Rethinking The Definition Of Strategic Leadership

Interview with CEO, Author and Speaker, Cathy Burke


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Last updated: November 20th, 2023

strategic leadership

Last updated: November 20th, 2023

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Meet Cathy Burke. The former Global Vice President and CEO of The Hunger Project Australia and author of Unlikely Leaders, provides a unique lens on strategic leadership.

Inspired by her time spent working with women living in extreme poverty, she believes the ability to lead is inherent in all of us. Despite whatever difficult circumstances we may find ourselves in.

Arielle: Cathy, welcome. We’ve got so much to talk about. It’s really great to meet you, and to have you here.

CB: Thanks so much for inviting me. We’re covering some topics that are personally meaningful to me. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Arielle: Me as well, and I know our readers will be keen to learn about your experiences and your views on leadership. But first, tell us about your background.

CB: Happy to. For those who may not know, THP (The Hunger Project) works to end hunger and poverty and it has at its heart the human component—understanding that humans, particularly those living in hunger, play the leading role to end it, rather than hoping or waiting for an external fix.

All told, I was with THP for 25 years. I was a volunteer for 5 years and then on staff for 20, mainly as CEO of THP Australia (THPA), and then Global VP. As CEO, I ran a small but devoted team that today supports 5 volunteer boards across Australia.

These boards include some of Australia’s most influential business and thought leaders.

While I was CEO, I fostered connections with McKinsey, Commonwealth Bank, Business Chicks and PwC, just to name a few. All of this gave me the opportunity to train corporate leaders in strategic leadership through immersion programmes in South Asia and Africa.

(Related Article: Transformational Leadership: The Ultimate Guide).

These programs also gave THPA another income viable income stream beyond individual giving.

During most of my tenure at THP, women were at the centre of its programs. Last year, I left THPA and started my own consultancy. I mentor, and also run leadership programs for companies of all sizes, with a particular focus on women and millennials.

(Related: Why Is Leadership Important?)

Arielle: Brilliant, thanks. Let’s dive right in.

CB: Great.

Arielle: Not too long ago, leadership coach Lisa Lai published an HBR article on the definition of strategic leadership. She begins with a stark point. That if you ask asked the world’s most successful business leaders what it means to “be strategic,” you’d get millions of different answers. Why is it so difficult to create a singular definition for strategic leadership?

CB: Even I don’t know what the definition is!! Maybe it’s difficult to define because it’s about people (our processes, motivations), and people are complex beings that are hard to label.

Strategy is part art and science, so everyone has their own take on it.

Arielle: By striving for a clear definition, are we boxing ourselves in unnecessarily?

CB: I think so. It’s helpful to have guidelines, but I feel strongly that we should approach leadership—and life, for that matter—expansively.

Things change. What worked for GM in the 80s won’t work for them now.

Arielle: What traits or characteristics do you look for when you develop leaders? Have you observed any trends?

CB: Despite all the studies out there on leadership, I have to say that I don’t think a fixed set of leadership traits or characteristics exists.

To me, that implies you either have it or you don’t. I don’t believe this. I believe everyone has the potential to lead.

It’s an alchemical mix of mission, support and belief that triggers leadership. You might be loud, quiet, Harvard educated or non-literate. All of these factors make no difference to your ability to impact an area that is important to you.

(Related Article: Key Principles Of Strategic Leadership).

Arielle: You mentioned mission as a key leadership instigator. How important is clarity of purpose to coaxing out the strategic leader within?

CB: It is everything. If you don’t have a clear purpose then you won’t be leading, you’ll be wandering in circles, exhausting yourself and others, and never achieve anything.

Arielle: In a 2015 PwC study of 6,000 senior executives, who were interviewed according to a specific criteria developed at Boston University, only 8 percent of them turned out to be strategic leaders. And according to their methodology, women (and leaders over 45) appeared more likely to possess the traits of a strategic leader. Naturally, this reminded me of you. How did THP become focused on women?

CB: They pivoted to focusing on women after the Beijing women’s summit of 1995. For two years after that, the then global CEO drilled into the issue of women and made the strategic decision to shift the org’s focus.

I was in the early meetings around this decision in 1997/8. It was a difficult decision at the time because the work THP had being doing up to that point was successful and funded by passionate supporters.

