Radical Transparent Leadership for Thriving Culture Focused Organisations

Inspired By  Nicola Vague
33 mins

Quick Summary

This is such an insightful chat with Nicola. To create a thriving organisation, leaders and the team really need to know where the business is heading and that everyone is onboard, feeling part of the team, creating the culture together, inspired to come to work bringing the full version of themselves. To lead, you need to have the courage to have the conversations that matter and to constantly be aware of the alignment of the organisation taking the action necessary for the business to thrive.  

New research is now showing the radical practices and cultural transformation necessary to create the accelerated development that has not really be embraced in the past in organisations. Studies are showing these are the practices that really make an impact. 

When we start to access our other areas of intelligence than just the mind, that is where we start to get the shifts in development that is required for great leadership.

I would love to see these practices being brought into organisations but also being embraced by anyone who is open to greater personal potential and fulfilment. Our world would be so different with people doing such simple practices.

Interview by Estée Manning


Nicola is the founder of Evolving Leaders - creating Sustainable High Performance for Senior Leaders and Teams. This is done with a strategic, integrated,holistic and evidence-based approach to wellbeing.

Nicola is a Leadership and Wellbeing Coach, a Team Development Facilitator and a Yoga Nidra Meditation Teacher.

Can you paint a picture of what the ideal workplace looks like after you’ve been working with them? 

Nicola began evolving leaders over 4 years ago with the vision for human organisation. The leaders she works with are across the leadership, culture and wellbeing space. 

In what success looks like, there are a couple of key factors. 

1 - Organisation culture - the knowledge alignment

Everyone in the workplace has a shared understanding of what the desired culture is. This knowledge alignment piece is really important. Sometimes the culture might be determined in a boardroom behind closed doors, but that is not the way Nicola likes to work with her clients. Everyone needs to be involved in what's the culture where everyone feels like they can bring their best selves to work. And that we can provide the best level of service for the customers and clients that you serve.

2 - Behaviour alignment

A longer journey. Everyone needs to be aware of where they are heading and know what the north star is.

We need to make much more transparent and clear the decisions that we make. It's about bringing a much more mindful and conscious awareness when we are moving away from the desired culture that we know is going to create success. It's a delicate balance because we are dealing with human behaviour and so many things get caught up in that. 

3 - The mind-set alignment 

There has to be the belief that the direction we are heading in is actually the right one. People have to want to get on the train. They have to want to get onboard. During cultural transformation journeys some people will want to get on the train and some people won't. 

Leaders have to walk the talk with this. They have to be very aware of the way they are showing up in the environment. The way they are running the team meetings, the decisions they are making, the practices they are putting in place, where they are putting their focus and effort. Leaders have to be very conscious and mindful and not go to an automated old way of doing things. 

How do you keep the alignment on track? Who holds the accountability for that?

With senior leadership, there are regular forums and gatherings to check in around that. There is also the informal day to day things that happen that take us away from the target culture.

For leaders, it's important to have the skills to have those courageous conversations to open up the conversations we often don't want to. 

The other way is a more formal measurement around that through a culture and engagement survey. This is to get a baseline measurement so you can see what is driving the culture and what are the factors that are driving engagement in the organisation. This really helps people feel like they've been heard by making this commentary.

There are a lot people that need to vent before they can open up to what the new way is. This is the vital critical process that needs to happen in this transition. 

Once everyone feels heard, then everyone can come together in designing where they are heading. What is it that matters here and creating that north star. 

It's about bring fun, energy, and creativity into this process. You can use technology, even drawing, symbols and images to get people to start to have a different conversation. To kick off this process of dialogue and dialogue is really important in cultural transformation. 

Culture transformation doesn't happen without creating the space and the environment for people to have this really important dialogue. 

What is really going on in work environments? What do you see as the big problems people coming up against?

We are in a really interesting time in human evolution. Things are rapidly changing. We are operating in an environment that is more complex, more ambiguous, more uncertain than it's ever been across time.

One of the challenges that we see is the level of leadership that we need is currently not at the level that it needs to be to deal with the complexity of this world. We have a gap here. 

There is a normal human developmental level that we all go through. It's on a scale of 0 - 13 and this is called a Lectical Scale. When we are born, we start on 0 and we hit age 13 we arrive at level 10. This level is our ability to process information, make sense of the world and where we arrive at a particular level of consciousness. What happens from then is 60% of the adult population don't continue to grow and evolve. What we know is that the roles in organisations globally across the world occur across this scale from 10 to 13. So entry level position in an organisation requires this level 10 stage of adult development. Whereas a CEO of a multinational requires up to a level 13. There is a really big journey to get from level 10 to 13.

