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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


6 May 2020 – Zoë Arden, CISL Fellow and Course Convenor on the new Communicating for Influence and Impact online short course, discusses the need for leaders who listen first, show humility and use communication to influence and accelerate social and environmental change.

In times of crisis, we often see how people really show up – through what they say and do, of course, and the questions they ask.

The questions on the minds of many leaders I have spoken to recently are: “what’s the story I will tell about how I showed up?” and “what good might come from this?”. These are potent questions for leaders to be asking as we tackle one of the biggest global crises of our time. Who we are and how we show up in the world defines how we work with others and ultimately the future we co-create, according to Christiana Figueres and Tom Carnac in their book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. The stories we tell about ourselves, our organisations and our humanity matter. They can shape how we think, what we do and our impact in driving change.  

More than ever, the world needs leaders who are skilled communicators who can work with others to have a positive influence and impact. Why? Because today’s world is complex and the problems we face, like Covid-19, are wicked ones. We can’t respond on our own. We need self-aware individuals to show up at all levels of organisations and throughout society who can break the mould: communicate, collaborate, co-create, engage and inspire. Leaders who are curious and sensitive to language, culture and other ways of seeing, knowing and doing. The old model of a few hero leaders and a handful of progressive organisations is outdated. So too is ‘business as usual’. 

In the recent weeks of this crisis, we’ve seen a stark contrast in how world leaders have shown up. There are the ones who are clear and empathetic, who tell the truth, connect with their citizens as adults. Others who respond with misinformation from a place of ego and bluster. Authentic communicators, like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the Nordic leaders who spoke directly to children, have been credited with saving lives. We’ve also seen powerful influencers throughout society having a transformational impact, from frontline healthcare workers to fitness coach Joe Wicks.  As systems and story expert Ella Saltmarshe says in a recent article “We are all storytellers. Without awareness, we can perpetuate narratives that generate division, fear and hopelessness. This is a time of epic change. The words we use and the stories we tell will have huge power in determining the direction of that change”.

The mythologist Dr Martin Shaw wrote recently, “I am forgetting business as usual. No great story begins like that”. If Shaw is right and ‘business as usual’ is no longer a viable story, what are the new stories that organisations committed to delivering transformational change need to tell in our post-pandemic world? What are the stories that will serve us?

In the excellent podcast series The Great Humbling, the communications expert Ed Gillespie considers the stories that have not served us but have still managed to bewitch us. He suggests that the right stories should be a bridge, not a crutch such as ‘back to normal’. Alex Evans in his book The Myth Gap also talks about the need for new stories. He suggests we need a different version of the good life that is not predicated on economic growth at any cost, but rather considers what do we value? Taking into account what we value now, after what some are terming ‘the great pause’, and how we incorporate that into the economic ‘reboot’ will be key.

"What we hear from all our contributors is that we need leaders who listen first, show humility and use communication to influence and accelerate social and environmental change."

Taking into account what we value in order to enhance our understanding and decision-making is also at the heart of CISL’s new leadership platform The Future we Want. In her blog, CISL Director Polly Courtice explained that this new platform will host a global conversation amongst leaders across business, government, civil society and academia about our collective future.

Storytelling and how we show up as leaders are inextricably linked in building a better future in which society and the planet can thrive. At CISL, we have been thinking for a while about these so-called ‘leadership soft skills’ of communications and influencing. The questions we see leaders grappling with, especially on education courses such as High Impact Leadership, are how do we break through gridlock and have conversations that will drive meaningful change? How do we successfully work with others to create innovative responses at a systems level? These are common leadership challenges that we help thousands of individuals tackle every year through both our face-to-face and online programmes.

Communication and influencing skills are critical to these leadership challenges because of the sheer power of language to shape the world in which we live. CISL fellow Dr Louise Drake, in an internal CISL report prepared for the University of Cambridge School of Arts and Humanities; Exploring the multiple contributions of the arts and humanities to current and future leadership, argues that we need to have our eyes open to how language influences our perceptions about who or what matters, whose experience counts, what it is to be human and how we relate to the rest of the world. Leaders who are sensitive to this power, and able to harness it for positive impact, are likely to be much more effective in tackling entrenched social and environmental injustices.

On May 13th we launch our latest online short course called Communicating for Influence and Impact where we address these topics.  The recent conversations in our Advancing Leadership webinar series are also on this theme. What we hear from all our contributors is that we need leaders who listen first, show humility and use communication to influence and accelerate social and environmental change.

It can take a crisis for us to develop clarity about how we are going to show up. As the economist Milton Friedman said, “Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”.

To this end at CISL, we are committed to helping leaders drive real change; through building their capability to curate and communicate the good ideas needed for The Future we Want.  We invite you to consider the story you are going to tell about how you showed up and develop the skills to tell it. 

Find out more about the new Communicating for Influence and Impact online short course. 



About the author

Zoe Arden

Zoë Arden is a CISL Fellow and convenor and head tutor of CISL’s High Impact Leadership online course and CISL’s latest online short course, Communicating for Influence and Impact. Zoë leads CISL’s Advancing Leadership webinar series and is the co-author of an article entitled Making It Personal – Developing Sustainability Leaders in Business, published in the journal Organisation and Environment, based on her CISL Master's research. She is also the co-author of CISL’s report Building Leaders for Long-term Business Performance.


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


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