The epiphany was that, in the villages where we work, women bear the major responsibility for meeting basic needs, yet are systematically denied the resources, freedom of action and voice in decision-making to fulfill that responsibility.

For that reason, we chose to stop doing what was successful—but wouldn’t get us to succeed in the overall mission of ending hunger—and move to something new and unproven.

Empowering women is still at the centre of THP, though of course in 2018 it’s been proven and is a much more mainstream approach (thankfully).

(Related: How To Showcase Leadership Skills On Your Resume).

Arielle: From a leadership standpoint, what specifically made women a better focus than men?

CB: It’s interesting. Men are not the ones agitating for fresh water in their villages. That’s because no matter what, a man will always have water, even if it means his wife and children have to make 4 trips to the well and walk that water home 2 kilometres.

So men simply haven’t needed to create seismic social change to get what they want.

Initially, there is often resistance to a woman being empowered to take action for change in her community. Usually, though, her husband/father comes on board and can be supportive and often proud.

But make no mistake, it’s the woman who is required to navigate that empowerment journey for herself firstly, and then enroll the support of her stakeholders (husband, mother-in-law, etc).

Arielle: What factor has age played, if any, in your ability to inspire leadership?

CB: Age is immaterial. I’ve worked with 18-year-old women, married early, who are running campaigns to stop child marriages. And I’ve seen older people ignited after years of not feeling adequate.

And I’ve met plenty of people in their 40s and 50s who could make the biggest impact because of where they’re at in their career, their influence and networks etc., who don’t lead at all!

Arielle: In your work, what distinctions do you see between personal purpose and group or corporate purpose?

CB: I heard from Michael Rennie at McKinsey that “Organisations don’t change. People do”. And this is very true. What is an organisation but a group of people with an ideally shared goal?

And most people in an organisation gather meaning and purpose from their work and are dissatisfied and disconnected if they don’t find it. Or they find a big misalignment between what is stated and what is done.

When people in an organisation get in touch with their own ability to create change, this is the start of leading – no matter your title.

(Related Article: Why Your Job Title Matters – And Doesn’t).

Arielle: Since you work with millennial as a specialty, I wanted to mention Deloitte’s 2018 Human Capital Trends report: “The Rise of the Social Enterprise.” One behavioural trend they highlight is the move to self-empowerment versus group. The suggested root cause is millennials, both their embrace of technology and their expectation that their lives will be worse than their parents. Any comment on that?

CB: I think millennials use technology to facilitate an age-old hunger for meaning, purpose and belonging. And they are expecting more from their employers on the social responsibility front.

True leadership must start from leading self, and this is when self-empowerment comes in.

(Related: How To Provide Effective Feedback To Your Employees).

Arielle: How do you see this trend in the next major generation of workers influencing the quality of leadership in the future?

CB: It’s getting stronger and stronger and I welcome this! Millennials don’t accept what they’re told just because ‘it’s the way we do things around here’. And nor should they.

Why I love working with them is because the idea that they can lead change is not totally foreign to them. They love the global connection I bring and the context – it makes sense that they are part of a larger world.

They do need support, though, to be able to make the difference they want to make (in their organisation and in their lives) – and not just expect stuff will happen because they wish it so.

Younger women too still face inner and structural barriers to their leadership expression and I’m passionate about supporting them to achieve this.

(Related: Australia’s Top Outplacement Services).

Arielle: When it comes to the dynamic of individual versus group, how do the village and the corporation compare?

CB: It’s difficult to compare properly because there are a lot of other factors including how social relationships are constructed in villages and rigidity of things like caste and gender. That said – we are all human!

  • How do we keep going when it seems hopeless?
  • How do we enroll others into our vision?
  • How do we imagine something new when we have all the historical reasons why it won’t work?
  • How do we trust each other?
  • How do we learn to shift and expand our mindsets to include new perspectives and information?
  • How do we lead with humility?
  • How do we build resilience in ourselves and others during times of uncertainty?

And how do we care for ourselves and nurture ourselves, so we don’t burn out before the work is done?

These are deeply human questions that are relevant to a woman wanting to build a school for girls in her village, and to a corporate executive wanting to change part of their organisational system that’s not working.

