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What makes a good leader? 'An insecure person is much more interesting'

With thunderous applause, Elanor Boekholt-O'Sullivan is received at the Lorentz Hall of the Kamerlingh Omnes Building. She gazes into the hall with a smile on her face, even though the applause makes her feel slightly uncomfortable. She gets to enrich the students of the Leiden Leadership Programme with her knowledge on leadership. 'Making mistakes is essential.'

Being the first is lonely

Top Woman 2023, first female lieutenant general at Defence, all titles that Elanor Boekholt-O'Sullivan would rather not talk about. 'I would actually have preferred to be second top woman, first place also creates expectations,' she jokes. With her slightly mocking humour, she begins the lecture by talking about breasts. A somewhat unusual start to a lecture on leadership, but there is a serious story behind it. After all, as a woman in a man's world, she faced quite a few obstacles. 'I am often the first female... That sometimes makes it quite lonely.'


Elanor shares her lessons on leadership through her mistakes: 'that's much more interesting'. She wants to encourage everyone to stay curious. 'You have to be open to things. In society we teach people to perform well, but I am actually interested in their curiosity. I think it is important for someone to be inquisitive. An insecure person is therefore way more fascinating. The ones that constantly think about the situation and keep asking questions.'

Leadership is thus definitely not about who has the most self-confidence. 'A good leader does not always lead the way, but steps forward when others can’t. Someone has to do it. And making mistakes is essential.' Ihlara, a public sector management student, agrees: 'I take away that I should not be too hard on myself. Making mistakes is part of learning.' 'In the end, it's about how you solve it. I am proud of people who do well, but prouder of people who make mistakes and solve them,' Elanor says.

Hard work

Mischa, a corporate law student, is inspired by the lecture. 'This is yet another perspective on leadership than I have heard at the other LLP lectures. It is especially Impressive that Elanor has achieved so much with dedication and hard work. Especially since as a woman in the male world, she was the the first in a lot of things she did, leading the way for others. Ihlara especially likes the human aspect of her lecture. 'Letting someone tell their story and not judging too quickly. I will take that with me for my own development as a leader.'

Students are intrigued by Elanor's experiences. 'But how can we make an impact?" asks one student. Good question, Elanor thinks. 'Stop negative thinking,' she replies. 'Again, stay curious. Listen to others and ask questions. Think about what can be done. After all, you can also have an impact without joining the defence department', she adds jokingly.

Tekst: Lin Kokshoorn
Foto's: Buro JP

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