Head And Heart Leadership, With Kirstin Ferguson
Are you a leader who leads with head and heart? Are you leaving a positive legacy for those you lead? In this episode, Kirstin Ferguson, the author of Head and Heart Leadership, unravels the art of modern leadership. She reveals what it takes to be a leader the world needs today: one who balances the head and the heart. She explains the value of a growth mindset to creating capabilities as a leader and breaks down the key attributes of a modern leader. Let’s flip through the pages of Kirstin’s book and discover how we can bring out that leadership potential in each of us, creating a bigger impact on the world in the process.
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Head And Heart Leadership, With Kirstin Ferguson
Company Director, Author, Newspaper Columnist, University Professor, And Executive Coach
My guest is Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, one of Australia’s most prominent leadership experts. She is an Australian company director, the author of two books, a newspaper columnist, a university professor, and an executive coach. She began her career as an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, and she went on to become a lawyer and CEO of a successful global business.
In 2014, she was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence. In 2017, she created the #CelebratingWoman campaign, which led to spinoff campaigns around the world. In 2018, she was appointed Acting Chair and Deputy Chair of the Australia Broadcast Incorporation. She’s an adjunct professor at the QUT Business School and a Winston Churchill fellow.
In 2023, she was named a member of the Order of Australia and the Australia Day Honors, and she was also ranked on the Thinkers50 list and named the winner of its leadership award. Kirstin holds a PhD in Leadership and Culture, as well as honors degrees in Law and History. She and her family live in the Sunshine Coast of Australia. Kirstin, welcome. Thanks for joining me on the show.
It’s fabulous to be here.
Let’s start with your book, Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership. We’ll get into the details, but can you give us a brief overview to get us started?
It has brought together a framework and a way of thinking about what it is we need from leaders now that is different from what we’ve seen in the past and a way of balancing our heads and our hearts. It’s a metaphor, but it’s one we all understand. It is a book that sends the message that everyone is a leader, not just those that we are used to seeing with formal titles.
You make that point right at the beginning of the book. We met at the Thinkers50 Conference. The first speaker talked directly about having a leader’s identity, and everybody is a leader. One of the things that stuck with me from the conference from the start was the idea of leader identity.
For many people who are formal leaders, it seems self-evident, and that’s hardly anything new. It is for a lot of people who don’t recognize that they’re leading in their roles because they don’t supervise anyone, but they’re still making decisions and having leadership moments every day. We lead in our families and communities. We need to do better at reminding people of that.
You start the book with a bit of a history lesson on that.
My first university degree was in History. I couldn’t resist.
You go back to the Great Man Theory of the 19th century. Starting with that and prior to what you described in the book as the modern era, what are some of the major periods and schools of thought on leadership that you cover in that intro?
I was debating whether or not to include this because many are only interested in what they’re doing now. For me, as a lover of history, I don’t think we can understand how we’ve got to where we are unless you understand where we’ve come from. The Great Man Theory you referenced has been an incredibly important legacy in the way we think about leaders, this idea from the 18th century that leaders are born and not made. Certain people were qualified to be leaders.
Fortunately, we’ve rejected that, but you still see elements in the way we think about leadership. I also talk about the turn of the 20th century. Even business schools in the States were focused on hard leadership skills because of some of those softer skills. I don’t agree with that term because they’re not soft, but they were focused on those technical skills because they could intuitively understand how to lead otherwise.
You moved into World War II, and we desperately needed to find some more leaders who weren’t born into it. Most people don’t realize that the Myers-Briggs duo was a mother-daughter team. How they came up with what is now widely panned as a tool. At the time, it was completely revolutionary. We used that for 50 years. It opened the door to people other than those formal leaders, being someone who might be able to learn to be a leader.
You get into the organization, men of the ‘50s, lots of layers of bureaucracy, long tenures keep moving through. We get to the eighties, and greed is good. People like Jack Welch are slashing and burning organizations. In our lifetimes, the 2000s, we see authentic leaders come through. I’m now interested in what that next phase is and what’s the leader we need around us in every part of our lives.
You mentioned Myers-Briggs being discounted over the years. I still find it helpful in describing people.
