What should leaders do in times of trouble?
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I’ve often written here about our Inner Critics or Gremlins. These are the unconscious thought processes that act to keep us safe by sabotaging our attempts to change or to do something challenging or outside of our comfort zones.
Instead of keeping us safe, all this process really does is to maintain the status quo. And when things then change around us, as they inevitably do, instead of being ‘safe’, we’re left unprepared and disadvantaged. The very things our Inner Critics are fearful of tend to happen because of, not in spite of this process!
That’s why getting clear about and learning to live with the Inner Critic process is such an important part of leadership and personal growth.
But if you’re a leader, or anyone who really should be inspiring and developing the people around them, there’s another insidious aspect to this process. That’s when our Inner Critic is allowed to spill over and become our Outer Critic too.
I’m talking here about all the times when we’ve given voice to those small or large criticisms of the people around us. All the times we’ve said out loud (or just to ourselves), things like:
I’m sure there are many more examples.
Like the Inner Critic, the Outer Critic has a similarly important function. It’s intended to keep us from harm or to avoid a loss of some kind.
That’s why the times when we’re critical of others are usually when something that’s important to us is threatened by a shortcoming on their part. When their words or actions might lead to the loss of an opportunity or to some kind of ‘damage’ to a valued outcome, person or resource.
The great paradox of the Outer Critic is that just speaking our criticisms of others actually rarely even makes us feel better. And even less rarely does just speaking a criticism by itself actually make any difference to what’s happening.
I think our Outer Critic is a way of expressing our own fears, but without having to take any action that might put us out of our comfort zones. As my gran might have said: It’s all mouth, and no trousers.
One of the turning points in my own leadership journey was the realisation that you simply can’t complain people into changing. If you want something different from people, without having to do so every time, criticising just does not work.
So what should you do instead of criticising? Or if you’ve somehow go to a place where you realise you’re moaning, complaining about and criticising a LOT of people and things, how do you break out of that cycle?
In my experience, there are four important strategies for dealing with your over-active Outer Critic. All of these are crucial things for leaders to be doing anyway, so it’s no surprise that when you are doing these, it’s almost as if there’s no room, or maybe no need, for the Outer Critic to make itself known. Here they are, in descending order of positive impact:
1. Make sure you’re actively pursuing something positive that’s really important to you.
I can’t emphasise this one enough. Think back to the last time you were around someone on a mission. They might have told you about what was wrong with things, because ‘fixing’ something is an important part of some people’s missions, but I bet they won’t have moaned, complained or criticised. And when you’ve got something important to set your sights on, neither will you. There just isn’t time ☺
2. Either be prepared to get down in the arena and sort it out yourself, or walk on by.
There’s a great passage from a speech in 1910 by former US President Theodore Roosevelt, which is often referred to as “The Man in the Arena”. I’ve put the relevant extract in the picture at the top of this article, which you can download and save for yourself by clicking and then right-clicking. The message is essentially this: be the one taking action, or move on.
3. “Be the Change you Want to See”
This quote is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see”. It’s a really resourceful way of dealing with your Outer Critic. There are times for all of us when we genuinely don’t have the means, power or resources to step-in and deal with a particular issue, in a particular place and time. For those occasions when you can’t take action on that specific issue, but are convinced there’s a better way of doing things, then instead of moaning, complaining or criticizing, show people how it could be done, in the areas where you do have choice and control. Don’t criticize what is, inspire what could be.
4. Learn to make specific requests.
One of my very early coaching instructors, the late Laura Whitworth, gave me this gem of advice: “A complaint is just an unvoiced request”. This is a fantastic discipline to practise if you find that your Outer Critic has made an unwelcome appearance.
Take your criticism and search out the request that’s buried away inside it.
For example, instead of saying to your companion in a restaurant: “I hate how they’ve given us a table in the draft by the door”, call over your waiter and ask to be moved.
I can tell you from personal experience, that this ‘make a specific request’ approach sometimes even works with your teenaged children!
A few experiences recently have reminded me how important this is.
I had my weekly ‘thinking morning’ in my favourite coffee shop earlier this week. New staff member is there, just finishing her training. I’m writing notes but also got my ears open and she asks the manager about the plants around the cafe. The manager says that watering the plants is on the roster, but that nobody really knows anything else about them. New staff member looks around and says: “They’re all succulents, simplest plant in the world to take care of. I’ll look after them.”
Of course, my spidey-sense is really tingling now, because here’s somebody who’s just revealed both an expertise and a sense of purpose. I decide to buy an extra coffee as an excuse to open a conversation: “I heard you mention succulents – sounds like you know your stuff about plants?”
