Never one to shy away from a challenge, Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director-General of The National Trust, says leadership must come from the heart
I have quite often been the first woman to hold a particular role, which puts you in quite an exposed position. In that respect it’s good for a leader to have a shoulder to lean on – not to cry on, but as a sounding board, someone you can talk candidly to. That enables you to ensure you stay strong, as you need to do, when you are talking to the people you are leading.
I wasn’t always that confident. When I began studying at the University of Cambridge I was quite daunted by this place and all its clever people, partly because I was so surprised to have got here. But I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to have always had a mentor. My director of studies, Lucy Adrian, was a real inspiration to me. She helped me to have faith in myself – and I believe the rest of my career has stemmed from that. And even if you’re inexperienced, people who don’t know you assume that because you are in charge, you must be able to do the job – and that in itself can make you brave. You’re empowered to take risks, to be bold.
But humility is also really important too. None of us has all the answers on our own but other people often have ideas and suggestions, and as a leader it’s your job to encourage those ideas and use them so you can all go forward together.
I was brought up to be adventurous. I was one of five girls – and my father was proud to have five girls. He wanted us to climb trees, go caving, skate on a frozen canal. He gave every one of us a sense of adventure and had unbelievable confidence in all of us. That upbringing, and his support, in turn gave me great confidence to take risks. On one occasion we were walking over a glacier and one of us dropped a hat, and he lowered me down a crevasse to get it back. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to be scared, it was just something I did.
My father was a truly inspiring man. By profession he was a metallurgist but he took a passionate interest in the world around him – including the environment, and nature. My mother was a geographer and there was obviously something about their love of the countryside because all five of us girls became geographers.
I learned some of my most valuable leadership lessons as Secretary of the Council for National Parks. The President was Lord Hunt, who had led the Everest expedition in 1953, and he was a true visionary – an extraordinary man. I learned from him how to get things done, and without a lot of shouting. There were many strong personalities on that Everest trip but he was the one who persuaded them to be the first team to get to the top. Leadership is about galvanising people, encouraging them to embrace an idea and take it forward as their own. It was a privilege to learn from him.
My biggest challenge was at the National Trust, but I loved it. I was committed to my vision of what I wanted the organisation to be, and I was enthusiastic. But it was hard and the changes were tough – especially when I announced we were moving out of London to Swindon! There was complete silence! But I was determined to see it through because I believed it was for the long-term good of the organisation – and now being in such a beautiful, green building is one of the things staff love about working for the Trust.
As a leader, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. It took me a long time to realise you could work in a field you were also passionate about! I thought one just went to work – when it dawned on me that you could do a job you could really immerse yourself in, it was like a light switched on.
Above all, leadership is from the heart. My advice to young leaders would be to know what you’re leading for. Know yourself and where you’re going. Whether you’re leading a team of one or two, or you’re at the top of an organisation, the key is having a personal passion for what you are trying to achieve. It gives you authenticity. If you can put across that you sincerely, honestly and passionately believe in what you’re doing, others will come along with you.