People find it helpful because it’s a way of looking at yourself through a tool that’s particularly interesting. Scientists have now been able to say, “No one fits neatly into a four-letter box.” That’s the challenge, but I respect what they did, given where they came from. They were from a Pennsylvania farming family with no university degrees. They revolutionized this idea of thinking about leadership. I give them huge props for that.
An unlikely duo has changed the world of psychology. You covered the head part of leadership in the second part of the book, and you argue that the research you’ve done indicates there are four attributes of successful head leadership: curiosity, wisdom, perspective, and capability. Tell us about the research that underpins this.
I’m conscious that there are a lot of leadership books that are written by people who have been leaders. I certainly have been for 30-odd years, starting in the military and going through chairing companies. I’ll read leadership books that are based on anecdotes. This is what I experienced. That’s a version of leadership. It’s one person’s experience. It’s not necessarily one that others can learn from.
There are a lot of academic theory books around leadership, but they haven’t perhaps had the lived experience. I wanted to bring the two together. That’s how this research came through. I’m an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology Business School. I have a PhD in leadership through them. What I’d started with was a broad list of 50 or more attributes that you would widely agree were positive in a leader. Things that you would want to see. That was through literature reviews or through my own reading or analysis.
I was able to narrow that down to the four heads and four hearts. Head and heart is clearly a metaphor, but it’s a term we understand. You get what it means. When I’m talking about these four head-based attributes, these are all those technical skills that we learn at school, university, or on the job that are essential for successful leadership but, on their own, are not going to be sufficient for a modern leader.
If you’d asked me to list four attributes on the head side, I would’ve come up with one, curiosity. I would’ve come up with the other three on my own. You describe it as a superpower. In what ways is curiosity important to leadership?
It’s such a fascinating one. I almost didn’t want to include it because it seems obvious. To your point, it seems like the one everyone would put on a list. Naturally, you’re thinking, “I want to create a new idea. Why would I put something like this that everyone would include? The fact is that’s because it is important. We’ll talk about the fact we also don’t do it particularly well.
Curiosity fuels humility. For me, humility is a key aspect of being a leader. In the research I did to test these, I created a scale that anyone can go and do. Visit HeadHeartLeader.com. In the scale and the research with about 1,000 leaders, which was the sample group, curiosity, and humility were the most highly correlated. The two work hand in hand. That’s because if you’re curious, you understand you don’t have all the answers, and you’re interested in finding things out. If you’re humble, you know you don’t have all the answers and you’re curious to learn.
Humility also means you’re open to different possibilities. You’re not going in with a fixed mindset to any given problem. It allows creativity to flourish. If you’re a leader who’s focused on innovation and new ways of doing things, you have to be able to create curious cultures. Finally, there’s plenty of research that shows if you’re a curious leader, it leads to better business outcomes and decision-making. You are open to diverse points of view. There’s so much that curiosity brings to us, but whether or not we get it right is another question.Curiosity leads to better business outcomes and decision-making. Click To Tweet
One of the points you make in the book, which I found a little bit sobering, was that 92% of people value curiosity at work, and only 24% of people feel curious. It’s not great.
It’s shocking. That statistic is what compelled me to make sure I included curiosity as one of the eight. It’s clear when you understand why that statistic happens. We’re all born curious. As babies, you’re sticking things up your nose to see what it feels and what it tastes like. Hopefully, you’re not still doing that. We stifle curiosity as we get older because we’ve become set in our ways.
If you’ve been in a job for six months or longer, you’ve lost 20% of the curiosity you began with. Imagine people have been in jobs for several years. If you work in an environment that isn’t psychologically safe, where you fear looking stupid, and you can’t ask a curious question, that’s going to stifle curiosity. If you’re someone who makes assumptions, and I know my family has a term for me called mom’s disease, and I do not have anything wrong with me, but I do have a tendency when they start to say something that I’ll jump to an assumption of where it’s going, and worse, I might verbalize an answer. That’s kryptonite to curiosity. Finally, if you work in bureaucracies, bureaucracies are classic for stamping out curiosity. There are lots of reasons why virtually all of us value it, but few of us get to experience it.
