Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Radha Ruparell.
Radha Ruparell is a global cross-sector leader with expertise in leadership development and personal transformation. She works with CEOs, Fortune 500 senior executives, social entrepreneurs, and grassroots leaders from around the world and heads the Collective Leadership Accelerator at Teach For All. Her new book is Brave Now: Rise Through Struggle and Unlock Your Greatest Self.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career advising Fortune 500 executives on their biggest challenges. Through that work, I met many incredible leaders. One thing I noticed was that the strongest leaders were both deeply passionate about what they were doing and had unique strengths in that area. So, I decided to go on a journey myself to find the sweet spot between my passions and strengths.
That led me to switch career paths many years ago and join the global network Teach For All. I head a Global Leadership Accelerator focused on growing the leadership capacities of incredible local leaders who are reimagining education in more than 60 countries worldwide.
While I’ve been coaching leaders for many years on personal transformation, I’m also a firm believer in living these principles myself. This year, I had to embody these leadership lessons personally as I led my team through a global pandemic while facing the most significant challenge of my life: a long and terrifying battle with COVID-19.
I chronicle this experience in my book Brave Now, which offers 19 lessons to unlock your greatest self in turbulent times. Although the book recounts my personal story, it’s really a manifesto of leadership lessons that are relevant to any leader: slowing down to focus on what truly matters, approaching challenges with curiosity and play, and having the courage to stand out rather than fit in. I wrote the book to make the leadership lessons I’ve learned through my work with leaders around the world — from CEOs and Fortune 500 executives to social entrepreneurs — available to more people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I believe we’ll all make mistakes throughout our careers, which isn’t a bad thing as long as we learn from them. Case in point: when I started writing my book last year, I was incredibly naïve about what it actually takes to write and publish a book. I’m usually a strategic thinker and plan several steps ahead, but because I was battling serious health issues, I didn’t have the bandwidth to think ahead like I usually do. In fact, I did the opposite! One day, I wrote a few words and declared that day that I would publish a book that very same year. Little did I know what I was committing to. But the funny thing is: had I planned ahead, I might have been overwhelmed by what was ahead of me and stopped in my tracks.
In this case, the naïveté of “not knowing” was a huge gift. The lesson here is that sometimes too much experience is a curse. Experience can leave us feeling jaded or risk averse. A little naïve optimism, the kind we had as young people, might be exactly what we need as we take on bold, new challenges.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m fascinated by people’s unique strengths and believe you can learn something from every person you meet. There are hundreds of people who have helped me over the years, including family, friends, colleagues, and mentors.
This past year, I was reminded of one of these people: my second grade teacher, Mrs. Lakusta, who inspired my love of reading and writing. Through reading, I awakened my imagination and took in ideas that were beyond my immediate surroundings. I especially love reading autobiographies of great leaders.
With the help of a few people, I tracked down Mrs. Lakusta so I could send her a thank-you note. Taking a moment to acknowledge the people who have contributed to your life is such a powerful practice. It only takes a minute and yet can make such a difference.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
One thing I’ve learned in uncertain times is to be open. It may seem counterintuitive because we’re socially conditioned to appear strong and hide our fears. However, I now make efforts to be open with my team about what worries me and invite them to share what worries them. I find that if I model vulnerability, it makes it easier for those around me to reciprocate. What I’ve discovered over the years is that when you truly listen to someone’s fears, some of those fears disappear. And in that wide-open space, creativity and new possibilities emerge.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
This year — as I was writing my book, building a Leadership Accelerator, and facing severe health challenges — there were moments when I wasn’t sure if I could keep doing it all. But what kept me going was thinking about all the people out there who are struggling, who could benefit from the powerful leadership lessons I’ve been fortunate to discover in my lifetime. So, what really sustains me on difficult days is that commitment, which is bigger than myself. When I connect with that deeper purpose, I always find energy.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say keeping an eye on the big picture. In challenging times, it’s easy to get caught up in the urgent things that need to happen right now. Sure, that’s important when a crisis first hits. But shake-ups also mean that new possibilities might emerge that weren’t imaginable before, so good leaders need to zoom out and keep an eye out for those.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think the most important thing is to stay grounded. Sometimes, it’s not what you’re doing, it’s who you’re being that makes a difference.