I bring this perspective in the work that I do in organisations because of its universal relevance and because I too have lived these questions.

(Related Article: How To Be The Big Boss).

Arielle: Speaking of human commonalities, Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer shows that public opinion of governments as a source of social stability is at an all-time low. More and more, people are looking to corporations for social solutions. Are corporations up to the challenge?

CB: I’m not sure. We are living through a time when entrenched systems are under pressure or even dying, and where new ones are still too nascent to have the full redeeming impact they can.

So there is this area in between where we need people in corporations to either help transition the organisation to be more life-sustaining (in operations, its environmental impact and with its people), or it is terminal.

And we need people to help strengthen and bring into being new ways of coalescing and organising into businesses that can support humanity and earth for a sustainable age. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but this is the crossroad we are at.

Already we are seeing major institutions like banks in Australia and even Facebook under the sort of pressure I’m talking about. That said, the rise of CEO activism is a space to watch. We saw it with some leaders in Australia around same-sex marriage. And in the U.S., there’ve been lots of examples in the past few years. I love Marc Benioff’s take on it in Time Magazine:

Today CEOs need to stand up not just for their shareholders, but their employees, their customers, their partners, the community, the environment, schools, everybody.

I think if more companies do this it will lessen this artificial and unsustainable split between what they do, and the rest of society, and that would be a good thing.

(Related Article: Are CEOs Becoming Less Ethical?)

Arielle: How can personal purpose create socially responsible, strategic leaders?

CB: The power of personal purpose, as the good examples of CEO activism show, is that it touches what is beyond and related to CSR and a company’s core business. But it does have its underbelly.

For example, politicians who have a religious bent on women’s reproductive rights will use their office to push through their agenda (personal purpose) but this is not in the broader interests of society.

It can blind people. But when it’s harnessed it can be a good north star.

My personal purpose, which is around awakening potential to reshape our world, was perfectly aligned to The Hunger Project’s—which was around empowering people to end their own hunger. With this alignment I had no obstacle to expressing and evolving my own strategic leadership.

This is possible within corporations, too. You might not be passionate about widgets, but if you’re about empowerment, or xyz purpose, and you can create that space and alignment in the organisation, everyone can really thrive.

(Related Article: How To Find Meaningful Work).

Arielle: You brought up the underbelly. Forbes contributor Dan Pontefract wrote recently that confusing CSR with a company’s purpose is the “dark side” of CSR. What are you seeing in your work around this concept?

CB: In my NPO experience, I am personally not drawn to development work that tinkers charitably at the periphery of the problem, or which sees the people they work with as ‘beneficiaries’ and victims. Ugh! Talk about stripping agency! On the corporate side, I do see companies doing some good through CSR.

Arielle: One last question on purpose and corporate responsibility. Earlier this year, Larry Fink, CEO of fiduciary investment firm BlackRock, wrote his annual letter to CEOs. Fink says that companies can no longer succeed without a sense of purpose. That there’s been a sense of free-floating social anxiety since the global recession of 2008, and that—much like the Deloitte study concluded—it’s up to corporate leaders to ease that uncertainty. The people you’ve worked with in The Hunger Project have obviously faced far more immediate, life-threatening adversity. Do the problems we face in the first world even compare?

CB: I’m glad you brought this up. One of my pet peeves is #firstworldproblems! I get it, but I feel sometimes we diminish our own feelings of anxiety or loss of powerlessness because on a global comparison scale we have nothing to worry about.

But, we are still human – we have fears and concerns.

What I try to show is that circumstances and events happen, and in spite of this we can choose how we respond. We don’t need to have the external situations drive our responses. And that pretending we aren’t feeling a certain way won’t give us access to the power we have to transform it.

(Related: How To Develop A Strong Executive Presence).

Arielle: How does social consciousness show up in your corporate coaching, if at all?

CB: What I offer is a global context that connects them to stories, ideas, ways of being and techniques that help leadership flower throughout the whole organisation, not just with those few who have titles.

Part of this is the recognition that leadership isn’t just a matter of personal will.

Our environment and culture play a big part in how and who shows up. Especially for women, these company and cultural mores play a huge role in shaping how successful a woman will be—irrespective of how confident she was before joining an organisation.