At one point in the book, you talked about WL Gore and a fairly radical way of organizing. We heard Gary Hamil speak at the conference. He talked about the principles that underpin the book that he co-wrote with a former colleague of mine, Michele Zanini, called Humanocracy. That talks about some radical structures that are grounded in this premise that everybody needs to be curious. You all have a role in shaping the future. There’s this non-hierarchical high empowerment sense to it that, to your point, bureaucracies command and control structures struggle with.
Only a few organizations or leaders are brave enough to try and experiment in that way because it does require real courage from formal leaders to accept that others may well share that power or that decision-making process, but it’s for the long-term benefit of the organization. Gore and associates still operate in the way that he experimented with back in the ‘50s. They have shown itself to be incredibly successful.
You talk about wisdom, and you get the perspective. What does it mean to lead with perspective?
Out of all eight attributes, this was my research that I found the most important attribute. It correlates most highly with all the other seven. Go to HeadHeartLeader.com. It’s all free. You can find out how you go. It’ll show you. Perspective is, in layman’s terms, reading the room. It’s being able to bring in those signals, signs, and context that you are leading in and allowing you to adapt.
In my research, I also found that you are able to notice who’s missing from the room. That’s an incredibly important attribute. While it correlates highly with all seven, the second highest correlation was with empathy. If you’re a leader who can lead with perspective, you’re not only reading the room, which could be a room, but it’s more likely your organization, team, and industry.
You are noticing who’s missing or who’s there and not speaking up. You are reading the dynamics of what’s going on. If that means you are noticing that the lived experiences around you are all exactly the same as yours, you are noticing that you don’t have any diverse points of view and people who aren’t challenging you.
Leading with perspective is critically important to understand the effectiveness of the way you are leading in that context. I’ve worked in so many different organizations and industries that I’ve had to change the way I’m going to be most effective, whether I was in the military, in law firms, working with psychologists, or on boards. Unless you’re reading the room, understanding that, and curious about what’s going to work, it’s going to be hard to be a modern leader.
One of the points that I took away from the conference was the idea that power is the ability to shape what gets discussed and what doesn’t get discussed. To your point, it’s also the ability to shape who’s in the room and who’s not in the room. If you don’t think about how to use that in the right way, it makes it a lot harder to lead with perspective. It makes it harder to look at how the organization needs you to bring those inclusive perspectives to bear.
When people are in the room, are they able to contribute? Are they the loud voices you’re hearing from? It’s a bit like being a conductor. You need to notice that suddenly, the violins are not there for practice. Something has gone wrong, or they’re there, but we can’t hear them. You’re trying to make sure that everyone is able to be heard and present. That takes a lot of conscious effort. A lot of what we’re talking about is this awareness of the impact of your leadership.
You go into capability. When you talk about capability, you tie it closely to the idea of having a growth mindset. It comes from Carol Dweck, one of the influences you cited in the book. How does having a growth mindset shape how you approach creating capabilities as a leader?
It was one that I questioned. Do I include it? Do I not? Everyone is familiar with the growth mindset work of Carol. It’s unbelievably helpful. It is essential. There’s a difference between being capable at your job and believing you are capable. All of us have had those moments where we question ourselves, where we make a mistake, or something goes wrong, and it can throw us.
Whereas if you are leading with capability, you do have a strong sense of self-efficacy. You see mistakes as opportunities. You know that these are going to happen. I know I’m going to make a mistake at some point. It doesn’t throw me off completely. It’s one of those moments where you go, “That’s happened. This is what I’ve learned from it. I’m going to try and do that again.” Chances are, I probably will, but we keep going.
If you are able to lead with capability, you are much more likely to be focused on leading others with capability. I talk about this idea of growing a family tree of leaders. That’s what our key responsibility as leaders is. We want to do the best job we can do, but we desperately need to be building generations of leaders behind us who feel capable and are capable.
That’s the legacy. You describe the leadership of the book as a series of moments that ultimately lead to a legacy. It could be a positive or a negative one. If you’re going to create a positive legacy, you have to be thinking about your family tree of leaders.
