Personal support for aspiring leaders
The Zen of a great space for thinking out loud about ideas, concerns and ambitions
One of the best aspects of my work is how much people value the chance to just talk about stuff.
There are several things you have to do before, during and afterwards to make it work well, but, the most important message I’d like leaders and managers to take from this post is really simple:
having a good-quality opportunity to talk and think out loud about the things that excite, concern and drive us is a fundamental requirement for operating well and feeling good about things at work
If you’ve set this up well, people will arrive ready and raring to go, with lists, narrative notes or a thought-cloud of things they want to share.
As a coach, it’s sometimes surprising how little I actually have to do on the outside – the important part for clients is for me to ‘witness’ whatever it is they are sharing. And I’m often consciously working at not doing anything else other than witness during these times. I’m also working at not letting my opinions and my own concerns and ambitions crowd-out my attention.
Things that seem to make it a good quality opportunity for people include:
The actual physical space you’re in, which needs to feel fairly protected or perhaps isolated I think. Although you can do a lot towards that just by the way you interact and negotiate together about what’s to be said and how they want you to be during the saying of it
2. The Coach or Leader’s Attitude
Holding an attitude in mind where (as the coach) you can connect really well with whatever it is that you find genuinely interesting, magnificent or even puzzling about this person. This I think is the key to good, deep listening and should be what drives your body language and verbal ‘tics’ (the uh-hu’s and hmm’s etc)
3. Offering People the Chance to Just Talk
On a conscious level, people don’t always seem to know that they want the chance to just talk. So it needs to be part of the negotiations about what they want from you as their coach and I think you may sometimes need to offer it explicitly: “You know, people sometimes just want me to listen to what’s been going around in their head and in their experiences. Would that be useful for you either now or sometime?”
4. Confidentiality and Managing the Agenda
There are also the real basics, like your commitments to confidentiality and how it works if you’re this person’s boss and therefore also have to juggle your own and the organisation’s agenda as well as listening to them. Make sure you talk about these right upfront, preferably before offering an ear to someone. But do it not in an idealistic way, but in a way that includes and is explicit about the reality – what are the limits to the confidentiality you can offer this person? What are the potential conflicts with your own agenda for what you want them to achieve and what the organisation wants?
For me, being able to give someone the chance to talk about (and hear for themselves) their ideas, concerns and ambitions is an incredibly privileged and humbling experience. Instinctively (and I have more learning to do about this), my sense is that the experience of talking about these things should be really ‘zen-like’ – unadorned and aspiring to true insight.
On the other side of impostor syndrome lies great possibility. Don’t just settle for the comfort of overcoming it, go beyond.
Almost everybody trying to do something challenging or worthwhile will at some point have felt that sense of Impostor Syndrome.
This is where people are looking to you to achieve something, but inside you don’t feel all that confident. You might worry that people will find out you’re just making it up as you go along, or you might somehow regard yourself as a fake because you don’t know all the answers. Or you might just tend to put down your successes to a one-off piece of luck.
Working on overcoming impostor syndrome is a great thing to do with your coach. But, my experience with clients has taught me that there’s a place even beyond that.
When I’m working with aspirational leaders who really want to make a difference and to have a positive impact, I invite them to not just settle for overcoming impostor syndrome, but to go way beyond.
On the other side is a way of leading that allows people to be really true to themselves, to not have to ‘fake’ anything and, at the same time, to be able to meet the leadership needs of the people around them. This is a gorgeous bit of work to be able to do. It’s about finding what your true strengths are, what your character is really about, and then seeing how it feels to apply that in ways that suit your circumstances.
The impact you can have when people get that you’re leading in a way that matches what they need and is totally genuine and true to who you are, is astonishing.
Like anything that’s really empowering, going beyond impostor syndrome to that place of fully-integrated leadership can be a scary transition. But, if you want it, it’s definitely worth the journey. Don’t just settle for the comfortable feeling of overcoming impostor syndrome, dare to go beyond.
When I let go of what I am,
I become what I might be.
JFK’s “We Choose to go to the Moon…” Speech
Lots of stuff on tv at the moment about early space exploration, reminded me of this video – one of the most inspiring ‘big vision’ speeches ever. President John F Kennedy speaking at Rice University in September 1962.
Scroll down and play the video to see for yourself.
After the video I’ve put some tips of my own about the kind of things that this sort of ‘vision’ speech needs to include.
