Leadership re-defined from a human-centered perspective – A conversation with Farah Hussain

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Farah Hussain is the Managing Director at Farah Hussain Coaching and Training in London, England. With over 30 years of experience as a coach and trainer, Farah offers services such as executive coaching, leadership development, diversity & inclusion, corporate training, management consulting, career development coaching, and team building. These services are targeted at individuals and businesses that are seeking to refine their leadership skills. In this podcast, she shares her experiences as a leadership coach and trainer with Jo. 

To see all episodes, please go to our CONVERSATIONS page.

Personal profile

Linkedin: /in/farah-h-02884b7

Which researcher – dead or alive – do you find inspiring?  Dr. Kamran Arshad; he is a Professor and Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at Ajman University. As a leader, his approach to life and his work is flowing with deep humility and respect. He is an incredible role model.      

What is your favorite animal and why? – My favorite animal is the dog – especially the Shih Tzu – they’ve such big adorable eyes to die for and are so loving. 

Name your (current) favorite song and interpret/group/musician/artist. – My favorite song is ‘You to me are everything‘ by the ‘Real Thing‘, they’re a British UK Soul band of the 70s – when that song is on, wherever I am anywhere, I can’t help but sing and dance along.

Photo Credit: Farah Hussain ‘Mountain Climbing’

What is your favourite dish? -My favourite dish is the Malaysian dish – Beef Rendang… It’s full of rich spices and cooked so tenderly, the meat melts in your mouth!

Photo: Farah’s garden

“Creating positive change is the best way to test whether a person can lead well…and everyone deserves to be led well.” – John C. Maxwell

References (related research articles)


Jo: Hey, and welcome to Access 2 Perspectives Conversations again. Today we’re here with Farah Hussain, who runs her own company as Farah Hussain coaching and training. Welcome very much, Farah. It’s lovely to have you here. 

Farah: Hi, Jo, it’s great to be here. 

Jo: Thanks for joining us. And everyone today we will talk about leadership and what leadership means for academics and how you can grow into a leadership position and how you can acquire skills for yourself and your team if you anticipate to have your own research group later on and first year as an expert with loads of experiences, mostly, but not exclusively from the corporate world, from what I understand. But please tell us about yourself, how you got into leadership training and what leadership means to you generally. Has the term the definition of leadership changed for you over time? That’s what I’d like to hear and share with our business. 

Farah: Sure Jo, first of all, thank you so much for inviting me to be on this podcast. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, haven’t we? And we’re finally doing it, which is really exciting. So let me tell you a little bit about myself then. I’ve been working in corporate organizations and public sector organizations for the best part of 30 years and I got into leadership. My first company was called Leadership Development Ltd, where I was selling leadership courses, can you believe? And I had amazing trainers who were leadership gurus, traveling all over the world and selling. In those days, they were on CDs and they were on cassettes, so they were selling their quarters. And my role was…yes, 

Jo: I remember the times .

