What makes a good leader? Ask Jess Phillips

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Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Jess Phillips is one of Britain's most prominent and outspoken female politicians. The Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley since 2015, she has been Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding in the Labour Party since 2020 and has been an advocate for women's rights all her life.

Here, she shares what she believes makes a good leader and what she has learnt from her own professional life of leadership.

The three most important qualities for a good leader are…

"The ability to listen, and to be empathetic to the people you serve, and the people that you need to help you to serve those people. You will not lead people well if you don't first seek to understand what they need from you.

A good leader has got to be willing to be wrong. I'm wrong a lot of the time. And you have to learn not to take it personally, when somebody has a better idea than you or even if fundamentally the thing that you are striving for, isn't going to work. It's very hard not to try and cover up mistakes, especially if you're the kind of leader like me who is in the public eye. But saving face as a leader is ridiculous. Don't ever try and save face. If you want to build trust, admit your mistakes.

Finally, I would say it is actually the ability to have fun which makes a good leader. If you are not truly passionate about the thing, that you are asking other people to strive, work, and believe in, then you will immediately fail. And so you have to try and enjoy it, even the things you don't want to do. Your team should see you enjoying yourself at work as much as possible."

My personal strength as a leader is…

"It is probably my sense of humour or also wanting to be liked. Genuinely, I think that we massively undersell the idea that people do care what people think of them or their ideas. I like the feeling of people coming on board. It makes me grow in size and stature, whether it's people wanting to come in, spend their time for free to do work for you or whether it's just a crowd saying: Yes, we agree with this thing that you're saying. I put a huge amount of effort into being likeable and I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that somewhere along the line, probably because of male bosses in films, we decided that being feared is an excellent tool, but I actually don't think that. Being tough is is a good thing for your opponents, but not the people you wish to take with you. That's why I think that my greatest skill is my desire to please people and a desire to be liked. Because that makes you act with compassion and kindness."

The biggest priority for my job right now is…

"There are so many priorities but one important one is trying to make the Labour Party electable. Fundamentally that is my entire job, and so, in everything I do, I have to always constantly be thinking about how we we gain the power we need to enact the changes we want to make. Power is something that we, as women, feel very uncomfortable talking about. Ambition is a dirty word for women, but it shouldn't be. All women should be seeking power, we've been robbed of it from the get go!"

I keep my team motivated by…

"It has been particularly hard year for this. Almost anything can become fractured in a time of isolation. The trouble is, there is literally no financial incentive of working for a Member of Parliament, and the vast majority of people who work alongside me, work for free. So you have to find other ways to inspire them. One of the main thing issues that I care about is violence against women and girls and there are lots of people who because of their own personal reasons and experiences find that very inspiring. My willingness to show courage and be honest in these matters, is the greatest tool that I have to inspire the people who work for me and with me. I suppose that there is a there is an element of rarity in my frankness that makes them appreciate having a nice boss. I always say that I do nothing on my own, it is always because of my team. So they are being paid in something that you can't put a price on; they get to make changes that help people, they get to feel part of something bigger."

The hardest decision I’ve had to make as a leader was…

"There's no single decision. I think the hardest day to day element of my job is making sure that everybody is getting out of their job, what they need. The hardest part is actually making sure my team is supported. I'm asking them to listen to some of the most terrible things and handle people who are threatening to kill themselves are very likely to kill themselves or who are homeless and turning up at our office. I am asking them to handle trauma on a day to day basis, and I have to take account of their own trauma. It is absolutely my responsibility to make sure that they are as happy as possible."

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

The worst mistake I’ve ever made as a leader...

"There is a fine line between having a friendly environment that you work in and it being without boundaries, and a bit glib. There is a very, very fine line and you have to walk it and I have on many occasions, slipped. I definitely think as a leader, the biggest mistake I ever made was being overly familiar with those that I serve. But I will reserve the right to continue to make that mistake because a lot of this comes from caring very deeply about the wellbeing of my constituents and the people I work with."

An effective leader will always…

"Do everything they would ask anybody else to do."

An effective leader will never…

"...dish out the blame to save their own skin."

My role model for leadership is…

"My mum. She was absolutely nothing like me. But she was a leader in her field, with hundreds of staff who worked under her and she was always gentle and kind. I also look up to any leader who has struggled to get to a position and fought through. I find that to be trying to be a leader of people at the same time as having to push through things like racism, classism, sexism- whatever it is- just to get to that position, deeply inspiring."

The one piece of advice I’d give to a new leader is…

"Stop when you're not enjoying it. If it is more worry than it is fun, it might not be the right fit."

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