I believe that leadership is simply a series of moments. Every moment leaves us with this opportunity to have a positive impact on others. If you’re leading someone who makes a mistake, we all know leaders that use that moment to slam them and make them feel less than and belittle them to this misguided sense that will help in the future. Whereas we all know having been led by that, using that as an opportunity to say, “I’ve made that same mistake a bunch of times. Here’s how I’ve worked on trying to improve it. What are some ways together we can make sure that next time before it happens, let’s have a chat about it.” There’s no value in making people smaller if you’re a leader.
You brought up psychological safety earlier. As a leader, I work in financial services, that’s important. We’re handling billions of dollars every day. Mistakes will happen. You have to learn from them. You have to be okay with raising them, learning from them, and not making those mistakes again. The worst thing you can do is have a culture where people sweep that stuff under the rug or are afraid to bring it up for some other reason because you’re not learning. You will make those mistakes again.
I write a weekly column in the major Australian newspapers where I answer questions about leadership and advice from readers all over the country. I had someone who said that their boss had been continually asking for feedback, “Please give me feedback. I’m keen to learn.” This person bravely said, “In some meetings, not all of us feel we can speak up.” The bosses now excluded them and won’t talk to them.” If this boss could even realize, they’re now, never, ever going to get feedback again. On the big stuff, there will be big things. It takes that one silly move by a leader to undo all of this good work.
You get to the heart part of leadership. You have four key attributes here. You talked a little bit about humility, self-awareness, courage, and empathy. I might have come up with three on my own. I would do a little bit better on this side. I’m curious whether there was a reason that you chose to cover them in the order of humility, self-awareness, and courage.
No, there was not. There’s no priority for any of the eight. They’re all important. We all have and need all of them. I haven’t been asked that before. I wish I had a smarter answer for you.
It could be the order you wrote them down, and they could have been thought through. I was curious whether there was something behind it.
Now you mention it, I reckon unconsciously. Humility is one of the most important. Without self-awareness, which I’ve listed second, you’ve got nothing. Maybe I do it in some way, but not intentionally.
To me, humility is the core of modern leadership. It is the antithesis of the traditional hero notions of leadership. For that reason, if you don’t get this right, you’re not a solid modern leader.
Humility is one that’s misunderstood. There are mixed notions that being humble means you think you’re less than or you are not good at what you do. I’m talking about intellectual humility, particularly in this context. It is important to understand that you don’t have all the answers. The reality is, as a leader, you don’t let’s get that out on the table. Everyone else knows you don’t. There’s no point in pretending.
For many decades and centuries, that’s been the sense that leaders have had to be all-knowing and have all of the answers. The real cornerstone of modern leaders is accepting that not having the answers is a relationship builder and not a relationship destroyer. For many people, they have to gently test the waters with that. They find that hard to understand.
In a way, demonstrating, even vocalizing, that you don’t have all of the answers is a way of inviting others into the conversation. If you believe that two heads are better than one or three are better than two, you ought to want to invite other people into the conversation. People are afraid that others will disagree with them. That will undermine their credibility. They keep that completely walled off. It’s unfortunate.
It is because we all know it’s obvious if you’ve got a leader who’s pretending they know the answers but internally is thinking, “I have no idea. I’m going to muddle my way through this.” Everyone can say that. It’s not even a matter of saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s saying, “In this particular issue, I’m confident that between all of us as a team, we are going to come up with a better answer than me working on this because this is something that’s unusual. I haven’t seen it before. What do you think?” It’s not going into a crisis or a battle and throwing your hands up and saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” You have to pick your moments.
Modern leaders understand when a great deal of humility is going to be incredibly beneficial. You said you work in financial services. When you’re dealing with high-stakes negotiations and trying to navigate difficult stakeholder relationships, sometimes having that level of humility is what will set you apart from others who are in there trying to aggressively come up with an outcome. Having sat on boards for years, I know it’s a skillful quality that can be used effectively if it’s used authentically, but often, it is pushed to one side.
Self-awareness comes next. One of the things that is interesting about self-awareness is this research from Tasha Eurich. It sticks with me that 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10% to 15% of people are. It’s a sobering statistic. It’s unnerving. One of the 80% that doesn’t get it. Eighty percent of us are in that category. It indicates an opportunity for improvement.
