Finding Balance in Leadership with Dr Liz Walker
Leadership and Wellbeing Podcast
I was thrilled to be joined by Dr Liz Walker, CEO of RSPCA Victoria, to talk about the importance of finding balance in leadership. With over eight years of experience leading Australia’s oldest and most recognisable animal welfare charity, Liz has faced numerous challenges while striving to create a high-performance culture. She shares how she has navigated trials in her personal life while leading her team to success, and the strategies she has employed to balance her role as a CEO with her own wellbeing.
Liz has been a community leader with great respect for animals and the role they play in helping all of us to be better people. Whilst striving to align her leadership style to this aim, we discuss the difficulties Liz has faced in her personal life, and she shared vulnerably on navigating a marriage breakdown whilst not only bearing the demands of her role as CEO but at the same time raising four children. She emphasises the need to manage the chaos and let go of the pursuit of perfection, by setting realistic expectations and focusing on what truly matters. This type of thinking aligns to key concepts in cognitive psychology, which essentially is all about how our feelings or emotions are directly impacted by our thoughts and beliefs. If we want to feel better, we need to learn to change our unhelpful thoughts. In Liz’s case, it was learning to let go of needing to be perfect and recognising that sometimes good enough is OK.
Liz also highlights the importance of having a strong support network, both at work and in her personal life, to help navigate the complexities of leadership and parenting. Research has consistently shown that perhaps the most important factor in leading a long, happy and fulfilling life is the relationships you have in your life. We don’t need a huge group of friends, but we do need a small group of people that we trust and care about and who, in turn, care about us. Liz worked on this and deliberately cultivated a strong group of friends.
Self-awareness is a crucial aspect of leadership and personal growth, and Liz shares her own practice of self-reflection. Way back in 400 BC, the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates said “Know Thyself”. Many psychologists have studied this concept since then and have demonstrated that building self-awareness is a life-long journey. You don’t suddenly wake up with it. Asking yourself important questions can be highly valuable to gain clarity and perspective, something Liz does regularly. It not only helps her to grow in her own life but gives her the ability to cultivate a healthy and supportive work environment.
As a leader, Liz has focused on creating a high-performance culture within the workplace and attributes her success to empowering her team to take ownership of their work. Research has consistently shown that a leader who focuses on building capability and accountability through empowering others and delegating and coaching them is likely to drive higher levels of performance over the longer term and simultaneously enhance team member’s wellbeing. Yukl’s 2012 article on Effective Leadership Behaviour for Performance Outcomes demonstrates that delegation and autonomy through using an empowering leadership style drives performance outcomes. By fostering a sense of accountability and focusing on the greater good, Liz has built a cohesive and resilient team that can problem-solve without leaning heavily on her to provide solutions. This aligns well with Heifitz and Laurie’s 1997 Adaptive Leadership framework. They explain that, when dealing with adaptive challenges, leaders need to expose their followers to the painful realities of the challenge, let conflict arise and help manage the distress so that the team members can solve their own problems. In this way, a leader aims to create problem solvers rather than solving problems for them.
We discuss the importance of practising gratitude to support our wellbeing, and Liz shares how she mindfully appreciates the small moments of joy. In a world where the demands of leadership can often overshadow personal wellbeing, Liz’s positive outlook and commitment to growth serve as a reminder that balance in leadership truly is achievable when you seek it out.
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