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Answering the one question that will transform your leadership in 2021

1 February 2021 at 5:43 pm
Doug Taylor
If you want to have a stronger focus on impact as a leader, there are a few simple practices to consider, writes Doug Taylor, who explains how he found inspiration in the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.

Doug Taylor | 1 February 2021 at 5:43 pm


Answering the one question that will transform your leadership in 2021
1 February 2021 at 5:43 pm

If you want to have a stronger focus on impact as a leader, there are a few simple practices to consider, writes Doug Taylor, who explains how he found inspiration in the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.

In my experience the greatest challenge facing a social impact leader is working out where to focus your energies and spend your time. This is particularly true for the leader who wants to leave a legacy of impact. Leading a social impact organisation is an enormously challenging exercise given the sheer breadth of our mandate as well as the challenges and opportunities. To say we are painting on a broad canvas is an understatement. 

Just think about the array of competing priorities a leader must balance. Firstly there is our organisations’ ambitious vision and mission statements. Let’s face it, we really are the ones dreaming of world peace; trying to unravel some wickedly complex social issues that hold people back; working with people in our services, engaging local communities and trying to shape the system and change policy. This means that there is no end to the very good things that we could (arguably should) do but it’s not always clear what is best.

It also means we often have passionate teams, boards, funders, beneficiaries and supporters who have an abundance of ideas about how we should go about doing our work but lack the resources to deliver on every “great idea”.

Then there are the demands to be responsive to society and in communities as their needs change. Consider the many changes in the last year: floods, fires, pandemics and economic crisis. 

Add to this the requirement to manage an organisation that includes supporting staff, balancing budgets, ensuring our systems and infrastructure are fit for purpose as well as maintaining compliance with legislation at all levels of government.

The potentially overwhelming number of choices about how to spend our time can make it hard to sustain our leadership for the long haul, to make an impact and not get burnt out in the meantime. 

The other risk, which is very real for all of us but especially for social impact leaders, is that we confuse busyness with impact. I know from experience that I could fill my days two times over with good and important work but I’m not sure it’s always about having the biggest impact. In fact, sometimes it’s tempting, particularly when I’m tired, to spend all my time in meetings and replying to emails and not focus on the necessary hard work which requires deep thinking, reading as well as tough conversations.  

So where do we go for insights into how to deal with this challenge?

Like many people, I have been listening to all sorts of thinkers throughout COVID. Perhaps surprisingly, one source of inspiration for me has been the ancient wisdom of Stoicism. In fact, some of the reinterpretations of these writings have been on the New York Times Best Seller List and featured on various Australian platforms such as the Guardian and The Conversation.

Stoicism derived from a small group of Ancient Greek philosophers who wrote from the 3rd Century BC to the 2nd Century and met on the “Stoa”, or in modern terms the “porch” to talk about the practice of living a good life. 

One of the most practical questions they grappled with was how you decide where to focus your time, mental and emotional energy. This was articulated by Epictetus (50AD) who was born a slave and became a noted Stoic Philosopher in part from his idea of the “Dichotomy of Control”. This is the idea that to live a happy, productive and meaningful life one must focus on matters within your sphere of influence and not be distracted or overwhelmed by things that you cannot meaningfully contribute towards. 

This has been subsequently popularised by Steve Covey in his book the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People where he makes the distinction between proactive leaders – who focus on what they can do and influence – and reactive leaders who focus their energy on things beyond their control and get overwhelmed and caught up in blame games.

This type of thinking is not a way of resigning yourself to the state of the world or avoiding taking on challenging problems but instead a pathway to allocating your time and energy to the areas where you can be most useful.  

A great exemplar of this ancient practice was the Stoic Philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Now before you think that he couldn’t have anything to say because he knows nothing about our contemporary pressure, just keep in mind that he speaks as arguably the most successful Roman Emperor of all time, leading through war, plague, a coup and personal tragedy with the death of eight of his children. 

Clarity on your sphere of influence is the critical discipline for a leader and their teams and boards. There are so many demands and opportunities and to not choose where you focus is to abrogate your power and responsibility. Choices matter and with finite resources it’s critical to make the right ones. 

So, if you want to have a stronger focus on impact as a leader, I think there are a few simple practices to consider. 

Make the time to regularly reflect individually and with your leaders on the choices you have. Aurelius was a daily journaller because he knew you don’t just learn from experience – it only happens when accompanied by reflection. This practice is part of my plan for 2021 because I need the time to process all the things I’m thinking, feeling and observing. There’s just a lot going on for a leader. 

There is a long list of things that you can do, so this is where you need to determine the things that are within your “sphere of influence”. These are the areas in which you can meaningfully create the most change. This means that sometimes you need to say no and stop doing things, which is the hardest thing in a social organisation because every option is still about doing good things. 

Then you need to ask: who do you need to work with to make this a reality so your sphere grows. Think not just about you but also your organisation and network. You’ll be surprised how much you can really influence by working with others.

In the midst of all these possibilities it’s critical that you are clear on the things that matter to you and your organisation and be guided by your values and purpose. These act as a filter for all the things you could do into a list that you should do. Recent royal commissions have highlighted the importance once again of ethical leadership. 

All these steps should give you a set of choices with a greater likelihood of impact. 

As Aurelius says in his book Meditations, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Doug Taylor  |  @ProBonoNews

Doug Taylor is CEO of The Smith Family. He was previously deputy executive director at Uniting NSW and ACT.

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  • Jennine Blundell says:

    A great #Leadership article Doug. Thank you for the reminder, particularly after the challenging 2020 year that most of us have had. Balancing the complexities as a social leader, requires constant reflection and learning. It’s essential to not only create time to reflect, but to continually focus and persevere. . . and have some fun along the way

  • Vivien Twyford says:

    Thank you Doug. I must read Marcus Aurelius. The distinction between the sphere of interest and the sphere of influence is so important. A great article.

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