It’s a reason why feedback is important, unless you are calibrating how you are impacting others with people who are prepared to give you feedback, and you are prepared to hear it and ask for it. You’re going to blindly. We will be one of the 80% who have no idea what’s going on. Feedback is tough, as we know, but if you’ve got people around you who genuinely want to see you succeed but are prepared to give you the feedback that others won’t, they are people to keep close to. It’s not those people who will tell you whatever you want to hear and have a motive to knock you down. It’s those people who want to see you succeed but are prepared to tell you what it is you need to hear in that moment. Treasure those people. That’s for sure.
Courage is the next one on your list. It seems like the hard attribute that most likely would’ve shown up in a traditional description of leadership. How is your view of courage more modern?
Maybe it’s not, JR. I’m humble enough to accept that perhaps it’s not. It’s one you can’t leave out. You are not only focused on building cultures of psychological safety at work, but you are also creating personal interactions that are psychologically safe. It’s hard for you to leave with courage or for others around you to feel they can.
I didn’t feel it was one that could be excluded. Courage, in this context, is much more than those big whistleblower examples we often hear about where someone’s brought down an entire corporation. They’re the extreme. This is all about everyday acts of courage. As a leader, you can role model what this looks like by accepting promotions and not feeling you’re ready for them, or by asking for feedback, hearing feedback, taking it on board, or calling someone out for their behavior. There are many different ways that every day we have that little sick feeling in our stomach, yet we sum it up with courage and act in a genuine way. That’s what I’m talking about in this particular context.
It’s partly about moving into the unknown and having the courage to do that, given that things are happening a lot faster in the world these days than they were a hundred years ago. You have to adapt more rapidly. If you’re not comfortable with these environments as people describe them, it’s going to be tough for you. Courage is courage, but it gets applied in different constructs than maybe it would’ve been relevant back in the great man era.
For many leaders, adapting to a working-from-home environment requires courage. It was a whole new way of how to lead people. Agreeing on how to either get people back in the office or have a hybrid, all of that’s taking courage because there’s a popular view from others about where that should go. As leaders, we constantly have to be courageous in our ideas, recognizing that we might be the dinosaurs.
It’s easy to identify dinosaurs that we work with. It’s much harder to recognize it in ourselves. We’re young and sprightly, but believe it or not, there will be attitudes that we will have that we don’t even realize that have become somewhat old-fashioned. We need to have the courage to recognize that. It happens in every aspect of our leadership lives.
Somebody I work with said her team told her never to wave at the end of a Zoom call. If you do, you’re marking yourself as old.
No, I do this every time.
It makes you self-conscious about it. It’s like using punctuation in a text message.
I also read an article about the Boomers, and I’m not even a Boomer, wait a second or so before we film a video on our cameras because we wait and check that it’s recording. That’s not something that the younger generations do. They’re straight into it. I’m conscious of that now that there’s always a good second.
They also watch their videos at 1.2 speed.
We’ve found three ways that you and I are already dinosaurs.
Maybe not dinosaurs, but let’s say not Gen Z. Let’s leave it at that. Empathy is the last one. This is one that wouldn’t have shown up in traditional descriptions. In that sense, it may be the most important of them all.
It’s not sympathy, pain, or compassion. This is about being able to put yourself in the shoes of someone quite different from your own and trying to understand what’s going on for them. As a leader, I do not understand how you can make decisions that are going to impact a wide and diverse group of people unless you understand what the impact of that decision will be for people different from yourself. Empathy is not about sitting with someone who’s feeling anxious and taking on that anxiety yourself. It’s none of those things. It is being willing to understand that there are people different from ourselves and that we need to make sure we’re incorporating their experiences into our decisions.
It’s different from the traditional way of thinking about leadership, where it’s like, “I’m the boss. Do as I tell you.” You’ve to pull in the whole person and understand where they’re coming from. It’s a key differentiator from the traditional era.