This is true whether you are a woman in a large company or a woman in rural India.

The arena may be different but the context is the same. The environment women show up in determines so much more than we think. Acknowledgement of, and sensitivity to, these cultural biases can help to broaden awareness and create expansive leaders.

Arielle: What techniques do you use to uncover the strategic leader within each individual?

CB: It always starts with the premise that everyone has the ability to lead, and for many this doesn’t feel true initially. Leadership needs to be redefined.

What does it actually mean? We often think we need to be a Gandhi (visionary, self-sacrificing, gave it everything including his life) or a prize MMA fighter (bruiser, combative, willful, punishing) but leadership looks and is expressed many ways.

Leadership acts can be small, daily and still matter.

Everyone has some way they can lead, through the conversation they choose to initiate, through the idea they have that they start to mobilise around. I saw this in villages – for some, daring to believe that hunger could end was a leadership act.

They had to give up what they knew, what their history showed them. Had to trust in each other after possibly years of conflict and mistrust. And had to take actions, even if they were small, to start to fulfill on their vision.

These actions, though small, still displaced work they had to do to get by. So it was an investment too. It cost something. But daily people showed up to meet and discuss these new ideas and take small actions.

Small wins snowballed into taking bigger actions, like stopping child marriages. It’s a pathway for many of us to lead, and it looks very different to what we think leadership normally is.

Arielle: In a talk you gave at the Creative Innovation Conference, you mentioned that we are all connected. You also mention a strong focus on love in leadership. I can imagine that concept raising some eyebrows when you begin a corporate coaching session. How do you counter any objections that your approach is too touchy-feely or feminine?

CB: I used to feel too insecure to talk about love and leadership in the early days. Part of this was my own concern that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and I would be seen as all ‘kumbaya’.

But for years now I do talk about it because we are human, and love matters. To truly feel, to love, to be loved—these are core human needs that shouldn’t be compartmentalised outside the workplace.

(Related Article: How Leaders Become Influential).

The most important one is love of self, and this includes owning and being OK with our vulnerabilities, our mistakes, our loss and our dreams. It actually makes us a much better leader.

When you claim these feelings and experiences, you have the ability to hold much broader perspective on risk, on appreciation and it builds oceans of resilience. You can listen without feeling threatened.

You don’t need to lead with ego because you know yourself, and conversely, you don’t need to hide away because you don’t feel you’re up to it. I actually find people are hungry for an authentic discussion about love, vulnerability, meaning and purpose. It honours who we are.

Arielle: How has your sense of purpose evolved over the years?

CB: It’s become more expansive and less cause-related. My purpose is about human possibility and capability to lead and take action in spite of our beliefs and inadequacies. This is needed more than ever. We are enough, just as we are, to lead and to help impact our world.

Arielle: What mentors have influenced you, perhaps more recently?

CB: Scarlett Lewis, who has become a good friend. She created the Choose Love movement in the U.S., making social and emotional learning available free for schools across the US. This was after her son Jesse was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting of 2012.

Instead of choosing fear and rage and vengeance for her son’s death (which would have been understandable), she realised that the shooter, who was from her community of Sandy Hook, had fallen through the cracks.

Her work to reach each child and give them the tools to emotionally and socially equip themselves to be happy, kind and ‘choose love’ is so remarkable.

It ties in too to work I’ve been a part of in Bangladesh where creating acceptance and connection in communities is an antidote to the rising radicalisation that’s happening there.

Arielle: Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your work?

CB: The leadership work I do today focuses on empowering women in organisations. I learned how to empower women from the most resilient, determined, innovative and unreasonable women you could ever meet—women in villages working for their communities.

Their ability to claim leadership and power as their own, and wield it effectively in difficult environments, shaped the leader I became, and the impact I’ve been able to make in the world.

I centre those I work with in the truth of their own potential for leadership and effective action.

Right now, I’m offering two leadership programs. One is called Global Women, and the other is Unlikely Leaders. I also mentor. If any of your readers are curious about my work, I’d love to talk to them about my offerings and how they might benefit their organisation.

Arielle: Cathy, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an honour to speak with you about the important work you’ve done throughout your career.

CB: I’ve enjoyed it so much, thank you for the opportunity.

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