Farah: Yeah, I even bought some of those. They seem so archaic now. So I got exposed to the training world of leadership through some of the work that people in this company did. After I graduated, that was my first job. I didn’t stay there for a very long time, but I landed this amazing job and it was for a public sector organization and I had the most amazing manager and he was my first manager and I didn’t know anything really about leadership, no definitions, what it actually meant. All I knew was how I was being treated. And this manager, I was so fresh out of uni, wanted to change the world. He basically set a challenge for me where I had to train our chief execs and all the directors within about four weeks time. In a very, very short space of time, he sent me on a Training for Trainers course. I was petrified. You can imagine, never having done anything like that. Obviously, we did small presentations at university, but nothing of this level, and it was all on our policies and procedures within that organization. I went on to this course and said to him, I don’t think I’m ready, I don’t believe I can do this. And he said, yes, you can. Looking back, especially with all the knowledge and experience that I’ve gained, I really believed that he was the best leader that I could ever have had. And one of the key qualities that stood out for him was that he believed in me. He challenged me, but in a very, very supportive way, always having my back. And also he skilled me up with the technical skills that I needed in order to deliver this course to very senior people. I felt I was out of my depth, but he was there metaphorically holding my hand. And when we were in meetings, he would always create a space to advocate for me, which these days we call that inclusive leadership, where we create opportunities for people to be their own spokesperson. We cultivate situations for people to be able to shine. And I just felt so, so supportive, which really helped to build a lot of confidence so early on in my career. Now, I stayed with that organization for a few years, and sadly, that experience of being managed in such a powerful and fantastic way was quite short lived. I had managers who, because I had such a fantastic gold standard experience, I was able to compare and contrast other managers. I really fell short of the kind of qualities and traits that he had. And my journey was a journey which was, I would say, slow, but at the same time I knew what I needed to do, but I didn’t always have the training and support. I know from lots of corporate organizations. They don’t necessarily put the kind of budget that’s needed to really grow the leadership skills for people. So here I was, having gained some fantastic positive experiences and some negative experiences and imbuing both the positive and negative and developing my role as a manager. As I went through my career working in private sector organizations, I was managing teams. And I have to say that my best lessons of becoming a better leader actually came from adversity and difficult situations where I believe that I failed. And I’ll give you an example. One of my managers said to me, Farah, I need you to deliver a training session. It was our team, and I was new to this team as well. And in my head, if I had to break down what I was thinking, it was, I have to perform. It was, I have to know all the answers. I have to be better than everybody else. So I put so much pressure on myself, and I was pumping myself up to be bigger than I actually was. And in the process of doing that, I was losing my true self. And he gave me some feedback and he said, Farah, you don’t need to do this. You just need to be yourself. And that was when I felt embarrassed. I felt humiliated. The presentation didn’t go that well. And here I was, a manager of some of the people who were in the team. But that was such an important lesson to help me to just be my authentic self. Now, that hasn’t happened all the time, but I practiced at it and I practiced on a conscious level, which has really made the difference. And part of that process is and we hear about authentic leadership and that is tapping into accepting yourself and allowing yourself to be imperfectly, perfect. How many times have we heard that before? 

Jo: So yeah, Farah authenticity. When I heard that before, like, until a couple of years ago, I never knew what that really means. And when you said that, you were told and then also eventually you were able to embrace your authentic self as a leader, how does that turn out? And what was the transition from thinking, okay, this is how leaders should look and act, like, towards just being you and then still managing to lead and be respected in your position. 

Farah: It certainly wasn’t an overnight thing at all, Jo, and it was a work in progress. But one of the things that really stands out for me is that I was willing to make myself vulnerable, which means that I was willing to take risks. And part of that is to be prepared to lay myself there, so to speak. And I’ll give you an example of that. So when I was with my team members, I would actually say, we’ve got this project. It’s a really tight deadline at this moment in time. I’m not sure exactly what needs to be done. Now, before I would have thought what I have to say is go in with a plan that I believe is going to be right and then tell people that plan. But here I’m actually letting people know that I don’t know all the answers, I don’t have all the solutions of how to get from A to B, and we’re going to work on this together. So it felt risky, but whenever I’ve done it, I’ve really felt that it’s paid dividends. And what it’s done is I think it’s made me just feel that I’m just more human. And when I do that, it kind of gives people permission also to make errors or mistakes because we’re human beings, at the end of the day, we’re not robots. So naturally we’re going to slip up, there’s going to be blips. And part of that process of me moving towards becoming more and more authentic is being prepared to take those risks and to be really open and honest and just communicate that in a really upfront way with my team members. And then it just makes everybody feel more relaxed. So, hey, let’s work on this together and then I feel relaxed as well. But it really has to start with the leader. The leader has to be prepared to take the risk, to take the first step and to be accepting of the fact that things, you know, don’t come out perfect and shiny and new with all straight edges. There’s going to be bumps along the way. So, yeah, as I was saying, it wasn’t an overnight process, Joe, at all. It was something that was a work in progress. But what I did do, I did this consistently. And the more consistently I did it, the more natural it began to feel that I could say, hi guys, we’re at our meeting. We got X percentage of targets to reach by this by the end of the quarter. I’ve got some ideas, I’m open to ideas from yourselves, let’s work on this together. So I would open it up to the floor. So this really ties in with the definition. I mean, there’s so many different definitions out there and it’s not a definition that I hold onto or I’ve written it out, but the words that come to my mind, Jo, around what a really great leader is, or what leadership that starts off with what leadership is. It’s about being able to influence other people in a way that enables them to continuously learn and grow. And when I think of that, I’m somebody who has arrived and not even arrived because I’m constantly on this journey, I’m constantly learning and being open to growth. It’s only in that place of learning and growth and reflection do I start improving. So the more I gain knowledge and I’m able to reflect and integrate that I’m then able to improve. So if I can do that as a leader, to influence others to learn and grow, then that’s going to impact on performance, it’s going to impact on relationships, it’s going to impact on team morale, it’s going to impact on productivity.

