Who is your compass?

The UK news was awash last week with contestants for media villain of the week – almost as if there was a competition to outdo one another. And without commenting on any of the specific stories or individuals, the question that came to mind when reading each of the stories was, “who let you get there?”

My genuine belief is that most people aren’t inherently bad, whether in the world of work, politics or sport. In the same way that I believe that most people come to work to do a good job, I don’t think that is any different for those in leadership positions in their respective fields. It is convenient for the media to portray it differently and it often suits the public zeitgeist to have someone to blame. But it strikes me that often the issue is more that people have lost their way, rather than intentionally set out on a particular course.

So why does this happen? Well it might not be the only factor, but there is no doubt that the failure to surround ourselves with people who are willing to speak up when they think we are heading off course and our willingness to listen to them plays a significant contribution. There is a weird dynamic that arises as a result of organisational power, where those around think that their success and progress is based on their ability to tell those in power what they think they want to hear. We all remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes from our childhood and probably laughed at the vanity, the pride and the ultimate stupidity. In our adult lives, do we consider which character we best represent?

Everybody needs at least one compass, the person that holds them true to who they are and what they are trying to achieve. We need someone who has little to lose, or is not afraid of losing what they have and is willing to hold up the mirror, to speak the unspoken truth and to bring us gently back onto course. Not in order to point out our failures, but to make us more successful. And we need to open our arms and our minds to those voices and trust that they want the best for us, no matter how hard the truth.

So my question is, who is your compass?

Know when to hold back

There’s one thing I observe in successful leaders, they know how to find the balance between support and stretch for their teams. They know how to allow their team to feel the discomfort of challenge and adversity, but also when to step in and provide coaching, guidance and support.

Most learning happens in the more challenging moments, we need to understand how to navigate and find a way through. We will all have encountered moments when we have felt out of our depth, when the task at hand was impossible, unmanageable or immovable. And we will all have experienced moments when we have proved those emotions to be wrong.

At the same time, we will have had times when a quiet coaching word, a piece of advice, some guidance or counsel has helped us unlock the answer to a situation we were struggling to face into.  The moments we look back on and reflect on a guiding hand and influence.

Neither is right or wrong. This is an also-and, not a either-or. A successful leader can observe, take time and intervene at the appropriate moment. They don’t need to molly-coddle, interfere, undermine or distract. Neither do they need to leave others to struggle and fail through lack of guidance and direction.

The skill of leadership is situational awareness, emotional intelligence and a willingness to hold back long enough to observe whether intervention is needed or required. As anyone who has ever learnt to ride a bike will tell you, the person with the most fear is not the child without stabilisers, but the parent that pushes them, wobbling, on their way.