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What Leadership Means to Me

Professor Damian Hughes

22 June 2023

Professor Damian Hughes is an international speaker and best-selling author who combines his practical and academic background within sport, organisational development and change psychology, to help organisations and teams to create a high performing culture. Here he shares with us what leadership means to him.


“If you think that you are too small to make a difference, try going to bed with a mosquito in your room.”

– Dame Anita Roddick


This quote captures my perspective on leadership. It is not for the sole reserve of those who hold leadership positions at work, in the community or within a family. We all have the ability to take a lead and make a difference.

If I could summarise the characteristics of the great leaders I have been fortunate to work with, I would offer three:

  • Humility
  • High expectations
  • Courage

Let me expand on each in more detail…


When I first began coaching, I attended a course where the opening speaker opened with a message that said ‘humility = power’. I didn’t understand it at first. Being a competitive sort, I had always imagined that power was all about force, domination, intimidation, in short, power was about being the fount of all knowledge. Instead, as was explained, if you change your definition of power to be about having the ability to motivate, inspire and change your life and the lives of others around you, then nothing is more powerful than being humble enough to admit that you don’t have all the answers.

We were told, “If you approach most situations with a cynical mind, believing that there is nothing you can learn, determined to find fault or criticism, then I have no doubt that you will be successful in your aim. But what else will you have gained? Instead, by choosing humility, you open your mind to the possibility of learning something that will make you more powerful.”

The speaker shared this story of Jimi Hendrix, who used this humble approach to fuel his desire to become a legendary rock guitarist. His manager claims that he once spent a whole night in a club listening to a guitar player who was charitably referred to as “the worst guitar player in the history of the planet Earth.” When his manager asked why he wanted to stay to listen to the noise, Hendrix coolly replied, “So far, this is bad, but he might just play something that has never been played before. If he does – I want to be here to learn from it.”

The person who shared this wisdom? Sir Richard Branson.

High expectations

One of my favourite films is ‘My Fair Lady’, which featured Audrey Hepburn playing the ordinary Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. She is plucked from her job and cast as the subject of a bet between Professor Higgins, a wealthy academic, and his friend, Colonel Pickering, that he can take her and pass her off as a duchess amongst London’s high society, merely by refining her speech and dress.

For many years, I have supported a Manchester charity, based in one of Europe’s poorest areas. The charity aims to help young people learn the basic skills of leadership regardless of their background or status. I am frequently reminded of the film’s message when I witness some of the success stories emerging from this inspiring beacon of hope.

After he wins his wager, Higgins treats Eliza with a casual indifference, which leads her to reflect that, “I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he treats me as a flower girl and he always will.” She suggests that, the only real difference between a lady and a humble flower girl is “not how she behaves but how she is treated.” These nine words are critical for all leaders.

Let me explain further…

In the 1960’s, the eminent psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment within schools to test whether the expectations of the teachers had an impact on their pupils’ success. They told the staff that certain children had been identified as being ‘late bloomers’ and were certain to do well in the future. In reality, however, all of these children had been picked completely at random and were no different to the rest of the class.

Without consciously realising it, over the next few months, the teachers began to give these specially identified children more encouragement and praise and allowed them to ask extra questions in the classroom. Incredibly, all of these so-called ‘late bloomers’ then went on to achieve better test scores than the other children in the same class.

What had happened, quite simply, was that by increasing their expectations of the children’s abilities, the teachers had started to encourage the children to behave in a way that transformed their expectations into a reality. In other words, Eliza Doolittle’s claim was proven correct (and has continued to be so on over 400 subsequent occasions when it has been tested since.)

It is a valuable exercise to look closely at your own expectations of people. Do you expect them to be honest, trustworthy and self-motivated or do you not trust them as far you can throw them? The answers to these questions are integral to the results you get.


Carpe Diem! Stand up and be counted! Put your neck on the block! Take the bull by the horns! Grasp the nettle…

When a subject is as rich in metaphors as this, there must be lots to learn about it. Given the obvious importance of courage to successful leadership, it is amazing to note how little coverage it receives. There are loads of books about risk avoidance and management and very little about the positive nature of courage. It’s like going into a bookshop to buy the Joy of Sex and being told that there is nothing on this subject but over twenty different books on reducing impotence. Whilst courage is no guarantee of success, it is obvious that to take action without displaying some sort of bravery is an effective way of preventing success.

So why don’t we see more of it?

A clue is found in one, long word: allodoxaphobia, which is the official name given to the fear of being ridiculed by other people. It is the second most common phobia in the UK (behind our fear of spiders). This means that it is often the easier option to play it safe and behave in a way that means we will fit in and be fully accepted by others and so we hold back from doing and saying what we really want. Courage is vital to break through this fear.

Don’t believe me? I regularly tested it out with a simple experiment on a number of different groups and audiences, of all ages and experience, where I take £10 out of my pocket, hold it up and ask if anyone wants the money. You would think that it would be a no-brainer wouldn’t you? Who would say no to free money?

The outcome is always the same. Silence. Followed by a little more silence, followed by nervous laughter. I even hear people telling their friends to go up and get the money. Eventually someone runs up and grabs the money out of my hand at which point everyone claps and the lucky winner immediately tries to give the money back! Even though it was offered to them with no strings attached.

There is one reason why I am never trampled by a rush of people coming to grab the money. It is that voice in your head (if you are wondering, ‘which voice?’ it’s that one!) which is shouting, ‘it’s an evil trick! If I run up there to collect the money everyone will laugh at me. I don’t understand the game. It can’t be that simple. I will make a fool of myself.’

In short, this is allodoxaphobia in action.

What is courage? My own favourite definition of the word is the original meaning of it, which is:

“To speak your own mind with all your heart”.

It was the Stone Roses singer Ian Brown who once said that.

Leadership isn’t a position. It’s a mindset.


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Professor Damian Hughes


Professor Damian Hughes is a bestselling author who combines his practical
and academic background within sport, organisational development and change psychology, to help organisations and teams to create a high performing culture.

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