Jo: Sorry to interrupt, these are all measurable indices. 

Farah: Yeah, absolutely. 

Jo: Our leadership is expected to head towards but it’s not funny that he said it. But now that you said it. I remember the people that I respected most are those that were most approachable and as you said. Admitted that they don’t know everything is also in speeches. Like when researchers said instead of claiming. Oh. We’ve done so much research. Which most actually did. And then we found this and this. And then pretending as if they knew everything about the topic. But what’s not only charming. But also honest and humble and also a matter of research integrity is when scientists say. Well. There’s so many other questions and we didn’t do this experiment because ABC and here are a lot of things that we’re still not sure about and even if the results that we see are like we can’t be 100% sure but that’s also research but let me not divert to another. So this is basically honesty approachability but also back to leadership when also the superior person so to say, admits that he or she doesn’t know everything, doesn’t have all the answers. That’s when I felt most safe and you said relax because then we can tackle a challenge as a team and collaborators and in a cooperative manner rather than executing demands.

Farah: I think what I found is that it actually builds trust between myself and my team members and that’s one of the biggest gifts that you can have which really bonds you and enables cooperation and collaboration to take place. But you know, it’s something that I had to work on because my self esteem was really low and I had to do a lot of work on myself. So in order for me to be able to come to that stage where I continually remain authentic I’ve got to keep working on myself because sometimes, you know, certain situations can pull me back. So I want to be really true to myself and true to my team, keep showing up for them because I’m responsible for them as a leader as well. They’re just not my team members. Well, they’re responsible for themselves but I’m also responsible for them. I’ll have their back just like my first manager had my back. And I want people to feel that and experience that. That just for me helps to build trust. But one of the key things is, and I’ve done a lot of work and I know that you can relate to this, Jo, is to learn about myself. Because when you learn about yourself, that’s when you grow. And in order to lead others you need to first of all know about yourself. And so I’ve done a fair bit of work on myself. Learning the strengths is easy. We all like to hear lovely things about what we’re good at but the weaknesses or the areas which require development can feel a bit cringey and make us feel a bit embarrassed. But I confronted those sometimes through psychometric tools. There is the Fings one, the Insights Personality tool which is based on different color energies or you get the Myers Brigg as well. And there’s the Disc and lots of other types of tools that measure personality which highlight not only the strengths but also the weaknesses and also the blind spots and being confronted, whether it’s the form of a report of what my blind spots are and also sharing them with the rest of my team, which is what I’ve done. I shared my reports openly and sat down one to one with my team members. So I had their reports, they had my reports and so we really kind of laid ourselves there in terms of our personality preferences and we were able to ask questions on what we could do in order to work better together, knowing that we may have a predisposition towards making decisions in a particular way or communicating in a particular way. And that was so, so good. But it wasn’t easy to do. I’ll tell you now that I’m over that I would encourage everybody to do that, but it does feel very scary to kind of open yourself up to your team members. I came across something really interesting, and this is by one of the prolific leadership authors, John Maxwell. He shared an example of somebody coming onto one of his courses and saying, I don’t really think that you should share your weaknesses with your team. And he was challenging John Maxwell on this. And then John Maxwell said, your team already knows your weaknesses. I thought that was amazing. And he said, the key is the team needs to know that you know your weaknesses, and that’s where the power lies. 

Jo: Yeah, that’s the case in the hallway by the coffee machine. Usually the team will talk about the weaknesses for sure, because there’s also a way to vent, it’s a way to cope with bad leadership, and it’s not helpful for the team spirit at all or for the product team. 

Farah: Yeah, but when the leader knows their own weaknesses and says, look, hey, my hands are up, I need to improve on my time keeping, I need to improve on my organization skills, I need to improve on X, Y and Z. Then the team gets inspired knowing that the leader wants to improve and to be good for them. And that’s really powerful. 

Jo: I think that’s massive. Yeah, it’s interesting how they say that knowing the weaknesses of not only the team leader but also every team member, allows the team to compensate for the weaknesses by delegating the task appropriately to everybody’s kind of best performance and therefore ensure success for the project. And it’s not also how societies work at another level, like where we have professionals and different disciplines and different professions being responsible for certain tasks which they are good at. I think it’s a natural law in a sense. 

