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The real value of privilege-led leadership

When it comes to being a leader open to understanding and influencing real moments of change, Kemi Nekvapil believes connection is the single-most powerful factor. The qualified executive, personal coach and renowned speaker shares her thoughts on how organisations can shape daring leaders and courageous cultures.

Many people will know Kemi Nekvapil as a woman with an influential voice, but for a few lucky people, they will find her to be someone so real, so relatable, they might feel as though they have met her before. Perhaps they met her at a social function, maybe she ran beside them at a charity event – but they feel as though she has walked beside them, silently cheering them on and supporting them in their moments of self-doubt.

In her career, Kemi has been referenced as the sword of kindness and it’s easy to understand why. Kemi believes connection is the single-most powerful factor when it comes to being authentic – to becoming a leader and influencing real moments of change.

England-born Kemi is a credentialed executive and personal coach, renowned speaker and facilitator, actor, and author, who later immigrated to Australia and today lives in Melbourne with her husband and two teenage children.

Kemi studied leadership and purpose at The Gross National Happiness Centre (Bhutan), trained with TED X speaker and leading researcher Brene Brown, and has spent more than 25 years working across the wellness industry with a focus on supporting organisations to shape daring leaders and courageous cultures.

Kemi believes there is a definable process that any leader can adopt which can help them to experience a more meaningful connection with themselves, to their work, their families, and communities.

“Great leaders know three things...Firstly, they know themselves and what they value,” Kemi said. “Secondly, they realise that they need to foster true and meaningful connections, and lastly, they have learned how to draw out the unique contribution of others.”

Kemi said leaders always needed to be open to understanding what was happening in other people when they enter the room.

“From being a coach, I need to understand that I am creating a space for others to show up, and if they do, they bring a whole world into the room with them,” Kemi said. “Every single person comes with their own culture, hurts, learned behaviours, values, beliefs and uncertainties.

“In that space I need to be transparent about all those noises, and the only way to do that is to share what’s happening with me. By doing that, others let their walls down. They show up too.”

Kemi said the practice of being present required energy which was why it was so important for leaders to keep filling their cup and restoring their energy reserves. Authenticity, choice, accountability, connection, trust, vulnerability – all important words, but used as values in action, these words lend themselves to truly rewarding roads.

“If you are reading this piece, you were possibly born with some sort of privilege,” she said. “It might be hard to see sometimes but it’s true and power comes from choosing how you want to use that privilege.

“Being able to self-analyse suggests you’re already on your pathway to understanding your unique value.”

Kemi speaks from a place that feels inexplicably raw and you cannot help but feel drawn to whatever lifeforce propels her with such conviction.

“All leaders whether they are self-confessed, unsure, emerging, proven; they all need to own what they are good at, and equally what they are not good at, and finally, their areas for self-development,” Kemi said.

“Self-development is hard work. It can be very hard to look at yourself sometimes and feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. To embark on a journey where you do not feel safe or confident…The trick here is to get comfortable in thinking, ‘This is going to be hard. This is going to be challenging. I might have to question who I am within myself and in the workplace’.”

Kemi believes the most challenging and rewarding moment for a leader is when they realise they need to be themselves fully, and at that point understand their unique privilege and how it will shape their leadership style.

“For me as a woman of colour navigating mostly white spaces, it is sometimes challenging,” Kemi said.

“On the outside, I saw and was told that leadership often looked like a bunch of white men wearing suits.

“I remember working as a head chef in England. My race didn’t play a card in me getting the role, but race was absolutely an issue for someone I worked with.

“My kitchenhands were mainly male and Mexican, and we supported each other. I remember someone of a higher position to me saying one night, ‘they don’t get bottled water’…This person saw me as their equal but not the other members of our team.

“As my revenge I would say, ‘Manuel, go get the bottled water’. That was my rebellion. Looking back, it was my way of balancing the power and neutralising some of that toxicity. I was being a leader in my own way. I chose to use my unique value – to use my culture and gender, my privilege, from a place of understanding to connect with my colleagues.”

Core values are often hard for people to define and Kemi said the secret to uncovering these was to be a fly on the wall.

“I have worked with The Hunger Project who is known for their commitment to growing communities,” Kemi said. “They know their values, they enact their values, and inspire others to do the same.

“Their model is all about removing the ‘white saviour’ to solve all the issues of the developing world. They focus on working with village partners and ask them what their vision and commitments are.

“One man said he wanted a metal roof for his community rather than banana leaves as when the rain came it meant the children got sick and couldn’t go to school. The team then asked what their commitment to the vision was and what actions needed to be taken to fulfil that.”

Kemi said some people value putting food on the table – they might live in a slum or it might be a family living comfortably but as long as the commitment to the vision was there, that was a value to be proud of.

“After realising that you have what you need it’s about asking, what you can do for others and this will lead to greater engagement and connections for all,” she said.

“If you’re not willing to walk into a room with your team and talk with them for as long as it takes, then you’re not really leading. If you’re not willing to learn how your team is feeling all you will see is destructive behaviour. Try and be a fly on the wall and ask yourself if you are leading with purpose and following your real values.

“And remember to ask ‘how’. If you ask your team how you could support them better they might say things like they want to feel they can knock on your door or they want you to take them to meet a new client. Asking what your team needs from you is always more efficient and more rewarding than guessing what your team needs from you. Ask.”

Kemi has seen businesses push out surveys that came back saying that some 70 per cent of employees felt disconnected or disengaged.

“The solve should have been simple,” she said. “If they had followed up with the question, ‘how can the business or leader support you better’, the pathways would have been clearer.

“Avoid asking ‘why’ as sometimes people will feel they need to defend or justify their answer. Instead go for the more open-ended ‘how’ so they have more space to think about their feelings.”

When asked about the best piece of advice she has ever received, Kemi said, ‘Imagine if Bruce Springsteen wanted to be Whitney Houston…How confusing would that be,” she said with a laugh.

“If you compare or try to be someone else, you will never be happy and you will never lead fully,” Kemi said.

“We love musicians and artists for just being themselves – for being something different and leading in their own unique way. Leaders are the same; while also being open to feedback and growth, we need to be clear in our leadership styles and when we are, the others will come.”

To catch Kemi, make sure you sign up for the Shape 2021 Conference where she will take to the stage again as a keynote speaker following the success of her recent talk with RSCA members.

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