Alex Cooney is an experienced programme manager from the not-for-profit sector. She has managed large teams of staff both in Ireland and internationally. She has spent most of her career working in the international development sector with agencies such as UNDP in East Timor and CAFOD, where she was responsible for the South East Asia programme. Since her return to Ireland in 2012, she has shifted her focus on to national initiatives. She is co-founder and CEO of CyberSafeIreland since 2015, which aims to empower children to be stronger, smarter and safer online.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
I think that there are people in this world who are natural leaders and the qualities that make them succeed are just part of who they are as people. I do believe that you can teach people aspects of leadership such as the ability to “think big” (or at least think bigger) and the ability to bring people with you – to motivate and inspire, but mostly its innate to who you are as a person.
What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?
A successful manager will need leadership qualities to really succeed but it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around (a natural leader may not ultimately be the best manager!). A successful manager will need to be able to create the vision but will also need to deliver on it with his or her team of staff, to be an effective decision-maker, to delegate successfully and to communicate well. A great leader who is also an effective manager is the real deal!
The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?
We make this happen by having the courage to step up for the things we believe in, whether it’s doing something ourselves or supporting others to do so. I’m lucky enough to come from the world of social entrepreneurship and it’s exciting to see people coming forward with simple ideas that can address major social problems – especially ideas involving technology because the reach can be so much greater. There are lots of great ideas out there; we just need to ensure that there are sufficient funding and support structures in place to allow these ideas to flourish.
What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
The need to be in control. It’s so important to know when is the right time to step back or step out and let others take it forward.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?
Having good people around you (be it friends, family or a professional coach) with whom you can talk and share problems. I think it’s also really important to have good stress management strategies in your life that can help alleviate pressure – I find Pilates for example, an effective way of managing my own pressure, but there are lots of other ways and it’s really down to you as individual to find what works for you. We all need outlets and we also need to strive towards finding a healthy balance in our lives.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
I think one way would be to look at individuals who have led fascinating lives and been leaders in their own right and learn more about their stories – for me it was people like Nelson Mandela, Benazir Bhutto or Barack Obama. I don’t think these things should be too prescriptive however: take courses, listen to podcasts and read books that inspire you!