From a leadership development perspective, we've been focusing on increasing the skills and capabilities of leaders but it's not closing this gap. This is what is considered vertical development, not horizontal development. The development that is needed now is this whole person development, this expansion. Asking the bigger questions like 'who am I' and getting back to the core essence of who people are because that's where we start to get the shifts in the stages of development required for leaders. 

Estée: would you say then that it's more emotional maturity and personal development in the sense of your connection to who you are and making decisions from that place? Rather than making decisions from what you think you should do as opposed to what you know is right? 

Nicola: Absolutely. One of the key bits is recognising that we have more than one centre of intelligence... we have 3 centres of intelligence and in some models looking at 4.

The 3 centres of intelligence

  1. Our head which is our insight
  2. Our heart which is our centre for intuition 
  3. Our body which is our centre of instinct

In working with leaders, they have preferences across those centres but there is a dominance of being stuck in the head because we live in a society that values and develops that and that's where the skills and capabilities sit. 

What we now know is that there is a whole lot of potential sitting in every single one of us but we don't access it through those normal ways of learning. We have to develop skills and practices to come into our whole body and to activate and connect with these 3 centres of intelligence. There is no other way to turn up and become a high performing leader without that.

The head area is absolutely valuable but it only takes us so far and it's not what this world needs right now. 

So what are some of those practices that can help develop those other parts of ourselves?

This is a new area of research, there are PHD's being done in this space at the moment. It's early days in knowing what is the fastest pathway to closing the gap between someone who might be at level 11 and level 13. 

People need to be open to self-care around wellbeing. We have the conditions and container right and we have good practices in place in self-care. For example good physical, physiological, emotional wellbeing, spiritual connection or connection to something greater than ourselves and for some people that might mean having a purposeful life. 

One of the things we know is critical is a good self-reflective practice. We need create space to set the intention to reflect. To look back over when did we feel triggered by a particular situation, how are we feeling, stopping and breathing, starting to come into the wisdom of our bodies and build some practices, they're the really great foundation pieces that are really important. 

With the self-awareness piece really starts to kick in we get the right support or coach through self-development programs we set ourselves up to expand horizontally as a whole person to do that. 

Within 5 years we will know with a bit more scientific precision what are the practices that are going to close that gap the quickest so we can more effectively prepare leaders to respond to the challenges in the world today. 

Estée: I find journaling very powerful for me and it is very much a reflective practice. I'll do a bit of a dump of what is happening but then open up the space to allow a deeper truth to come through. It's like there is a deeper wisdom inside and it's beautiful and it can see through the surface level stuff. I find meditation is also a very powerful practice. Is that the kinds of practices that you're talking about?

Yes, all of those reflective practices where we come back to the breath and the body, we slow down, we create some space, we set an intention to sit in stillness. We can't develop and move forward through just keeping on doing and thinking. We have to create that space and practices to come into feeling and being. 

Estée: What is the difference between men and women in the workspace and what type of support structure women need to men?

Estée: I feel like where the world is at at the moment, there is very much this more intuitive connection happening. It's getting stronger and stronger in both men and women but our business space has been very structured in the past. It is so powerful when you are connected to your intuition. Is that something that you work with for men and women or is it more women?

Nicola: Each of us irrespective of if we are male or female of a combination of masculine and feminine energy within us. A woman can be female in gender but be much more masculine. The masculine is our action, our focus, our doing, our grounding. On the flip side, I may be born a male but have more of the feminine qualities like nurturing, care... 

We are completely out of balance in these energies within ourselves, within our teams, within our organisations and within society. 

The balance in society and organisations is much more weighted towards the masculine. The doing, we don't stop and reflect, we're reactive and get on with the next thing.

The work that needs to be done in organisations is supporting and nourishing this feminine energy and how we bring that in. That work needs to be done with both men and women. Whether we like it or not, the societal roles that we play for women, in general, have an impact on their needs in the workplace. Women are primary cares and that context creates a bit of a different picture for women in workplaces. We can work with both men and women but we also have this great opportunity to be having programs just for women in organisations. Women are still under-represented across the board in senior leadership positions and some of the needs for women are different and we need to acknowledge this. 