Some brief thoughts about the key elements to include in making your own inspiring vision speech:
- Re-calibrate – not all of us are planning on moon landings, but don’t let that make your vision any less important than this
- Challenge – notice how President Kennedy makes it clear that there are big obstacles to be overcome. The right amount of challenge is what makes life worth living and work worth doing
- Sensory Details – you can almost feel what it’d be like to be on that mission, the heat, being cramped in the capsule; really brings it to life
- Tangible Measures – there’s lots of facts and figures in this vision “240,00 miles away”; “a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall”; I can see and imagine those much more readily because of those numbers
- Metaphor – “…fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch”; do you go away knowing exactly how precise he wants you to be and how to explain that to somebody else?
- “We” – “Because that challenge is one we intend to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win”; I’m rolling my shirt-sleeves up to get stuck-in right away
- Present tense – he really switches into the present tense towards the end “Re-entering the atmosphere…”; again this just helps to feel like you’re already there. I can believe this vision because I’ve practically lived it even before he’s finished speaking
- Upturns Convention – “Not because it is easy, but because it is hard”
A lot of very successful people started out with quite spectacular failures; here’s a few examples
This is a good video. Not mine, just found it on YouTube after doing some work with a client around fear of failure.
It feels a little incomplete without an erudite quote, so here’s a favourite:
“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt.”
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
Can you change your emotional-state almost instantly – even to something that’s right out of your comfort zone?
One of my favourite bits of learning about shifting state and taking-on abilities was with the late, great Laura Whitworth of CTI about 15 years ago.
It took place in a coach-training session, in California. We were practising bringing more “Fierceness” to your coaching, so that we can absolutely, no-holds-barred, no-kidding around, demand that our clients fulfil their potential.
We’re on our feet in the group and one woman is struggling with the idea of a helpful, person-centred coach being ‘fierce’. Almost sobbing she says:
“I can’t do fierceness. It’s just in not me at all.”
Here’s how it went down…
Laura takes one look at this woman and asks: “You got kids?”
W: “Yes, one.”
L: “How old?”
W: “He’s nearly grown-up.”
L: “Remember when he was a baby?”
L: “Remember holding him in your arms?”
W: (cradles her arms) “Yes.”
L: (becomes this twisted, menacing figure) “I’m coming to take your baby from you…”
W: “NO YOU’RE NOT!!!”
It was absolutely incredible to see that transformation.
She found her fierceness alright, in an instant, and could still find it as easily and fast as that for the rest of the course.
It’s all there. Every emotion, every experience.
We have access to every human ability and state just like that, at the speed of thought.
What kind of leaders do we need to deal with today’s unparalleled pace of change?
When William Gibson, the eerily-prescient sci-fi novelist talked about the future being already here, he might have been thinking about TV reality shows, or ‘cyberspace’, or the cure for AIDS, or any number of the many other things he’s accurately predicted in his books.
However, I like to think he was describing the alarming rate at which change is coming at us, and how we’re all struggling to keep up.
Let’s be honest, though – change is not a new thing.
In about 500BC the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus suggested that ‘The only constant is change’, and I really couldn’t agree more.
Except, Heraclitus didn’t know just how fast and constant the changes would be, some two and a half thousand years later.
Take the global rate of economic growth (GDP):
- For the first 2,000 years following Heraclitus’s lifetime, GDP per person was pretty flat,
- It started to steadily rise in the mid 19th century, (about the time of the Industrial Revolution)
- For the last 100 years, it has grown exponentially, (in some decades literally doubling)
For example, somebody born in a western country around the end of World War II would have seen economic output more than triple over the course of their lifetime, while the baby-boomer generation have already felt it double in the first half of their lives:
But what about the rate of technological change?
Technology gurus often talk about Moore’s Law – how processing power doubles every two years – but perhaps, just as important, are the rates at which people choose to adopt new technologies.
As this chart shows, when the telephone was first introduced in the USA back in 1876, it took 35 years to reach a quarter of the American population.
A little over a century later, it took the world wide web just seven years to reach the same proportion of people:
To stand any hope of managing the constant influx of change, we need to firstly, accept it, and then decide how to manage it.
Not an easy task.
Humans crave stability
Human beings are naturally inclined to predict stability. We assume that tomorrow will be roughly similar to today.
That’s why we look to our leaders to provide a stable environment and clarity of direction.
If we ignore changes in the external environment, or we fail to respond quickly enough, or we stubbornly stick to yesterday’s plans, we will fail. That is an acknowledged fact.
On the other hand, we can’t react to every single change.
Imagine the amount of energy and attention you’d need to constantly scan the ever-shifting horizon, and respond to every new development (it would bury the average business, and even huge businesses, with massive resources would likely see ‘paralysis by analysis’).
