The shadow you cast

A number of years ago I was dealing with the behaviour of an executive colleague. For a number of reasons their conduct had been called into question and we were trying to unpick a somewhat difficult situation. Once it was all sorted I was amazed to hear other colleagues tell me that this had been a repetitive occurrence throughout their career.

Whilst they’d been more junior within the organisation, their behaviour had been an annoyance; troublesome but manageable. But as they progressed through the ranks (one can question the judgment of those that facilitated this rise) it started to be more damaging to the organisation as a whole, it created a bigger impression.

The closer to the sun you climb, the larger the shadow you cast.

I used this phrase last week to talk about the importance of leadership role models. It’s a factor that many leaders forget and therefore undervalue the potential benefit. To put it another way, as a leader you can choose to behave in a way that not only benefits those directly around you, but those further afield in your organisation.

With all the talk of authentic leadership, we forget to explore the reason why. What lies behind the value of authenticity? The simple answer is that people will engage and follow authenticity more readily. But I think it is even more important than that.

I can’t cite the evidence, but I was told recently about a study of people on London buses. They found that when a passenger alighted the bus and said “thank you” to the driver, the probability of other passengers doing the same increased. Similarly, the same has been seen with passengers giving up seats on trains or picking up litter in the street.

And at the same time, we know that if the person carrying out the act is in a perceived position of power, the effect is multiplied.

If you’re a leader in an organisation you have both an opportunity and responsibility to role model the behaviours that you want to see and to encourage them in every interaction. The power goes much further than any leadership development intervention, value statement or strategic model. And even better it costs nothing and can be deployed at will.

So what are you waiting for?

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.