All eight we’ve talked about are all in balance and the art of modern leadership, knowing what is needed. There will be times when navigating a particularly difficult crisis, you’re going to need a huge amount of capability and curiosity. It’ll be head-focused. The art is knowing that in that situation, suddenly, it might turn on a dime, and you need to pull out a huge amount of humility and empathy to get through whatever it is you’re doing. That’s the art. There’s no magic recipe for how and when you draw on each of these attributes. I do believe that we all have all of them. It’s just that some of them don’t always show up at work or when we most need them. That’s the key to being a modern leader.
It’s a little bit like a mixer in a piece of audio equipment where you’re adjusting different microphones and frequencies. It’s like you have this little mixer of these eight functions and some other ones that didn’t make your shortlist that you’ve got to turn up, turn down, and shift the mix of over points in time.
I was going to use that example. We talked about humility. It might be right up in some conversation, but suddenly, there’s a crisis, and you need to lead firmly from the front. Humility has no place in that particular context. You need to read the room. That’s where leading with perspective comes in. You’ve got to constantly adjust those mixes to work out what’s going to be most effective in those moments every single moment.
That brings us to the notion of an integrated leader. That’s bringing together head and heart, but you talk about integrating the way that you are at work and the way that you are outside of work. Why is that important?
There are a few reasons. Firstly, I do believe everyone has the skills and the empathy. Let’s talk about empathy because that’s one, as you said, wouldn’t have been on the list. I can think of traditional leaders that I’ve worked with throughout my career. I did not witness empathy in their demeanor or priorities throughout their career.
When I saw them with their grandchildren outside of work, they were full of empathy. They’ve got oodles of it. It made me realize that those skills we have in all areas of our lives have a place at work for the modern leader. You might show curiosity with your children when they come home from school, and you’re asking, “How was your day? What happened?” You’re asking lots of questions. Why aren’t we bringing that into our team environments when we’re talking with those that we lead?
All of the attributes we have in all areas of our lives, whether it’s a home or the community, sporting teams, volunteering, and work, if you can bring those together and be truly integrated in the way you lead, it’s not only less exhausting because you’re you. It’s also what people want to see. They want to see you. They want to see the human leader, not someone who’s an automaton that thinks, “I need to have all the answers.” I don’t think we behave that way at home. It’s this idea of making sure that we don’t do that at work either.
It’s hard to be an authentic leader unless you have that integration because, in one place or another, you’re putting on an act.
The military is not a great example because you do put on a uniform. When I was in a corporate environment in a law firm, I would put my suit on. It’s not that I was a different person, but I felt there was a persona I needed to give off in that environment to be effective as a leader. If I could have my time again, it’d be different. I’m positive that we are more effective when we are being ourselves because it means that humility is easier to draw on, and we’re going to be more curious. It’s being yourself.
You close the book by talking about purpose. You come back to the idea that leadership is a series of moments that add up to your legacy, positive or negative. One of the things I wanted to ask you about is, do you think the purpose is more important in this work world or are we waking up to its importance?
We value individual sense of purpose more than we have in the past. I suspect that great leaders and senior leaders have always felt they’ve got a sense of purpose. Whether it’s misguided or not, it might be to make more money, but that’s their sense of purpose. I don’t think they ever cared about what their employees felt their sense of purpose was.
I’ve got kids who are 23 and 21. The younger generation cares about their sense of purpose. I’m not sure I ever did back when I was their age. I’m not sure it was something that I was ever asked to think about. It wasn’t as relevant for me. I do think now sitting do what they do. Why do they come in? Are they just coming in for a pay packet? If so, as a leader, that’s a concern. Are you offering a purpose that feeds into their needs?
If I think about our generation, not Gen Z, and you go back even further than that, a hundred years ago, you worked to live. There wasn’t much thought to it. You took the work that was available to you. You didn’t have much ability to leave your local area. Transport was much more difficult back then. Fast forward to when I started in the workforce in the late ‘80s. It was a bit of putting your head down, doing your job, and listening to the people who are in the senior part of the organization.
