When leadership calls

Throughout our careers, there will occasions when we are asked, more than ever, to demonstrate our worth as leaders. Whether through a change, a significant challenge, or indeed a crisis. Any of us that manage people will be asked to step up, to step into the light and to do the thing that we talk and theorise about so often. To lead.

In these circumstances, great leaders put their own concerns aside. They may be worried, concerned or unhappy, but they understand that their role requires them to put this aside. They are there in the service of their people.

They understand that they need to be calm and reassure, that it is only normal that in uncertain times people worry and they look to those in positions of authority to tell them it will be ok. They don’t rush around creating drama, no matter what they may feel inside.

Great leaders understand the importance of simple, clear communications and the need to repeat it more than ever. When we are worried, stressed or concerned we can find it hard to take in multiple complex measures, simple and clear messages make it easier for us to digest and process.

They also know that it is important to play by the rules that they set. That it doesn’t matter how clear and simple the messages are, by contradicting them with behaviours we send out complex messages that confuse. Actions need to match and reinforce messages.

And they recognise the human at the heart of each decision, seeing the impact that each and every choice we make has on people, thinking about how it feels for them and being clear of the why as well as the what. Which means sometimes we can do the right thing and be unpopular.

Finally, great leaders know sometimes they get things wrong in the heat of battle and they are humble and recognise fault. People will forgive you for getting things wrong, they rarely do for denying it or apportioning blame.

When leadership calls, we need to show up as the best version of ourselves. Remain mindful of how we are feeling, what we are thinking and ultimately why we are there. Every day is a chance to practice, sometimes you’re called on to perform.

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.

Confidence and humility in leaders

One of the joys of my job is the ability to observe people performing in their roles as leaders. The psychologist in me loves the field study presented every day. Over the last 25 years I’ve had the fortune to observe a number of hugely successful leaders perform live in their roles and to see the rise (and sometimes fall) of many others.

Amongst the most successful, those that no only lead their organisation to success, but who manage to do it whilst remaining generally popular, liked and trusted, there exists the ability to manage one of the most important tensions in leadership. That between confidence and humility.

For decades, we’ve approached appointments into leadership with an unnatural focus on confidence. We base our assessments around it, we appraise and review people against it and, particularly in the West, we have made it a central part of our definition of a leader.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of our corporate scandals have resulted from a level of over confidence bordering on arrogance. When you create a boardroom full of over confident (normally) white (normally) men, throw in a large dose of confirmation bias, the relentless pursuit of a collective goal is both a strength and a fundamental weakness.

What great leaders and leadership teams bring, is the counterbalance of humility. In fact, as we see public demands for greater transparency, better governance and a broader social purpose, it would be fair to argue that the need for humility becomes even greater.

The relentless pursuit needs to be balanced with collective responsibility, a constant awareness of strength and weakness, a collective conscious and the willingness to understand and accept when things have gone, or are going, wrong. Simply put, the best leaders are able to accept that they cannot, and will not, always be right. And they are ok with that.

For those of us that work in and around HR, recruitment, leadership assessment, our challenge is how we help to redefine the established norms in our organisations and work. We all need leaders that aspire us, who breed confidence and hope and who will follow over the top. But we also need those that are strong enough to admit that sometimes, they’ll get it wrong.

 

Pious indignation and false promises

Running an organisation of any size is tricky. There is an assumption that simply because of your position that you must know the correct answer for everything.  Not only must your actions be without criticism, but your intentions too. And we will be the judges and juries of both.

Our intolerance of imperfection and propensity for cynicism serves us badly.

I’m in no way trying to absolve genuinely corrupt, immoral and (let’s be honest) bad organisations. Merely to make an argument for encouragement for improvement, rather than blanket judgment. It should also be said that this isn’t a factor of business alone, you could run the same slide rule over politics and other parts of society too.

Last week Tortoise published their assessment of the FTSE100 against the UN  sustainable development goals, you can see the full report here. What I think is fascinating about the approach is that it looks at both actions and PR, the walk and the talk. Of the top 20 companies overall, only 4 were “guilty” of overselling their actions and many quite significantly undersold their performance. Probably not what you’d think from big business, right?

Compare and contrast with the annual vacuous press release from the CIPD and High Pay Centre which talks about FTSE100 pay, high on moral indignation and low on understanding and intellectual rigour. Frothing at the mouth and screaming into the abyss on a topic of significant complexity without any intention to encourage or support change.

We say that we want change and then we right off progress as “washing”. Pinkwashing, purpose washing, vegan washing, even woke washing. We will be the judges of whether you really mean what you say, not you.

If we wanted to develop an organisational culture of positive strength, would we start by doubting individual intentions, blanket criticism, reinforcing stereotypes? Or would we praise and recognise, reinforce positive behaviours, encourage?

There is a lot wrong in the world, that goes without saying.  Business, politics, society, sport, media, take your pick. Whilst we should always call out the abuse of power and serious malpractice, I also believe you get the culture you deserve. Maybe we should spend a little more time celebrating and encouraging change, supporting and championing progress?

It might not make for the most exciting headlines, “Organisations do what they say they’re going to do”, or help us absolve our own consciences, but it would sure make for a more pleasant world.