Similarly, flitting from one great idea to the next with no continuity and no sustained effort just won’t work for most organisations (even ones that sell fast-moving fashion items).
What we need now, and I mean NOW, are leaders who have the foresight to see through the background noise of constant change, and hook into the important trends, making bold decisions where necessary.
- We need forward-thinking, infinitely-adaptable leaders with the personality to carry people through disruption after disruption.
- We need brave, stoic leaders at the heads of our businesses and public organisations, with the force of will to keep things on track regardless of what gets thrown at them
- We need objective, selectively-excitable leaders with the flexibility of approach to dodge around new obstacles and grab the right opportunities as they arise.
I think William Gibson was right. More and more ‘futures’ arrive all the time, and the rate of their distribution is getting faster and faster.
To be a truly great leader, you must organise your business effectively today, but lead it like tomorrow is already here.
What leadership is and why your business reflects your leadership style whether you want it to or not
I discovered the other day that there’s an entire online sub-culture dedicated to sharing candid snaps of dogs who look like their owners.
As a coach, speaker & business owner, I’ve met lots of organisational leaders and I think the same can be said for them.
Whether you like it or not, if you are a leader, your organisation will tend to represent your leadership style.
Unless you’re pretty senior and in a fairly big organisation that has structured training programmes, there’s a good chance you don’t even think about yourself as a ‘leader’.
So, if you are a leader (even if it is without knowing it), perhaps you should take a moment to think about what impression you are leaving on your followers – even if not deliberately.
It’s not about woolly jumpers and TV shows
Within small and medium-sized businesses, the term ‘leader’ actually seems a label that people are quite reluctant to use, which is hardly surprising. The glossy magazines have been pushing the ‘leader-as-celebrity’ for years.
We see pictures of Sir Richard Branson, or Donald Trump or Sheryl Sandberg on the covers of business magazines, and we feel that a true leader is an ego-driven, revolutionary, caricature.
And while there’s a lot to learn from (and aspire to) about those leaders, we’re perhaps more likely to think “I’m running a business with a 150 people in it, not Virgin or Facebook”, and the term leadership is left for those who are happier to be in the public spotlight.
The downside is this: If you don’t accept that you’re actually a leader, and actively shape and sculpt your leadership style, your organisation is likely to represent you – whether you like it, or not.
You see, there are a few fundamental truths about leadership:
- Even without the label of leadership to describe whatever this thing is, businesses will still take on their leaders’ personality and all the good (and not so good) things that involves
- People will still follow the person who provides them with leadership; Whether that’s who you want it to be, or somebody else who does this stuff better
- Customers will still be attracted to those businesses that have a clear focus and can get things done well, and on time.
In other words, the success of any organisation rests firmly on the quality of its leadership – so we might as well give a little thought to what leadership is.
What is a Leader?
One of my favourite academic books (Organizational Behavior, Robbins & Judge) has this definition:
Leadership is the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of a vision or a set of goals.
I see where that’s coming from and it’s certainly useful, but it feels a little abstract. Perhaps one of the issues with an academic’s definition, is that they are probably the one group of people who don’t ever really need to do that much leading!
Business gurus also have lots to say about leadership, and tend to focus on comparisons between leadership and management, or between good and bad leadership. So you get this kind of thing, which is from John C. Maxwell, one of the writers I’ve found most useful:
The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.
Again, it makes some sense, but what if you’re in a job where you’re not the person in charge of deciding when to adjust the sails – does that say you’re not a leader? And if so, does that make you just a passenger on the boat?
My own definition of leadership is as flawed as all the others, and comes from years of just wanting to get stuff done, in big organisations, as well as really small ones, and from wanting to help other people who are also trying to make their business successful:
A leader is anybody who wants to do important stuff and needs other people to help
Decide for yourself how useful or otherwise you’d find my definition of leadership in running your own business or organisation. I’m going to leave the last word to somebody much wiser than me:
If you want to go fast,
If you want to go far,
If my client is experiencing compassion-fatigue, how do I spot it, what might it tell me about their situation, and what should we do about it?
As I write this, it’s at the darkest, coldest time of year here in the northern hemisphere. Things seem strained, people feel under pressure and there are global-messages of scarcity, conflict and new cold wars.
No surprise then, that occasionally I’m seeing signs of compassion-fatigue in my clients. That said, compassion-fatigue is something that doesn’t need a global-background to happen – individual circumstances can bring it on at other times too.
Why would you be concerned about this as a coach?