This simple bit of listening and initial nosiness was all it took for me to hear this woman’s life-story and how this was a stop-gap job until she could work as a florist. And you can tell when just hearing someone like this, being witness to their hopes is big deal! All the succulents were well looked after and sung to that morning.
Last month I had lunch with a friend who I first met as a business acquittance a few years ago. He never misses a chance to ask if I remember what I said to him back then, during what was then a tough time for him. I don’t really remember what I said, but I do remember the impression I got of him at the time, which was of someone just hanging-on by his fingertips, with the strain showing, but also with this little flame flickering inside him, of something very important he wanted to fulfil. Just looking at the way he stood and a simple bit of listening about what he was trying to achieve was enough to reveal all of this.
The way he tells it, it went something like this:
Him: “I’m not sure if I can take this anymore, and I’m at the end of my tether“.
Me: “Sometimes, all it takes to turn things around is just hanging-on a little bit more“.
And it seems that simple homily was enough, because now he does exactly what that little flame was all about.
Then an email arrives from a former client, somebody I coached nearly 15 years ago. It’s to tell me how they’ve just made the next giant step towards realising a business plan we first crafted, on a beer mat (it’s a long story, but I kept a supply of them back then for doing just that…) , all that time ago. The email includes the line: “Do you remember when you asked me about X? That was the real turning point for me.”
Again, I don’t really remember what I said. But I remember thinking about how strong and determined this person was.
So, this is my really important learning.
That there are opportunities to say and do things which make a huge difference for people, just waiting around for us to grasp them. And that people will remember you did this for years and years.
All it takes is a simple bit of observation, listening to what they’re saying, taking in all the other impressions you have of this person. And reflecting back something true about them.
As it’s so possible to do this, why not do it whenever you can?
I write this shortly after watching “I am Bolt” – the sports documentary about sprinter Usain Bolt as he prepares for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Whether you’re a fan of sports documentaries or not, I think you might enjoy this really captivating film about a very charismatic athlete.
There was lots of useful stuff in the film for me, particularly about the joy of doing something you’re great at, and I’ll write more about that in future.
One part of the film that really struck me was Bolt’s hatred of training. He says it again and again: “I love to run, I hate to train”. This from a man whose actual competitive event is over in less than 10 seconds!
Imagine that – the thing you love to do is over in less than 10 seconds, you probably don’t even get to do it competitively more than once a week, maybe much less, and to do it as well as you know you can, you have to do something you hate, again, and again, and again.
And you don’t just have to do this while you’re becoming good at your thing; you have to train and practise all the way through, even when you have multiple Olympic gold medals. Even when you are the best in the world.
I’m quite inspired by this.
I’m looking around seeing if I can re-frame all the stuff I hate doing to be the equivalent of “training”, for the 10 seconds I do love.
Does it help, do you think, this kind of reframing?
I suppose you’ve got to know what the thing you love doing is, so that you can tell which bits (the ones you hate) are just necessary “training”. And then you’ve got to decide if the thing you love doing is worth dedicating yourself to. Not just so that you can be the best in the world – most of us never get the chance to measure that in any meaningful way. But so that you can be the absolute best version of you, doing what you love to the absolute best of your abilities.
I’ll settle for that.
These are some fairly basic tactics for the leaders’ kitbag. Six ways that you should be able to apply day-to-day, even moment by moment, to help the people around you feel inspired.
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If you notice that you’re making excuses or feeling unable to apply any of these, in general or with specific people, it’s worth asking somebody else to apply them to YOU first of all. It may be that, as the leader, you’ve lost sight of your own capabilities or resourcefulness, aren’t really feeling the ‘why’ at the moment, or just need to hear something inspiring yourself first.
Helping my son with his homework this weekend, we found the Amnesty International motto:
It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness
That motto says something about how I’d like to approach my work with men.
You could talk about how men are often outperformed by women in leadership studies or in educational achievement; or about how nearly 95% of the prison population in the UK is male (making crime very much a ‘male issue’) or how men in some demographics are up to four times more likely to take their own lives than women; or the incidence of bullying at work. And there are plenty of other ‘negative’ examples.
It is definitely time to start having more open discussion of issues like these, and to encourage more men to be actively involved in doing so. But for me the darkness is only a part of the picture – and a potentially dis-empowering one at that.
If you look for them, there are examples of men leading with very positive impact in all kinds of areas – at work, in large and small commercial businesses, in the charitable sector and in the public sector. Men who have had to make difficult choices (perhaps unconsciously) to behave in ways that actually go against some expectations about what it means to do things “…like a man” but which are genuinely masculine. That’s where the answers are and where the inspiration is for the rest of us.
I think we need to know where the darkness is – and then light a candle to show that there is more to it than that.