Farah: I tend to agree with that, Jo. I think there’s a lot to be said for strength based jobs. The people are actually working to their strengths, but at the same time, having the ability to be able to adapt, to do other areas of work which might require different skills, it might require a greater amount of effort. So sometimes you might need people in the team to do other areas of work because people are short staffed. So people need to have that ability to be able to adapt and be flexible. But at the same time, people’s strengths are recognized so that the team can actually excel because people within the team are working to their strengths. 

Jo: Yeah, what I’m also asking people in my team, like constantly encouraging and reminding them of it. They usually start off with a certain set of tasks, which is just those that need to be done, those they sign up for. But I always encourage them also to think further, to see, look around what else is needed to be done in the organization, to see what they would like to learn and where they would like to test their skills and improve their skills.

I think I read this somewhere and I felt like that makes sense. And I think I’m already doing that to some degree where leadership is about bringing up more leaders, like empowering the team members to be the next generation of this generation of leaders. And not too well, maybe also to take our seats eventually because that’s what many state leaders are really bad at. But eventually we’ll have to free our seats and somebody else needs to be fit for the job or fit enough to grow into the job rather than in that sense, like I said, it’s about empowering people to be the best part. 

Farah: I use to run talent development programs. And one of the things that I would always say to the managers is that you have to identify managers in your team who are going to be your successors. And if every manager was doing that at every tier. Then what we’re doing is we’re building up not only a pipeline. But a succession pool of people to be successful and to move to higher positions. But that can make people feel vulnerable. That provided an organization is providing them with the right skill set. The right climate and the right environment for those leadership skills to be harnessed and to grow in the right environment. I think it is really key. 

Jo: Yeah, I agree. I would like to go back to what you said in the beginning when you mentioned that you were given space by your team leader at the time. How do you create space for others to.. what’s an example from maybe a board meeting where you have a junior staff member and then how do you give them the stage to make them feel they have power for the moment and also to grow into themselves.

Farah: I think preparation and planning is key. People know when board meetings are coming up and mentoring team members in preparation so that they’ve got the right information at their fingertips as well. And I’ve experienced that leaders aren’t always comfortable in sharing information. Sometimes it may mean a loss of status or the status will need to be shared somehow that their position will be at risk. And I think it’s so, so important for leaders to create opportunities for people to have and obviously some information is going to be confidential, but to share as much information and to create time for people to be able to absorb that information in preparation for a meeting as well. And part of the creating space actually requires managing the environment as well. And part of that is sitting in a way that doesn’t block off that team member and physically moving the chair away so that the team member can adopt a spotlight, so that spotlight is not being shared by myself. So the chair was on wheels. I would often wheel myself back to give them that actual arena, so the attention was on them. But I would spend time priming them, letting them know the kinds of challenging questions that could come up. I would always, always encourage my team members to say, never ever leave a meeting without asking a question. And I would share the information that I would be sharing with the rest of the team or the board and ask them, where do you think you might be able to contribute based upon the work that you’ve been doing? So coaching them, asking them powerful questions like what could be something of relevance that they could contribute that could have an impact, and move the meeting forward based upon the subject matter. So creating opportunities for them to start thinking about how they can participate in a meaningful way, what they could contribute, what questions they might be prepared to ask, but also physically creating that space. And also when somebody is asking me the question is deferring to my colleague and to my team member. And I would physically say, well, I’d like to pass on to Jo, because I know Jo’s been working on this far longer than I have. So. Over to you, Jo. And I know that my manager did that for me. And it just makes you feel, oh my gosh, this is so amazing, so empowered, so cared for. And I think this is one of the key things that for me, I really believe that leadership is about compassion. It’s about truly caring for people. And that care comes across in our tonality, it comes across in our gestures, in our body language, in the choice of words that we use. And that helps us to be more authentic and more human as well, Jo and one of the things that I would invite people to do, and on my training courses, whenever I’ve done leadership training courses, is to say, get to know your people. Get to know them where they are at and where they want to get to. And when I say get to know them, it’s where they are at. That’s about finding out about who they are as people. Not just somebody who is the It person, or not somebody who’s the HR manager, but somebody who’s got a family, who’s got relationships, who’s got a dog, who’s got a story. Find out about them on the human level and remember important pieces of information that they share with you that you can then relate to so that you’re building that relationship with your team member, it really goes a long way. But to do that on a consistent basis, finding out about people, but also finding out about people in such a way that shows that you actually value them. Talk about something that they value. Talk and do something that they value. Whether it is somebody needs to go home early to pick up their child or the fact that somebody has got a celebration in their family or somebody’s family member is ill and they need to go and visit them in hospital even before they ask you. Let them know that it’s okay if they need to take a bit of time off to do that. They can make it up at another time. So all those kinds of little things go such a long way to show that you genuinely care about your people. And then we’ve all heard about the law of reciprocity. People cannot help themselves but want to do something nice or good for you. At a very, very basic level. It’s a bit like some of your listeners may be drivers, but when we’re driving down a road and we want to join a main road, we’re always trying to catch the eye of the driver who is approaching to allow them to let us in. And then what tends to happen because they’ve let us in as we’re driving along, we’re then approaching a driver who wants to come in. It softens us, it makes us much more compassionate towards that other driver and then we allow that driver to come in. It’s a very, very small example, but to me it’s a very powerful one and that has a ripple effect in terms of the team and in the organization as well. But it has to start from the leader because the leader can act as the role model. But part of being the role model is saying, look, I’m here learning just as much as you are. But what I’m going to learn, I’m going to make sure that it sticks so I can be the best for you guys and just say that from the position of like, I’m not all together there yet on this, but hey, I’m open to learn from you. 