Women are more open at a body level so they are more able to access these other bodily centres. There could be a theory that we could actually utilise women based on that. Creating a power house of creating cultural transformation from accelerating the development of women within organisations. 

Estée: What does that look like? 

It's about intentionally designing workplaces that work for women. When we design intentionally with the women in workplace then we will create workplaces that work for everybody. 

Estée: WOW, I love that. Especially getting them involved, everyone has something to contribute and that's where everyone can come together and create that. 

That's become one of Nicola's commit over time is to interview 100's of women in organisations and start to understand what needs to happen and the design of the work experience to truly create an environment where women can thrive and lead that work and everyone else will benefit. 

Estée: On some level do people need to be doing personal development? How can you introduce it as an empowering practice?

With a recent client, one of the things at the centre of the culture transformation was that everyone is a leader. Leadership is a mindset and a behaviour, not just a role. That's a really good place to start looking at what is your north star, what are the expectations... Then some people are not interested or it's too painful to contemplate doing the work. Work is different things to different people and we have to honor and respect those differences and preferences but we have to balance that with creating a thriving workplace and what that looks like.

To create a thriving workplace there needs to be an uplifting personal awareness. 

There is not a one size fits all so they may need to go elsewhere where they can show up as it works for them to show up. 

What are 3 of the most powerful daily habits that a leader can do to support themselves?

  1. Starting the day with a little time for themselves. That will be different things for different people. It might be a walk, a meditation, sitting down and having a cup of coffee and just being with yourself for 5 minutes. This leads into the next point. 
  2. Set your intention - What’s your intention for how you want to show up today?
  3. Know what personally nourishes you as a leader. Get really clear about this and make some time and space everyday to do something that nourishes you. It could be a podcast for someone, it could be a whole host of different things. 

Are there any books you'd recommend to people to read? 

Book recommendations (top 5 in bold);

  1. Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

  2. Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  3. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future by Margaret J. Wheatley
  4. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... And Others Don't by Jim Collins 
  5. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges by C. Otto Scharmer
  6. The Possible Human: A Course in Enhancing Your Physical, Mental, and Creative Abilities by Jean Houston
  7. Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization by Diana Whitney
  8. The New Leadership Paradigm by Richard Barrett 
  9. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World by Ronald A. Heifetz 
  10. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good) by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
  11. Falling in Love with Where You Are: A Year of Prose and Poetry on Radically Opening Up to the Pain and Joy of Life by Jeff Foster
  12. The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron
  13. Rise Sister Rise: A Guide to Unleashing the Wise, Wild Woman Within by Rebecca Campbell
  14. The Undervalued Self: Restore Your Love/Power Balance, Transform the Inner Voice That Holds You Back, and Find Your True Self-Worth by Elaine N. Aron
  15. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett

What is one of the most powerful questions a leader can ask themselves?

One of the things that we haven't covered that I'd like to briefly touch on before I answer that question.

There was a study that was done through Google called the Aristotle project which was done back in 2016. Over a 2 year period utilising data from 180 teams, plus 50 years of historical data around what are the attributes that contribute to high performing teams, thriving happy teams. They identified 250 attributes across this study. The interesting thing was what the number 1 was.

The number 1 factor that is a predictor of team performance is psychological safety. That team members feel safe to take risks and to show up as who they are. 

This is huge. In context to this, there are two questions that leaders need to ask themselves;

The First question has to do with this psychological safety within the team and this is a question that would be worthwhile asking yourself every single day. 

How am I creating an environment where my team feels safe to take risks and show up as who they are?

The second question is about personal reflection time.

Who am I beyond this position? Beyond the roles that I play of parent, partner, friend, brother, sister... 

The third question.

How am I showing up in every moment and am I show up in the best possible version of myself in this moment?

Is there anything else you'd like to share in this interview?

It's been a wonderful opportunity to share the work that I love. It's a long journey, an important journey. I am really here to support leaders to become the best possible versions of themselves and to know how to operate in this different environment. How to best respond in an environment that is ambiguous, complex and uncertain. I feel honoured to work with leaders and organisations to do that work. 

Where can people find you?

You'll find me on;

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicola-vague-founder-evolving-leaders-b1384318/

Website http://www.evolvingleaders.com.au/

Feeling Inspired? Use the notes functionality to answer these questions

How am I creating an environment where my team feels safe to take risks and show up as who they are? 

Who am I beyond this position? Beyond the roles that I play of parent, partner, friend, brother, sister... 

How am I showing up in every moment and am I show up in the best possible version of myself in this moment?

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