This has been on my mind for some time so I hope this short post will spark some conversation for you. My work revolves around the question of what really defines leadership. I didn’t enjoy my own early experiences of more traditional command and control style leaders. It made me want to rebel against the rules. I loved working with my first ‘listening style’ leader. When I found myself leading my own teams, I experimented with a more people-centric approach to leadership, many elements of which I had discovered in the then emerging coaching style. I built my company on sharing this approach with leaders at all levels in many different sizes of companies. I’ve come to call it conversational-style leadership. I love that one definition of ‘conversation’ is ‘to turn things around together’.
Recently I’ve come to realise that this ‘togetherness‘ is key. It’s a theme emphasised in the current pandemic where the phrase ‘we’re in this together’ is being used across the globe. Everyone plays their part. Each person has to take responsibility for their impact on others. How one person behaves (or doesn’t) affects what happens in another person.
Reflecting on some past coaching conversations, I realise how often a team member might raise with me something they are frustrated about in their leader. And how powerless they often feel to start a conversation with their leader about what they are experiencing. Two things which get in the way are:
- the underlying assumption and related fear that if you tell your leader how you are experiencing them, then you’ll be in trouble and your job might be at risk (this is rarely tested and is rarely the case when a fully honest relationship exists between you)
- the unspoken expectation that your leader is supposed to be some version of ‘perfect’ – and especially that they are supposed to come already equipped to fully understand, appreciate, and inspire you in your role.
Neither is true.
If you are not able to speak up with your leader and ask them to listen to you, then it will help if you upgrade your skills and confidence. Ask for a conversation with a coach to support you to get to the point where you can do so. In that conversation you’ll uncover your own underlying patterns and blockages. Once you find what’s really holding you back, then it will likely be playing out in other parts of your life too and not only in your work relationship. Finding your own voice will pay off hugely in many ways.
And when you look at or listen to your leader – are you relating to them as some form of idealised human because they have the job title, the authority and because you are giving them power over you? Or are you in turn listening for and seeing the human behind all that facade. Are you allowing your leader to be human too? Can you relate to your leader as another version of you? Can you let them be a real person? If you set aside all the presumed authority and risk of their job title, what conversation would you really have?
It’s assumed in all the leadership programs that it’s the leaders job to create the connection and conversation with everyone. I propose that if you are to turn things around together – whether what’s bothering or challenging you is a small daily frustration or a significant business challenge – then everyone needs to take responsibility for their own part in the conversation and step into it, whatever the imaginary risks. It might not – will not – feel comfortable, yet comfort never leads to growth and learning.
Yes leaders are human too. Powerful conversations happen when we join in conversation adult to adult and trust ourselves like grown ups are supposed to. I wrote recently to two leaders in conflict and found myself quite provocatively pointing out to them that ‘just because you have big job titles, doesn’t mean you are acting like grown-ups.’ It doesn’t follow automatically. If anything, the bigger the job title, the more it reveals all your human foibles, failings and vulnerability. When your team members see those things in you, and admit they are the same foibles, failings and vulnerability they can come to see in themselves, then you have a new starting point.
Leaders are human too. We’re all human. That comes with challenge, frustration, emotion, excitement, learning, growth and revelation upon revelation about what being human actually means. We’ve been hiding it a lot in business and behind job titles.
It’s time to come out. ! #Lead Boldly