Jo: Wow, that was beautiful to listen to and I would love to work in your team. We agreed already that we’re going to make turns into a series of podcasts. So I think we can just cut it here for now. There’s so much information and advice and coaching and so much stuff in just this episode alone and there’s more to come. And also as always, so if you’re not listening to this, you will find details in the show notes in the blog post. So people can also contact you directly, right? 

Farah: Sure, yes. We provide coaching and training on leadership and on team building and successful performance both at a senior level and across the organization. 

Jo: And we’ve also worked with researchers who might sometimes think they’re a particular kind of people, but we’re also just humans at the end of the day. 

Farah: But I think researchers are probably, I would say, no different from a lot of middle managers that I’ve seen, middle managers who are very proficient, highly competent, technically in their role get promoted into senior management positions. But very rarely do organizations provide them with the kind of training, support and coaching development that they need to support their team. So you can end up with managers wanting to micromanage because they know what needs to be done. But they don’t know how to inspire others and lead others to be able to be really effective because they’ve never really been trained and also they’re not really doing what they love sometimes as well because of their love. Particularly as researchers is in the research project is really getting down into the detail that’s where their passion lies and they can find themselves either thrusted into a senior role in a professorship role or leading a team of people without having the skill set and I would say the mindset to be able to lead the team effectively and rather than doing what they really love. Which is their passion. They’re now having to put in funding proposals and get involved in all the administrative things. Which takes a lot of time and so they can feel completely exhausted and overwhelmed by the task ahead of them. And I think just as I needed help badly because I would just revert back to type, we can all be in a situation where we all need a little bit of a helping hand. 

Jo: Excellent. Yeah, I think you very much perfectly summarized what I’ve observed and also found as challenges in people I graduated with who then went on the academic career to lead their own research teams. But let’s talk more about ‘how’ tools. I’m sure there’s also a set of tools that you can probably recommend that people can rely on on established tools and procedures and workflows to become our best self as a leader or personable leadership position. And today’s topic was almost all about empathy, compassion for our team, which I would say is another mindset to some extent, which I would think is the foundation for anything technical that follows. Do you agree with that? 

Farah: I would. I mean, I didn’t use the word empathy, but you captured it to me in fairness, Jo, in care. Compassion towards your fellow team members builds trust and helps you to influence relationships, to help people learn and grow so that they can perform to the level that’s required by them and their organizations. It requires humility, open heartedness, and also the desire to learn about oneself, to become aware. The more aware we become of ourselves, reflect on it and we’re able to integrate that new learning into improving ourselves where we’re on the journey to being successful leaders. And leadership comes in all shapes and forms, but I’m sure we can pick that up in the future series that we’re going to be talking about. 

Jo: Yeah, let’s do that. Thanks for today. Farah, welcome back anytime.

Farah: It was my pleasure. Thank you for asking me. Jo, we finally did it. 

Jo: Finally. It’s been on the pipeline for some time. But lucky listeners, here is your show on leadership. So yeah. And be back for more.


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