Leadership, Performance and the Value of Mentors - a Q&A with Danica Murphy

The Learn From Leaders site features the collective wisdom and ideas of proven and everyday leaders across a wide range of disciplines. It’s a brilliant site built on the belief that leadership can be fostered throughout society by using the insights and stories of leaders among us. Danica is delighted to be featured there and as part of her profile piece she did an interview which you can read below.

What do you need to perform at your best? 

With the right balance of fear, fun and focus, I perform at my best.  From my background in psychology and neuroscience, I understand how important these conditions are for performance. 

‘Fear’ means doing something outside my comfort zone; this stretch releases noradrenaline in the brain. 

‘Fun’ is having curiosity and competency with what I am doing to release dopamine in the brain. 

‘Focus’ is being able to prioritise to release acetylcholine in the brain.

How do you encourage creative thinking within you or your client's organisations? 

Mining intellectual curiosity and growth mindset in myself means that I am always researching, inquiring and exploring to find new ways to bring inspiring concepts to life for my clients. Being brave enough to work through new concepts with clients and learn together is exciting for me, the client and anyone participating in the process.

Do you have mentors? 

I have a board of mentors to help steward and challenge me. I reach out to a particular mentor based on the item that I am trying to work through. For example, I have used my mentors in relation to life balance, professional growth, market positioning and legacy/succession planning.

They have proven invaluable in their ability to quiet any self doubt, properly help scope/define issues or challenges, and constructively generate solutions- taking into consideration their own profession and life experiences.

What is the one challenge you see leaders commonly dealing with?

Not having a team or forum for honest and challenging debate and reflection is a challenge that I see for so many senior leaders.  Leaders fail to recognise the unconscious impact that “being the boss” has on them and their teams.

Have you ever been professionally stuck? How did you become unstuck? 

Yes I have, particularly when things are out of balance with life and work. I have experienced feeling a sense of failure and being brought to tears doing the same old thing without having the energy or spark behind it.

This is where my mentors have become so invaluable. It takes courage to admit “I’m stuck and I need support”.  Having people around me who can listen, provide honest feedback and provide advice is critical for me to become unstuck. Practically speaking, the other thing that has worked very well is being assigned or winning a complex, challenging project where being stuck will result in failure.  It gives me a compelling case to unstick myself, regain curiosity, ask for input, collaborate and get the productive ball rolling again.

What qualities do you believe are the most important to be a leader? If not all these qualities come naturally, do you have any tips on how to cultivate them?

There are so many.  Confidence - the belief in oneself.  Resourcefulness – to understand what and who is required.  A commitment, passion and hard-working approach. Emotional Intelligence – to have self-awareness, be able to empathise with others and to be able to empower others.   Resilience – to be able to pick yourself up after set backs.

My advice is to remain open to learning, self-development, coaching and mentorship.  Leadership requires constant mental exercise and learning.

If you had to name three characteristics of great leaders what would they be? 

Self awareness; when leaders are aware of their own tendencies and behaviour and the impact they have on people around them.

Smart; it’s important for leaders to be smart enough to know their industry enough to know what they do not know, and bring others in around them who do.

Brave; leaders have to make the difficult decisions required to navigate a complex environment and have difficult conversations, holding the line in terms of standards and integrity at all times

What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, people, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader? 

5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

Turn the Ship Around by Captain Marquet  (TedTalk/google talk as well as books)

Good to Great by Jim Collins (older but still so relevant)