Incongruence and forward motion

I wouldn’t mind betting that if I were to grant any of us supreme power and the ability to redesign the world in which we live, to recreate the moral, economic and social fabric of society, we would all have pretty clear views on some of our base fundamentals. We would make assertions about equality, or opportunity, or fairness or competition. We would be able to identify principles that we believe to be core to our vision of a “good society”.

I’m also pretty sure that as we delved deeper into our thinking, we’d identify naturally arising tensions when two principles came into conflict. Do we mean fair or equal? Do we mean the opportunity for success, or the chance to compete for success?

If these moral dilemmas occur in a theoretical “blank sheet” society, what are the chances that they are also likely to occur in real life, “in the game” life? These trade offs and tensions are an inevitable by product of sentient beings, they’ve formed the foundations of philosophy for thousands of years.  And they’re also the tensions that present to leaders in any walk of life.

Like him or loathe him, Nick Clegg talks about the realisation, during his time in office as Deputy Prime Minister, that compromise was seen as weakness. It was perceived to be stronger to be stuck in inaction through a dogmatic and principled approach, than to progress through discussion, diplomacy and compromise. On a much grander scale we can see the opposite argument in the achievement of the Good Friday peace talks, where diametrically opposed groups agreed on a way forward.

Our world is full of incongruence and our job as leaders is to be ok with that. We have to be able to hold conflicting positions, and be aware of the tension that this brings, in order to move forward and progress. Sometimes the smallest steps towards improvement can be the most valuable, sometimes we have to embrace the things we dislike in order to shape and improve them. Sometimes we have to be ok with…ok.

Forward action is everything, we have little enough time as it is without spending large proportions of it stuck in an endless cycle of righteous indignation and ideological tailspin. We are all eminently capable of identifying what’s wrong and pointing out the faults in others, only some are truly capable of going to them and helping to move things forward in a positive direction.

You’re being watched

As a leader, you’re always being watched. People look to you to set the pace, the tempo, the mood and the energy. They take their lead from you, how you are and how you present. There is absolutely no getting away from it.

People will copy your language, your behaviours, your routine and even how you dress. And no matter how ridiculous you might feel that is, it is all part of social norming and human behaviour. Which is why it is critically important to be thoughtful and aware of the impact that you have.

Small, seemingly inconsequential behaviours can have a significant effect when they’re replicated on mass and become part of the cultural norm. As a simple example, let’s take emailing at weekends. If you’re a leader that emails regularly and systematically at weekends, you’ll maybe find that people start to check their emails to see what you’ve said and what you want.

“Hey Jo, No big deal but can you have a look at the latest figures for me on Monday. Neil “

Becomes,

“Sam, Neil needs the figures urgently on Monday, can you get ahead of the game? Jo”

Becomes,

“Jack, I need the latest figures first thing Monday for Neil. Sam”

Imagine that happening all over the organisation and the impact that it would start to have. And of course it is limited to this one example.

As a leader you need to be intentional about your actions and behaviour, you need to recognise that you’re not only making choices for yourself, but for others too. How you show up, how you are, the light and shade that you bring to a situation will be absorbed and multiplied. Being aware of your impact on others can help you get the most out of your team and the people around you, it can also help you make sure that they get the most out of you.

Everyone needs a career plan

Most of us are going to spend the vast majority of our lives in work. If you start at 18, you’re probably going to be going for around 50 years. Depressing, isn’t it?

Whilst not everyone wants to be CEO, given the amount of time you’re going to commit to your working life, don’t you think you’d better have a plan? I’m not taking about the, “by the time I’m 30 I want to be xx”, but understanding what you want to be doing, where you want to be doing it and what makes you happy.

It may not always feel like it, but the simple truth  is that you have ultimate control of your career decisions. We all need to pay the bills, we all need to be economically productive, but most of us in work have choices that we often fail to see. (NOTE: NEET, long-term unemployed and areas of low social mobility are topics for another post.)

When I speak to employees who are seriously unhappy at work, more than not I can  track it back to a feeling of being “done to” on one level or another. And when you discuss it further, there is usually a choice or decision that has been overlooked or disregarded. Part of the importance of having a plan is that it puts you in control, it makes you conscious of the work decisions that you are making.

Let’s say you have a new boss that you’re struggling to get on with, you have a choice. You can put effort into building rapport, you can try to adjust your style to adapt. Or you could decide that you just can’t get along and look to move team or leave the business, that’s the ultimate choice. Which route you choose should relate back to your plan. Is the company in the right place for me, am I doing a job I want to do, is this part of a longer term career path?

What often happens when people don’t have a plan is they sit, react and get resentful. They defer responsibility, “I didn’t appoint them”, “they’re an arse”, “things use to be so much better”. And whilst all of these points are probably true, it doesn’t really matter because they are the circumstances you’re in. So what are you going to do with it?

Having a plan gives you forward energy, it gives you control and it makes you beautifully responsible for your own happiness. If we’re going to spend so much time in the workplace, it feels a shame to spend it feeling angry, sad and powerless. So take a little time, reflect and spend it on yourself and ask yourself the question, where do I want to be?

It’s ok to say sorry

As a leader you won’t always get thing right. Because no matter which business school you went to, or how amazing people say you are, you’re still human. And when things go wrong, when you screw things up, when you make a mess, it is absolutely ok to say sorry.

Rather than being a weakness, apologising is both a strength and a means of asserting control. It demonstrates recognition and understanding of the situation and a desire to move on and progress.

The number of times I’ve heard teams, or employees complain along the lines of, “they know they’ve screwed up, but they’ve never even said sorry. That is all it would take”. Most people can accept that leaders get things wrong, they can’t accept that they’re too big to need to apologise.

That’s not to say that simply muttering the word, “sorry” can get you out of any situation, there is an authenticity and humility that needs to comes with it.  We’re great at sniffing out a contrived response.

Recognising when you’ve fallen short, acknowledging, apologising and rectifying are critical steps in building real trust with the people who you lead. They’re also hugely important in your development and personal growth.

We talk a lot about engagement levels, happiness at work, productivity and health and wellbeing. Whilst I have no empirical evidence to back it up, I can’t help feeling that humble, respectful leadership would be a vital ingredient to success.