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What does leadership mean to you? | Funke Abimbola

Leadership is a matter of influence.

image of Funke Abimbola
Funke Abimbola

I first realised this in a profound way when I was growing up in Nigeria. I am the eldest child in our family (as was my father) and come from a high-achieving Nigerian background. Anyone from a similar background will fully appreciate the weight of responsibility that goes with being the eldest child – and my father certainly drummed into me (almost on a daily basis) the importance of not only leading my younger siblings, but also being a ‘positive influence’ on them.

Coming from a strong medical background, the full expectation (and, indeed, assumption) was that I would become a doctor like my father, mother and several other family members. My father ran a successful private hospital and maternity home in Lagos, was himself a talented, German-trained doctor and saw his investment in my private British education as being a worthwhile one, very much with a view to me following suit – returning to Nigeria as a British-trained doctor to, one day, run his hospital with my siblings. When I ‘rebelled’ and decided against a career in medicine, opting for law instead, my father’s reaction was that of any loving father who feared that I might, in fact, prove to be a ‘bad influence’ on his other children. Thankfully, this fear was not realised as my brother and sister both decided to become doctors despite my decision to become a solicitor!

So to me, leadership is all about influence – whether positive or negative. The word ‘influence’ does, unfortunately, tend to have negative connotations, implying that someone is being forced (or, even, hypnotised or brain-washed) into doing something against their free will. Looking to one of the most reliable sources for the true meaning of ‘influence’, I consulted the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary to find that influence is described as being “the effect that somebody/something has on the way a person thinks or behaves or on the way that something works or develops”. Clearly, this can be both positive and negative: as a leader, you can have both a positive and a negative influence on others. But essentially, to be an effective leader, you need to have an impact on how people behave or think. Leadership without impact is not effective leadership.

Do you have to be loved or respected to be an effective leader – or can simply being feared be enough for effective leadership? To me, leadership is certainly not a popularity contest. As a leader, I have had to make unpopular decisions which were in fact the right decision. Machiavelli may have felt that it was better to be feared than loved but whilst being feared as a leader may be effective in influencing others, this is not necessarily a positive influence – the basis of effective leadership must, at the very least, be respect. Without respect, leadership becomes about forcing those looking to you for leadership to think and behave in a certain way. I have certainly experienced that leadership style myself, including the damaging impact that had on morale within the team at the time. Yes, business goals were reached but at what cost? We had no respect for our leader, only fear, and it was this fear that made us do what our leader demanded of us. To me, that is bad leadership and certainly not the type of leadership style that I would ever want to emulate.

Because of some of the bad examples of leadership that I have experienced throughout my career, I have come to appreciate good leadership all the more and have gone to great efforts to improve my own leadership style. I believe that the desire to constantly strive for excellence is at the heart of effective leadership – I will never stop learning or developing. Every leader should strive for excellence and should hope to not only be described as a ‘good leader’, an ‘effective leader’, a ‘talented leader’ or a ‘natural leader’ but, ultimately, an ‘inspiring leader’.

When I asked my 13-year-old son to tell me honestly what he thought of me as a leader, he summarised my leadership style succinctly and said: “Mummy, you are kind, you know what’s what but you are very feisty”. So there we have it!

Funke is a senior leader for Roche, the world’s largest biotech. She leads the legal, corporate compliance and data protection functions supporting Roche’s pharmaceutical operations in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar. A multi award-winning solicitor, she is also an award-winning diversity campaigner and has received both national and European recognition for her work. She won the Outstanding Woman in Professional Services award at the 2015 Precious Awards.

 You can connect with Funke on Twitter: @DiversityChamp1

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