The key questions I asked to be a better leader for social impact

By Melissa Abu-Gazaleh | Managing Director, Top Blokes Foundation

This article was originally published in Philanthropy Weekly, the digital newsletter of Philanthropy Australia.

“One of the main indicators of a successful organisation is whether the CEO continues to grow and learn.” This sentence, said by Australia’s most significant and well-respected funders at the inaugural Social Impact Leadership Program launch event stopped me in my tracks.

Having established the Top Blokes Foundation, a leading boy’s mental health organisation that helps young males build the skills to lead healthy and safe lives, I was no stranger to learning. Learning how to reduce the rates of male suicide, incidences of mental ill-health and all forms of violence. That skill of learning means we’re always delving into the hard, difficult and messy issues that young males face.

I knew as CEO, I had more learning to do which is why I applied to be part of Australia’s ground-breaking leadership program for the social sector, SILA, a collaboration between the Myer Foundation, the Sidney Myer Fund, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Paul Ramsay Foundation and delivered by the Centre for Social Impact.

What I didn’t realise was how the program would have me asking some of the most critical questions that all for purpose CEO’s should be asking themselves.

From undertaking a series of activities including an organisational diagnostics assessment, wellbeing assessments, 360 reviews, coaching sessions, learning circles, three retreats and a three-month sabbatical, I have come to learn that as leaders in our field it is actually our responsibility and obligation to ask ourselves the hard questions, both in our work and of ourselves and to continually sit in the discomfort of those learnings.

At the end of the program, here are examples of the challenging questions I believe all for purpose CEO’s should ask themselves:

1. Do I actually understand my leadership shadow and is it driving cultural change?

Every leader casts a shadow. Our intentions, behaviours and language influences how we build our internal culture. But when was the last time we asked our teams how they experience our display of power, authority and influence?

How do we become more conscious and deliberate in the leadership culture we’re building to ensure it will drive positive cultural change within our organisations and within the communities we serve.

2. To what level am I helping our leadership team to instill a culture of curiosity and exploration throughout all levels of the organisation?

I just completed SILA’s three-month sabbatical, where I stepped away from the day-to-day of the Top Blokes Foundation and used the time to reflect, examine and explore the complexities of the social issues we’re working so hard to address.

I used the time to challenge my own assumptions, to understand the levers of change and to sit in the unknown. I learned that this sense of reflection, clarity and energy can be a source of innovation.

And in that time, I couldn’t tell you how many people would say that a sabbatical is a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My question is, why just once in a lifetime? Why can’t we embed a culture of reflection and clarification and instill it as a core value?

What if giving employees paid time away to explore and examine could lead to our sector’s most interesting innovations? I came to the realisation that one of my core priorities as CEO should be to create a culture of innovation by embedding curiosity and exploration as key values.

3. Can operating in fight or flight mode helps us achieve our organisation’s mission?

When meeting other for purpose CEOs, I’m never surprised by how quickly the conversation moves to the fast-pace nature of our work, the feelings of exhaustion and the sense of being overwhelmed. I’ve yet to meet a for-purpose CEO who doesn’t wake up at 2am with a panic thought about a detail they may have missed.

We often feel like our busy minds lead us to constantly operate in a fight or flight mode and we’re constantly fed messages how this isn’t healthy. Instead, we’re encouraged to achieve balance and calm (what even is that?!) in our roles.

So, I’ve been questioning, how would our relationship with stress and exhaustion change if rather than trying to move away from the tension we instead welcomed the benefits of functioning in fight or flight? Could it help us thrive even further and amplify our effectiveness as leaders? If we continued the pursuit to stop operating in this state, what are the impacts on our work and the people we’re ultimately trying to help?

4. Am I stepping into my authority and how do I better understand my growth edge?

Why do so many for purpose CEO’s battle imposter syndrome? Are our own sense of fears and limitations impacting how we step up and into our authority, the very authority we’ve worked so hard to earn? Are we struggling because we’re actually trying to find the line between confidence, skill and humility? What if we better understood our own vulnerabilities and used these as leadership strengths. Could we become better leaders?

The CEO role can be incredibly lonely at times. SILA has helped me find my tribe. The very people who simply understand the deep commitment and resilience needed to pursue long term social change.

We’re sharing our passions, our struggles and our personal and sometimes incredibly deep grief. We sit with each other and know how tiring yet exhilarating our leadership roles are. We sit with each other knowing that we do this work because it’s hard and we’re built for hard. We’re reigniting each other’s spark and we’re becoming stronger than we were the day before. And true to that funder’s observation, we are all seeking every opportunity to grow and learn.

SILA has already been transformational for our organisation, in more ways than I can currently acknowledge. If you’re a VIC or TAS CEO and you’d like to strengthen your leadership capabilities, I strongly encourage you to apply for the upcoming SILA Program.