Developing purposeful leaders

Kelly Doonan
8 min readJul 7, 2017


Session transcript from #WAOdigital Developing and Improving Digital Leadership seminar: June 2017

This session is about my understanding around what it means to be a good digital leader.

I’m going to talk about my journey and my experience as a leader to frame this.

The journey I’m taking you through represents about two years of my life and we only have an hour so it’s worth being mindful of the limitations, but it will be interesting to see where we get to.

What is a good digital leader?

I was a good digital leader. What did that look like? What was I doing?

[discussion + flip chart]

I was doing all of these things:

Going to GDS events, part of LocalGovDigital and running a session at an unconference, unmentoring, introducing colleagues to Trello, Slack, Whatsapp, hacks and jams, digital surgeries, getting people on Twitter, user research and testing, agile, experimenting…

So based on all these things I was doing I started to think about what my purpose was. I started to think about my ‘why’. So based on all the ‘what’ we identified here — what would be a good why for a digital leader?

[discussion + flip chart]

Sounds good? This is where I was.

But something wasn’t right. And about 18 months ago I had an experience which gave me real cognitive dissonance — a clunking moment.

Our senior social care leaders believed that were doing too many adult social care assessments which was costing too much money. They decided that a way to manage this would be to have an online self-assessment tool — citizens could answer 10–14 questions about things they could do and things they struggled with and an algorithm would give them a semi-personalised response about support available locally. Leaders had purchased a software package to do this and had made all these decisions without any user research. I imagine everyone here is familiar with restrictions like this around a piece of work.

We decided that the software simply wouldn’t meet user needs based on our knowledge of users from similar pieces of work. We decided to change the schedule to build in user testing time and to not use some of the software and build our own solution. We got support from a senior manager for our approach and we did it. We believed we were taking the smart risk and it paid off. Social care officers saw the huge value in the user testing and how much difference it made to finished product, we got really positive feedback about the product, we were nominated for, and won, an award!

It was a huge success.

Except I didn’t feel that. After the launch everything went back to the way it was before. And I realised that I was troubled because there was no organisational learning; why had we had to break the rules? What could we learn? What was it telling us? How do we improve and do better next time?

I started asking questions. These questions. I just want you to hold this in your mind for a few moments — have you asked similar questions?

I felt like the purpose I worked to for being a good digital leader wasn’t right. It wasn’t working for me. I started doing some research and some study. I wanted to understand what was going on.

I came to the realisation that I’d been working to a defacto purpose — a purpose that resulted from what I was doing; rather than doing things that flowed from my purpose. I worked on understanding my real purpose. This process has been going on for about 18 months. I got feedback from friends, colleagues, family members; I found new people to talk too, I started reading and studying, I did a course on career and purpose and started to think about what I had done that I was proudest of? When had I felt most completely authentic?

My purpose

So eventually I got to this. It’s not perfect; it definitely needs more work, but it’s starting to articulate what I feel my real purpose is. What reflects the work I’ve done where I feel most authentically me, what keeps me awake at night, my real why.

So there’s a disconnect. Between my defacto purpose and my real purpose. That was my clunking.

I also understand that I was starting in the wrong place. Digital is not a purpose. Having a strategy is not a purpose. I needed to start at why.

Why is purpose important?

Because you can’t build momentum if you don’t know where you’re going. And you can’t measure success if you haven’t already defined what success looks like. If you want to look in to this more it’s covered brilliantly by Stephen R. Covey in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Greg McKeown in Essentialism — McKeown’s book is really helpful because it helps you to think about once you’ve established purpose being clear on what you need to do to meet it, and conversely what you need to stop doing. This is a really important point when thinking about freeing up capability to focus on the work that really matters. Also look at Simon Sinek in Start with Why; your why is what other people to connect too.

In the serendipitous way these things often happen, a couple of weeks ago I overheard an older man in café saying that he needed to understand what he wanted to achieve because he needed to feel that he was working to something. He felt that he had limited time. He said that if he didn’t know why he was doing something he would waste time.

You’ve heard something of my journey. I want to ask you about your purpose. Obviously this took me about 18 months so far, so all I want to do today is ask you what pops in to your head when you see this question. Turn to your neighbour and just share with them what is in your head.

[discussion and flip chart]

So now I’ve started in purpose — my why — that takes me to the what. What do I need to do as a leader to meet that purpose? Are any of the things the same from the left side? What I do needs to meet purpose. What I do shows people what I really believe — it shows people my why.

I found a really useful framework which has helped me to understand the what.

Power bases

These are power bases. Coercion is getting people to do what you want through implicit or explicit threats — can be bullying. Reward is using your ability to give or withhold a reward for behaviour you want. These two are also known as carrot and stick and are used heavily in most organisations. Connexion power is I know people and can you link them to you, or do as I ask because I know the chief exec. Legitimate power is I AM the chief exec. This is the one where you are expected to have power because the role you occupy.

Referent is charm — this is how likeable you are and is also linked to trust and integrity. Very powerful when used with other powerbases — think of a leader with legitimate power who also has strong referent power. Information power is about having knowledge and being able to help others gain that knowledge. And expert is obviously I am the expert in the room. The trick with this one is that you have to maintain expert status — so this is why professors and scientists are always studying and publishing new things.

Legitimate power is the one that can make change happen. Legitimate power is the CEO, the Head of, Director of. Someone who is able to act systemically — to make change on the system. And if I want to meet my purpose that’s where I need to be.

And this understanding about legitimate power and the way the system works has led me to do different things. The most radical is that I had to change my job. I couldn’t meet purpose in my existing role; and I never would. Once I understood that it was clear that I had to move in to a role that would give me access to legitimate power — that would help me to meet my purpose. I’m becoming an expert in a systems thinking methodology — and that will be a learning course for the rest of my life — which is building my expert power. I’m studying the current system and understanding what it is doing and helping others to see this — which is building my information power. I’m building relationships with current leaders and building my connexion power there.

So now I have my purpose; my why. From that I understand my what and the consequence from all that is that I know that, for me, it’s not about being a good digital leader, I need to be a good purposeful leader. And what I also understand is that this is a learning cycle that will continue. It’s a continuous loop of development as a leader.

Share your thoughts in the comments — I’d love to have a chat.

Find me on Twitter @allyblue22



Kelly Doonan

Learning out loud. Thoughts on living a better life and learning how I can make the world a little bit better. @allyblue22