What’s ironic about now is this whole ethos of leadership is changing in the ways that you write about in your book, and yet, engagements still sit at 30% every year. You’ve got all these people who are unhappy. You’ve got the rise of labor movements again, particularly in a place like the US, where we’re seeing more positive views about unions than probably in 40 or 50 years. We’ve gotten much better at the leadership piece relative to a generation ago, and yet the expectations have ratcheted up dramatically. It’s a little bit like this expectations treadmill.
If you were to interview someone who worked at the Ford factory in 1905 and question them about conditions now, they wouldn’t be able to believe it, or they wouldn’t even be asked about their purpose. It’s a good thing that people’s quality of work and their expectations about the way they’re respected at work have improved. Every generation looks back. We could perhaps feel showing our age, but I don’t know the answer to it. I know that I think we need to listen to those we lead in every generation because whether we like it or not, they’re what make our jobs possible. I’m respectful of their different perspectives.We need to listen to those we lead in every generation because, whether we like it or not, they're what make our jobs possible. Click To Tweet
If you think back several years ago, we were trying to figure out how to integrate the Millennials into the workforce. Now, they are in the thick of the workforce, and we’re trying to figure out Gen Z. There’s always a bit of this cross-generational understanding that’s required. It comes back to humility and curiosity. They’re in the workforce. I need to make sure that I understand what their needs are and not manage them like somebody who’s just over 50. I’m thinking about how to relate to them and how to make the experience work for them. It’s a challenge and a constant learning exercise.
There’s no doubt that I’ll sometimes hear Gen Zs complaining about something and have that internal thought. Are you kidding? When I was a lass, I held my tongue because that’s not helpful. We didn’t like hearing that when we were that age. That’s why reverse mentoring works particularly well. There are a lot of challenges, especially the cost of living crisis at the moment for the younger generations that are real. Who knows where it’ll all end up? Listening, being humble about it, and being curious is a good way to start.
You’ve had an interesting career yourself. I share the fact that we both began our careers as Air Force officers. I was an engineer. What about you?
I was an administrative officer. I was at a squadron, but I’m the personnel officer.
You were into the organizational aspects of this from the get-go.
My first degree was in history. I did that at our Air Force Academy equivalent. We have all three services come together at our Australian Defense Force Academy. My research thesis is on leadership. It’s funny how, 30 years later, it’s come full circle.
You went to law school and got a law degree. What led you down that path?
I had imagined I wanted to do law. I thought that was going to be my career, but I spent a lot of time at the law firm in their executive role, not as a lawyer, before qualifying, and I graduated law and qualified as a lawyer. I’d spent too much time seeing how they do six-minute time sheets and the way the life of a law firm lawyer and partner. I realized I loved leading. I didn’t end up going and practicing law, but having the degree is fabulous. That is a real balance of my head and heart. The law degree was my head. I went and did a PhD in leadership. I’d led my group of psychologists. They fed my heart side of my leadership.
You ran a consulting firm at one point. You were the CEO. What kind of leader were you back then?
It was interesting because I’d come out of law firms in the military. It was a group of psychologists operating around the world. I would’ve been perceived by them as all heads. It was a for-profit organization. I was looking at how we could increase profit, whereas everyone I was leading, their focus was all on improving the lives of those around us. It was their mission and purpose. It was much more around the individual impact they were having.
I had to learn to adjust and understand it wasn’t that what I was talking about was less important, but the way I communicated and the way I was able to influence change and bring everyone on board. I needed to adjust. That organization was one where feedback was truly part of the culture. Anyone could offer feedback at any time, and did. I learned what it was like to work and lead a feedback culture. I’m grateful to my psychologist in that period of being CEO because the combination of that time with my experience in law firms and on boards means I can bring it all together. My head and my heart. I don’t always get it right. That’s for sure.
Since then, you’ve had a wide range of non-executive director roles. You taught at a university level, wrote two books, and wrote a weekly newspaper column. How the heck do you fit all that in?
I don’t know, JR. I love what I do. I’m working on my third book.
You just wrote the second one.
I’m a glutton. I love researching and writing. I do a lot of keynote speaking around the world. I turned 50. I’m living a life of purpose that I’m enjoying. It feels like a bit of the culmination of everything I’ve done up to now. It’s happy days.
