It’s not uncommon to find models such as David Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning cited in leadership development provision. Kolb’s theory, by the way, says little about ‘listening’ as a tool for experiencing ‘the concrete’ and precious little about the importance of interaction with others in the learning process. Some of you may be familiar with De Bono’s Thinking Hats, or Chris Argyris’ Double Loop Learning which are perhaps more useful learning tools. But my proposition here, is that these models and theories are usually used as conceptual tools to explain the process of development rather than as tools for much deeper and extensive engagement with the practice learning for leadership.

There is a wealth of other material that can guide our efforts to become better learners of leadership skills and help us to build stronger collective leadership capacity in our organisations and communities. For example, the work of Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton – New Kinds of Smart; Tim Harford – Adapt; Noreen Hertz – Eyes Wide Open; and Robert J Thomas’ Crucibles of Leadership to name only a few of my own favourite texts.

For now, we might simply challenge ourselves to become more aware of how well we listen to others and reflect on how often we lead conversations with questions before we start telling people what we think they should be doing!

Perhaps ask some friends, family or colleagues how well you listen to their concerns and interests!

Why not watch Tom Peters’ video and then answer this poll…?

John Kotter wrote a fabulous book about leading change. The central character was a penguin called Fred!

John Kotter wrote a fabulous book about leading change. The central character was a penguin called Fred!

What is leadership?  As Crainer and Dearlove (2008) say “ask 100 executives and you will get 100 different answers. Ask the experts, the academics and journalists who spend their lives researching leadership, and you will still be searching for a definite answer”. The literature on leadership is voluminous. Millions of words and hundreds of books are written on the subject every year. One colleague, with more patience than me, counted 237 separate definitions of leadership as part of a review of leadership literature.

I agree with Michael Fullan and Alan Boyle (2011) who argue that “the advice to leaders is getting too voluminous … [and] doubt current effective leaders became successful by studying the research literature. It is not that the research literature is unhelpful, but rather that it needs to be put into perspective so that individual change leaders can learn to become more effective in practical, meaningful ways” (p.2).

So what do the experts agree about?

There are three established schools of leadership thinking;

  • the first focuses on leader traits, dispositions and personality;
  • the second looks at leader roles, behaviours and actions,
  • the third explores the different styles of leadership required in different situations and contexts.

There is also a more recent school of thought that frames leadership as a shared or interactive phenomena. This school of thought reflects the idea that to succeed in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts of contemporary business and public service organisations people at all ‘levels’ need to take leadership roles as and when the situation demands. It views leadership as a function of our organisations, social groups and communities that helps us make a difference to causes of common interest; getting things done and making a positive impact on other people’s lives.

So, not only are we becoming alive to the importance of leadership for business, public service and the great causes of our time; sustainability, equality and freedom – we are beginning to recognise the importance of smaller scale acts of leadership in our work groups, communities and families; the common acts of leadership that bring people together to build a community hall, fight off an unwarranted supermarket development or help teenagers get involved in productive leisure and community activities.

Self role context graphic

This highlights the point that leadership exists in relation to the self-identity of individuals, their given (or assumed) role as leader and the relationship between themselves, their role and the needs of the immediate and wider context. Each of these is shifting and subject to alternate interpretations, depending on whose reference point is taken. This is why it is such a difficult subject to pin down. And such a difficult role to fulfill!

The literature on organisational leadership commonly refers to four further themes which occupy leaders’  attention. They are: clarity about the purpose and aims of the organisation or endeavour and how these will be achieved (strategy); the culture of human interaction in fulfilling these aims; the capacity of the organisation, its systems and structures to address its strategic aims and the relationship between the organisation (and its members/staff) and the wide range of stakeholders whose interests are represented by the endeavour. This will include customers, board of Directors, unions, governors, trustees and public interest.


When I ask managers what leadership means to them, they often talk about specific leaders – often national or international politicians past and present. People like John F. Kennedy, Gandhi or Martin Luther King. They are often men! And historically, leadership was the preserve of ‘great men’. Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi being rare female examples of internationally renowned national leaders. In more recent times, we have begun to view Directors and managers as people who lead organisations and businesses; and leadership as the act of inspiring successful change or innovation. People often talk about the inspirational leadership of people like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson in business (still men! Although more women are creeping into the dialogue. Women such Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Anita Roddick of Bodyshop – who was the first female pioneer of truly ethical business).