My stake in the ground is that compassion is an integral part of a fully-functioning, well-rounded person and an essential element of great leadership. If it’s missing then not only is my client not able to be a well-rounded person or a good leader, but there is probably something in their life and work that is causing them harm. And we need to deal with it.
Other professionals face this too. I recently saw a great example with my accountants, dealing with a really difficult client. That client’s lack of compassion was the signal for the accountants (with great compassion themselves) to gently step-in and find out more about just what business problems their client was facing.
I want to say a little something about what compassion is – and how it fits with other similar sounding ‘states’ – before exploring how to spot compassion-fatigue and what it tells me about my client.
- Sympathy is a heightened awareness of somebody else’s hurt. It typically sounds like this: ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I hope you are coping well.’
- Empathy is the attempt to understand and even vicariously experience another person’s situation and emotional state – ‘being in another person’s shoes’. It focuses on experience and often reads like this: ‘It sounds like you had a bad day at the office and you probably need a break’.
- Compassion is where someone feels empathy and then a desire to help alleviate the suffering of the other person. The emphasis here is on action. It typically sounds like this: ‘I can feel how hard it must be to go through this alone. Is there any way I can help?’
So there’s this sense that compassion includes both the awareness and understanding in sympathy and empathy – and then chooses (whether or not and how) to go beyond that into action.
Now I need to be aware of some clients’ tendency to be the ‘hero’ (click here to read my article on that) or to be always helping. But set that aside for a moment and assume that’s not the case here.
If I’m spotting compassion-fatigue, what I’m seeing and hearing in my client is an awareness (and possibly understanding) of somebody else’s pain. But no desire to get into action about it. Actually, I’ll probably see and hear more than that – closer to anger, frustration or despair at somebody else’s pain. Phrases like:
“Why is that idiot always in such a mess?
I’m sick of the fact that they can’t sort themselves out
I can’t always be the one who has to take care of things”
When I see or hear anything like that, my coaching alarm bells start ringing. My intention at this point is to make space for some exploration about my client’s own pain. It doesn’t have to be right then and there.
It also doesn’t need to be a sledge-hammer approach (“Sounds to me like you’re overloaded yourself – you need to deal with that first!”). Nor does it need to tiptoe around it (“How are things for you personally right now”). Although both of those approaches could be appropriate depending on my client’s level of self-awareness and reality-sense.
And occasionally I like to talk about the coaching process that’s going on in my head: “You know, when I hear that kind of complaint about somebody else’s pain, from somebody like you who is normally strong and compassionate, it makes me wonder what’s going on. What suffering we all carry around and that sometimes gets so heavy we don’t feel able to help carry other people any more.” – or some rubbish like that!
Bottom-line: if my client is angry, frustrated or in despair at somebody else’s plight, then there’s a good chance they are suffering themselves. They may not have realised it yet or their way of coping might be to deny it, but it is definitely worth exploring.
The fleeting and subtle moments of self doubt before something big
A big part of my job as a coach is to see the potential and the magnificence in other people.
Often when we’re talking about a new role that my client is about to step up to or a significant professional or personal challenge that they are facing, they will drop hints or even be totally open about their lack of magnificence. I might hear things like:
“I’m not all that clever” or
“I don’t really care that much about this project.”
What’s going on that they would raise that, and raise it now? Is it something as their coach that I should ask about then and there; or should we stick with exploring that new role or that big challenge itself?
It depends, of course, and I’ll usually go with a combination of gut-feel about the strength of feeling behind what they’re expressing and my knowledge of this person. Is it a pattern for them that they hedge or chip-away like that? Is it a request for support about something that (in my enthusiasm about them stepping-up) we may have overlooked or not stayed with for long enough?
I have to be aware that there’s a place where fear of what is actually possible, of just how much they might achieve or become, is actually more paralysing then the fear of what can go wrong. This is a place where the internal saboteur can become very subtle and very hard to spot.
What is it that a client is really saying when they tell me: “I’m not really as good as you think I am, you know”, and what avenue of exploration should I choose with them?
My personal rule of thumb is probably to work through a sequence of possibilities in my mind that goes something like this:
- Is this an opportunity to remind someone just how magnificent they already are?
- Is this a good chance to explore how it’s possible to be great, achieve amazing things and be frail and uncertain and human all at the same time?
- What resources (internal strengths and tangible, external resources) might my client and I both need to bring to the fore right now or in the near future?
And what have the sages and poets had to say about it previously – here’s a great one from Marianne Williamson often (wrongly) attributed to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”