When the going gets tough

Sometimes life as a leader just gets tough. You reach a point where you feel like you’re putting in more energy than the reward you’re getting out. It is hard to see the future, to plot a course, to be able to understand where you’re leading to. The whole thing feels tricky, challenging and relentless.

It is at these moments that we get an opportunity to better understand our character, to test ourselves, to learn who we really are.

Do we face into the challenges? Do we ride the wave? Or do we walk away, either physically or metaphorically, and leave the responsibility to someone else?

Give me ten successful leaders and I’ll guarantee all of them will be able to recount a moment where they’ve faced into a situation like the one I’ve described. Where they haven’t known the answers, felt alone, worried, lost. And I can guarantee that they’ll describe how they stuck it out, overcame and eventually found the clarity they needed.

They won’t talk about how they hid, disappeared, abdicated or absolved themselves of the responsibility for their team and themselves. They’ll talk about how they overcame.

Whatever challenge you’re facing into, there are people around that can support, people who’ve been through the same or something similar. People who are there to help. It doesn’t matter how senior or junior you are, we all sometimes need help to figure things out. There is always someone to ask.

But what others can’t do for you is bring the resolve, the grit, the resilience and the strength to see things through. That’s something only you can bring to the party and that is the part that determines the kind of leader you are.

So what’s it going to be?

 

The answer probably isn’t simple

I’ve been writing a blog now for over ten years and over that period I’ve received praise, criticism, support, detraction and sometimes even hate. I often read comments or statements where people ask why anyone bothers blogging anymore, probably much easier to record a film of yourself just out of the gym and post it on LinkedIn.

Smashing it…

For me this has always been a way to set out thoughts or ideas that are buzzing around my head. Incomplete and sometimes inarticulate explorations of something that I’m trying to work out. My average post is about 400-500 words, so you’re never going to explore an idea fully in that space, but maybe set people off thinking too.

Sometimes I sit and write something that I know is going to be awkward. Over the years you develop a sense of the topics that tend to get people het up. The ones where there is a defined collective view that you’re questioning, or the topics where we are being overly British and avoiding. Sometimes the topics feel benign, but then hit a nerve.

Mostly the people that read these articles are people interested in the world of work, leadership, culture and human resource management. People that would espouse the exchanging of ideas, the ability to express unpopular views, the creation of environments that are open and challenging. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”, how many times have we heard that?

Today as I write this, for very different reasons, people are talking about kindness. There are numerous statements about just “being kind”. And I’m struck by the incredible tension that sits behind such a blanket statement. Be kind to everyone? The rapist? The terrorist? The domestic abuser? Or just the ones that we feel sorry for.

Last week I wrote that if we are serious about inclusion, we have to consider inclusion for all. I can’t help feel that there is a similar tension here. When we start to apply our own filters, our own rules, our own personal criteria then by definition we introduce a level of discrimination to our original assumption. Which is perhaps absolutely fine, perhaps absolutely human, but should come with a level of honesty, rather than a false image of purity.

If we are genuinely interested in creating better working cultures, better environments, event a society that is better for all. If we want these things then we need to understand that the answers are more likely to be found in messy compromise than clarity of simple assertion, that they are more likely to involve us having to calibrate our own beliefs and opinions as much as anyone else.

I’ll leave you with this from Barack Obama, which sums it up nicely.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,”

“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

Inclusion means everyone

I’m not sure how many of you saw the social media fallout from the Good Morning Britain debate that led to Iain Dale walking out of the studio. If you need to catch up with it you can here. It was supposed to be a discussion about mental health and wellbeing, but instead the discussion became more about the behaviour of the people involved.

As if we needed another reminder about the increasing sense of polarisation in our society…but we got one. The social media reaction was typical with accusations flying around. Iain is a middle aged, white male, so clearly “gammon”. Grace is a left wing, young female, so clearly “snowflake”. And Nihal – well he isn’t from round here is he?

What weighs on my mind and genuinely worries me is how we start to find a way to bring people together and what role organisations have to play. If we believe in inclusion, then we need to believe that everyone, that’s everyone, has a right to their view, their beliefs, their opinions, their religion. Everything.

That means we have to accept Donald Trump. We have to accept Bernie Sanders.  We have to accept Ilhan Omar. We have to accept Jeremy Corbyn.  We have to accept Diane Abbott.  We have to accept Boris Johnson. We have to accept Gerry Adams. We have to accept Marine Le Pen. And of course, I could go on.

We don’t have to like them, but we have to accept they have a right to their views, their opinions and their difference.

We have to find a way for people to bring their views and difference together in a constructive way, to debate and exchange views. To respect and include the multitude of difference that makes our society rich. We don’t do this at the expense of anyone, this shouldn’t be seen as a zero sum game, but instead as a means to grow and further our knowledge and understanding, to create more for everyone, not less for some.

Of course, I am a middle aged, white male. So I appreciate that immediately I stand here in a position of historical privilege and open to the accusation that I don’t understand what it is to walk in the shoes. But of course, none of us do, not really. We all bring something different, which is why inclusion really bloody matters and why we need to hear from all voices equally loudly.

So here is to understanding, tolerance, fairness and kindness to all. Whilst it might feel a long way away some times, it has to be worth the fight.

 

 

Hold your nerve

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve arrived at an event, a dinner or a networking session and walking into the room it appears that everyone knows everyone else. And of course, I know no-one. My mind searches to try and understand which magic black book I don’t have access to, which club I’m not part of. And how on earth I’m going to cope with the next period of time amongst strangers.

A similar experience struck me recently when I joined a new fitness class. Everybody looked so adept, so well drilled and rehearsed and there was me flailing around like Bambi on ice. The dread of attending staying for the first four or five sessions, feeling that I would be the incompetent in the room compared to the others who clearly must practice every waking hour to be able to do so well.

And of course, joining a new organisation. The way in which people speak, the knowledge they have about how things are, how they were and how they need to be. Their confidence and understanding, the well rehearsed patterns and protocols and their seemingly effortless delivery. As a new starter, you just bounce around the edges feeling incompetent and out of your depth.

With the passing of time we realise that people are just making small talk at the event, there are others stood on their own, those that know one another are welcoming and inclusive, you can interact as much as you like.  At the gym, the routines are known, but the execution is patchy, the guy catching his breath, or missing out a couple of reps because of fatigue. The new colleagues at work have a pattern, but they still have problems they can’t solve, they have a shared history which includes their collective mistakes.

As our brains seek to make sense of situations, they draw patterns, make assumptions and are drawn initially to simplicity. Our fears and concerns express themselves in worries of inadequacy that we need to control and contain. Time gives us data and data provides contradictions. There is no perfect system, or perfect individual, there are flaws and imperfections everywhere if we choose to observe.

At the end of the day, we’ve just spent longer with ourselves and observing our own, no wonder we notice them first.