The conversation then turns to the qualities these leaders exhibit and how they achieve success – so people intuitively pay attention to the same issues found in schools of thought described above. Over and over again leaders in business and public service refer to a handful of core qualities that define effective leadership. In my experience, the labels may vary but people commonly refer to one or more of the following. Leaders demonstrate:

  • Vision, inspiration
  • Resolve, determination, grit, resilience
  • Creativity, innovation, adaptability, learning skills
  • Judgement, integrity, values
  • Enabling, engaging others
  • Self awareness, emotional intelligence, good listening, and ask great questions.

It’s a daunting list of qualities, and no wonder many leaders feel like ‘imposters’ as they step into new roles. It’s almost impossible to live up to ALL these qualities, all of the time. That’s one reason why leadership is best shared. It takes many individuals to provide our groups, teams or organisations with these leadership qualities consistently over time.


Crainer, S. & Dearlove, D., 2008. The Future of Leadership,

Fullan, M. & Boyle, A., 2011. Reflections on the change leadership landscape, Nottingham. NCSL.

People often ask me ‘what are the key qualities and skills of an effective leader’? My stock response begins by pointing out that there are hundreds of definitions of ‘leadership’ (yes hundreds!) and thousands of books and articles published every year that claim to provide definitive answers to that question. Anyone who works in leadership development will point to the importance of qualities like clear vision, a strong sense of purpose, resilience and a keen resolve to see things through, ‘good’ judgement,  the agility to innovate and move into new territory as well as the ability to charm and engage people in a common cause or initiative.

There are all sorts of leadership theories, frameworks and audit tools to help us develop and benchmark ourselves against a daunting array of competencies, but the qualities of a leader are myriad and nuanced and depend on the needs of the context and susceptible to the subtleties of timing and mood of key stakeholders. This is why 360 degree feedback – combined with a courageous choice of reviewers (ie choosing some people who may not provide glowing feedback) is commonly cited as one of the most powerful forms of leadership development. This is approach is, however, costly in terms of the time and commitment it requires from others.


Leadership is all about making a difference… to the people around you, to the service you provide, to the sales you make and the profit that ensues. So when people ask me about leadership qualities and how to develop it in their organisation, I ask them to think about which are the most successful, most efficient, most revered and more profitable departments or areas of the business – and to explore why these areas of the business are so successful. Sometimes it comes down to good fortune – a new product that hits the market at just the right time. Sometimes it is clearly about resolute or inspired leadership by an individual. But at other times it’s down to the energy of a close knit team that has developed over time or the exceptional relationships that a junior member of the team has built with key customers over many years. In other situations it can be down to the spark of ingenuity or willingness to break the rule book of one or two unsung heroes.

In terms of leadership development and capacity building, rather than relying on competency audits or IQ/EQ tests to identify potential leaders, we need to be alive to the whole range of talented people that are already making a difference to our enterprise. Ask yourself, do we already know who is making a real difference? If we do, how can we amplify their qualities and abilities? If we don’t know, what are we going to do about it?

One of my favourite definitions of leadership is from Peter Senge (author of the Fifth Discipline). He says leadership is

“The capacity of a human community to shape its future, to sustain significant change”.

This reflects a particular view of leadership – one that recognizes that the seat of leadership shifts, depending on the change or innovation at hand. So we need to identify, reward and amplify successful leadership – and help the people who get things done to take a strong role in helping others to achieve the things that matter. These people often take their skills and qualities for granted. These qualities are not always easy to teach. So what is important is helping the right people to ‘rub shoulders’ with the people who are ready to step up the task of making a difference beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It’s a quality of the whole community rather than of individuals. Sometimes being willing to step forward, take responsibility to get things done by inspiring and involving others – and sometimes being ready to follow, to get land a hand and get stuck into a cause or purpose we believe is the right thing to do.

How will you make a difference today?

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