For example, you may choose to be calm or be clear or be forward-looking. If you’re intentional about your state of being, others around you can feed off this energy. Conversely, if you’re unintentionally anxious or stressed, others can feel that viscerally as well.
Staying grounded requires discipline. One grounding practice I started this year is a daily walk in the park, which gives me space to decompress from the day and approach the following day with clarity and intentionality. For others, a grounding practice might look like a short morning meditation, a one-minute pause between meetings to clear the mind of clutter from the past meeting, or a regular chat with a colleague or coach to work through stress.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and stakeholders?
It’s important to be honest and straightforward. People can see through anything else.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Often, in times of stress, we resort to “either-or” thinking. In times of uncertainty, I’ve learned to embrace “and” thinking. For example, when facing an unpredictable environment, rather than choosing to be frugal or revolutionary, smart leaders might decide to cut back on costs in some areas and invest in new opportunities in other areas.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Reconnect with your purpose. Whenever I’m unclear, I take a long view and connect back to my purpose and core values.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other organizations make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to try to centralize control. When we’re feeling uncertain, our natural tendency is to take control over everything. While some decisions are important to centralize in the peak of a crisis, no one single person has the answer for the most complex challenges we face today.
In my current organization, one of our core principles is to ensure decisions are made “closest to the work.” Now, this doesn’t mean that people should make decisions entirely on their own without consulting others. In fact, a core premise of this principle working is that people build their skills and proactively seek advice from others as needed. Ultimately though, ensuring that those who are closest to a subject have a real say in decision-making is critical for any organization, especially in a rapidly changing environment.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Seek out diverse perspectives. In uncertain times, it’s important to widen your lens to see things you might be missing. No one person can see the whole system. So, it’s essential to proactively connect with people who come from diverse backgrounds, bring experience from outside your sector, sit at different levels in the organization, or bring other forms of divergent thinking.
- Create space for reflection. When things are moving at warp speed, we often get into “go-go-go” mode and don’t take a minute to pause. Yet, especially when things are uncertain, it’s important to create space to slow down and reflect. As a personal example, I make time each Sunday, before the week gets chaotic, to reflect on the past week and get clear about what’s most important in the week ahead. When checking in with my team, I ask them to pause and reflect as well by simply asking: “What did you learn this week?”
- Get sleep. Science shows how crucial sleep is for our executive functioning, memory formation, and ability to deal with stress. I’ve built a habit of going to sleep early and waking up early without an alarm. This way, I know I’ve had a full night’s rest. I’m shocked by how many leaders prioritize other aspects of health, such as nutrition and exercise, but completely neglect sleep.
- Tune in to your body. Our bodies hold incredible wisdom, but we’ve lost our capacity to listen to them. Yet, we could gain a lot if we rediscover this ability. Imagine, for instance, if you were better at noticing early warning signs of stress. When walking into a difficult interaction with a colleague, being more aware of a clenched jaw or tight shoulders would signal you to pause, center yourself, and reengage later. There is a whole field of work called somatics that helps leaders develop this often undervalued, yet important, form of intelligence.
- Be compassionate with yourself. Difficult times can be lonely for those in leadership positions. When things are turbulent, it’s not always possible to make perfect decisions; we’ll inevitably make mistakes. Acknowledging these mistakes with humility is critical; we should take responsibility for our mistakes and learn from them, but quickly let them go.
When we’re not compassionate with ourselves — and obsess endlessly about our shortcomings and failures — it takes away precious energy from other work that’s more important.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s not the destination that makes life interesting, it’s how you get there.”
I believe that every moment is an opportunity to learn. So whether you’re going through success or failure, joy or hardship, there’s a lesson to be discovered. When facing difficult times, whenever I have a moment to come up for air, I try to ask myself, “What can I learn from this experience?”
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check out my new book, Brave Now: Rise Through Struggle and Unlock Your Greatest Self, or learn more at radharuparell.com.