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5 ways to lead gently with bold ideas

You won’t always be loved for leading a big change with a bold idea. But there are ways to cushion the blow of the inevitable criticism you’ll have to face.

The love-hate cycle of a movement led by a bold idea

I love watching a movement emerge around a bold idea that gets people to rethink big assumptions: like men’s mental health and menopause in the workplace. But it’s interesting to witness the cyclic nature of public acceptance and uptake of ideas like these.

First, a new idea is challenging, then it gains traction with early adopters and fans, then it becomes mainstream – and at this point, it’s suddenly open to public pile-on before settling into a calmer middle ground. I’m sensing hints of that pile-on coming for the alcohol-free movement.

A brief and potted history of changing ideas and attitudes to drinking in Australia

For the longest time, it was mainstream to drink at every social occasion, or post pics of yourself drinking to abandon on your personal and professional social media accounts: cheers to my latest business launch; congrats on your promotion; woo-hoo for the birth of that baby; TGIF at 3pm in Melbourne during COVID!

Then came the zero-alcohol coaches, with their stark drinking facts, abstinence programs, and glowing testimonials from clients who’d gone sober. Suddenly, we were all sober-curious and swapping G&Ts for Lyre’s mixers. It became cool and fun not to drink, as this recent headline from the Guardian shows:

“I used to drink as an escape. To quit, I thought of sobriety as an adventure.” – Roland Bull, Guardian

When they first emerged, anti-alcohol thought leaders were at the forefront of a new movement. Their ideas were considered novel in a country where you’re called weird if you don’t drink (I should know – I suffered through raised eyebrows and rolled eyes until the age of 26, when I had my first glass of red). They began to build growing platforms and helped drive new awareness in media coverage about the dangers of drinking.

It became socially acceptable to criticise drinking. Case in point: I recently had to visit a breast cancer specialist (I’m great – it’s a family history thing) who outright told me alcohol was poisonous and my one risk factor right now. Can you imagine a doctor telling you that even five years ago? She definitely went off the standard ‘all things in moderation’ script.

Sober curious movement loses fizz as ideas go mainstream

Recently however, we’re seeing a little backlash toward those leaders in the zero-tolerance-for-alcohol space. Partly, the criticism against them is levelled at the wellness industry in general. Just as the gurus who promote extreme ‘wellness’ in the name of health are often actually targeting people unhappy with their weight (or are tightly controlling their own), now the alcohol ‘warriors’ are being accused of policing everyone’s fun in the name of a new form of extreme wellness.

Although the facts show that alcohol in any quantity is a risk to your physical health, most people don’t like being criticised. And for those of us who are drinkers, some of the messaging can feel judgemental.

If we were in therapy we’d be told to own our emotions and recognise that our feelings say more about us than the external thing that has triggered us. But we’re in the real world where, as thought leaders, professionals and business owners, the ideas we share and the way we communicate matter if we want to keep our audience, colleagues and clients onside, and attract like-minded people to work with us.

5 ways to lead gently with bold ideas

1. Be disruptive but not divisive

Although I’m promoting ‘gentleness’ in this post, it’s a firm gentleness centred around a disruptive idea. You are not a wallflower. You can still acknowledge your anger and channel it productively. You can be a little controversial (while still being kind). You’re on a mission to win hearts and minds, not stomp all over them. 

2. Find the peril in your story or work

All thought leaders and purpose-driven professionals should identify a ‘peril’ (i.e. the worst-case scenario) that faces humanity or environment if their ideas are not realised. A peril raises the stakes and helps to frame a sense of purpose. Setting up a common ‘enemy’, such as alcohol, can help unite a group around a shared cause. Avoid oversimplification, black-and-white thinking or stereotyping if you use this approach.

3. Find your tribe

You can’t be all things to all people. It’s okay to alienate some people (without being offensive) in order to attract your tribe and create meaning for your ideal collaborators and clients. I like the idea of being disruptive, but not divisive. You may alienate some people, but you don’t want to denigrate them.

4. Reframe messaging from negative to positive

Consider your tone of voice and messaging in relation to your ideal audience. Are you going to put off the very people you want to attract? If so, reframe your messaging from negative to positive (instead of – this is what you lose with alcohol, try this is what you gain when you wake up without a hangover every Sunday morning).

5. Hold firm to your big idea

In the words of Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate. People are fickle. One moment they love you and your ideas, the next moment they’re sending you private messages on LinkedIn telling you that you suck. Listen to your therapist, hold your ground, and remember that their negative feedback says more about them than you. You need to hold your ground if you’re going to change the world. Having said that – be open to change. It’s a trait of the strongest and most respected leaders.