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Leadership: Knowing when to stand down

By Sam Di Sano on 20 November 2018NSWstaffroomLeadership

Firstly, I cannot take credit for the inspiration behind this article. Fresh from interviews for senior leadership positions at her school, my wife recounted that the Principal asks the lead candidates this question - “how will they know when and how to stand up, stand in and stand beside?”

Taking that as a starting point, it generated in me some thought on the qualities most sought after in a leader and it demonstrated a wonderful insight into the type of leadership the Principal was seeking from her final year students. The school has a rich Catholic heritage and so I have taken the liberty of incorporating some Christian thinking into my interpretations. In light of that, let me unpack what I think the girls were being asked.

  • Stand up - characterised best by taking the initiative and carrying others on a journey with you;
  • Stand in or beside - fulfilling the journey of accompaniment and working collaboratively with others;
  • Stand firm - moving beyond popularity and making decisions based on conscience for the greater good.

I have added a fourth, knowing when to Stand down - acknowledging that perhaps the initial intent has not been achieved and it may be wise to acknowledge that and change tact altogether.

Stand up

This is your essence as a leader; your values, your goals, your compass points. Knowing what you stand for and standing up for it not only assists in the journey towards self-realisation but also in achieving the collective goals or mission of the group, characterised best when leading others on a journey with you.

Trust is also a fundamental pillar of any definition of leadership. It inspires and demonstrates two-way confidence.

For the best leaders, developing people is a goal of leadership in and of itself. It is a way of being. Leaders do it by identifying others’ gifts, talents, strengths, and personality types, so they can reach their potential. Leveraging these behaviours in your daily interactions with the people around you can only build trust and confidence in your leadership. When this comes around it is usually the result of a leader standing up for what they believe in and being able to articulate it to others, inspiring them to follow.

Stand beside

Think of the musical accompaniment. It enhances, backs and supports. It does not dominate or overwhelm. Listening and accompaniment in today’s world are absolute necessities, despite the media’s predilection that this style of leadership may be seen as weak for not taking or seizing the initiative.

Sometimes leadership simply requires you to listen, to support, to accompany - to stand beside someone when they need it most.

Stand firm

As a leader, you are ultimately responsible for the decisions you make or the direction you take. No decision is going to please everyone, nor should it be designed to do so. Conversely, no decision should be made which isolates or marginalises individuals or groups for the sake of pleasing the majority. Both examples descend into populist leadership. When making critical decisions, it is important to ensure that they align with your overall principles. The easy decision is not always the best - heard that before? The easy decision may get you out of a temporary fix, but rarely provides sustained success or growth. Most leaders would realise that.

Stand down

Following on, saying sorry, admitting mistakes or oversights - they can be the most humbling and difficult things to do in front of your peers, colleagues or employees. That is why it tends to be so rare. Obviously, people in general don’t react to failures as they do successes. Human nature tends to want to take credit for success but run a mile in the midst of failure, or worse, blame others.

Owning a mistake is a tough call for any leader, but it is often the making of them - a defining moment which demonstrates to all they are indeed prepared to accept responsibility.

Resisting the primal urge to share or deflect blame, often demonstrates a true understanding of character. Taking and owning responsibility sends a signal that we are prepared to learn from our mistakes and oversights. Telling your community that you feel their pain and are now wishing to do everything possible to remedy it tends to instigate confidence and a willingness to forgive. Those that continue to blame others however - stand firm when they should stand down, only generate more suspicion and doubt.


There are many many theories on and about leadership. Many will point to buzz words like culture, climate, strategy - all valid barometers. At the end of the day though, for me, leadership is about relationships. That starts with trust, grounded in consistency and character. The best leaders are genuine. You always know where you stand with them; no hidden agendas. The very best leaders know themselves too and they know exactly when to stand up, stand beside, stand firm and stand down.

This is an edited version of a longer article which is published on my LinkedIn page, which can be found here.

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