Your kids and my kids are in their twenties. One is a bit older. The thing is, when they’re out of the house, all of a sudden, you find that you’ve got all this extra time on your hands. There’s no more driving them to sports practices and going to plays and concerts. This is what you get to make of your ‘50s when your kids are out of the nest.
It is a fabulous time. I have to watch that I keep filling it. I do need to make more time for a bit of space to be thinking, planning, and writing. I get excited. There’s always something new around the corner.
When you look back, would you say that you’ve been more opportunistic or intentional about the career choices that you’ve made?
I’ve been intentionally opportunistic. I have always been someone who believes in saying yes to opportunities. There’s some intention around that. If something comes along, I’m mindful of thinking, “I don’t know where this is going to lead, but I’m prepared to say yes.” I have always had a broader plan. Even throughout my early 20s, 30s, and 40s, I had a bit of a five-year vision of where I’d like to go, but that often changed, or else I’d meet it early. I’d have to change and create. I’ve been intentional and opportunistic.
What are the strengths that you’ve drawn on consistently over the years?
I am a real doer. You asked how I fit it all in. One of my strengths is being able to do a lot and enjoy doing it a lot. As we’re getting a little older, age is becoming a theme of our episode. There’s part of me thinking, “I don’t need to go at a million miles an hour all the time now. I’d quite like halve that.” I’m finding it hard to slow down because I love what I’m doing. That drive and ambition, not for ambition’s sake, but to achieve more and make a big impact where you can and make a positive impact as you do has driven me.
What have you had to work hardest on developing?
Patience. I like to see things happen quickly. It’s not realistic. As a leader, that was something that became a challenge where you are thinking many steps ahead. I see this with leaders I work with. For them, the answer is crystal clear, yet they forget the fact that it’s not for everyone else. I know as a leader, that was something I had to work on in bringing everyone along with me. That would mean operating at a pace that was sustainable for everyone else. For leaders, we need to monitor that. It’s not a badge of being a great leader if you are burning everyone out along the way or burning yourself out. That’s an area that, for my life, has been a recurring theme.
Somebody I used to work with described that we’re all trying to be patiently impatient.
That’s still the day I die, I suspect.
It’s like being intentionally opportunistic, family aside because that’s an easy choice. Who or what inspires you?
That’s like asking who’s a role model or a mentor. I’ve always had a buffet of people who inspire me because there’s no one person who got everything right. All of us have areas that I wouldn’t come to for advice on. When I look at who inspires me or who’s been a role model, I can’t list them all, but there is a wide range of people, whether they’re national world leaders or someone in my local community. There are people that I observe and think, “I’d love to be able to do that aspect that you do well myself.”
Aside from the book that you’re working on, what else is ahead for you over the next few years?
I’m excited to be doing much more on the world stage. Hopefully, you’ll see me in a city near you sometime soon. I’ve got lots of different opportunities. I’m doing it internationally. I continue to write, speak, and partner with other organizations about what it means to be a modern leader.
Any last advice you’d want our audience to take away?
Say yes to opportunities. Back to your original question, you don’t know where they’ll take you and say yes anyway, and see.Say yes to opportunities. You don't know where they'll take you. Say yes anyway, and see. Click To Tweet
It’s a good advice to close on. Thanks for doing this.
Thank you so much for having me.
I want to thank Kirstin for joining me to cover her new book, Head in Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership, and her own career journey and what she has learned along the way. If you’re looking to be a stronger leader or a better professional, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a Pathwise member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website for our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Thanks. Have a great day.
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About Kirstin Ferguson
Kirstin Ferguson is one of Australia’s most prominent leadership experts. She is an Australian company director, the author of two books, a newspaper columnist, a university professor, and an executive coach. She began her career as an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. She went on to become a lawyer and a CEO of a successful global business.
In 2014, she was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence. In 2017, she created the #CelebratingWoman campaign, which led to spin-off campaigns around the world. In 2018, she was appointed acting chair and deputy chair of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
She is an adjunct professor at the QUT Business School and a Winston Churchill Fellow. In 2023, she was named a Member of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day honours list, and she also was recently ranked on the Thinkers50 list and named the winner of its Leadership Award.