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?
When my kids were little I’d ask them to clear the table. In response they’d take their plates and put them on the side. As they grew older and with a little direction, they learnt to take other peoples’ plates too and maybe put the salt and pepper back in the cupboard. As young adults now, I consider it a win if on asking them to clear the table, they take the plates, cutlery and glasses and put them in the dishwasher, tidy away the condiments and wipe the table clear of any stains or spills.
The same instruction, different interpretations of completion.
Throughout our lives we are faced with tasks , some we are given and some we give to others. How often as leaders do we have a clear vision of completion without a clear articulating of the outcomes that we want to see? And how often do we find ourselves frustrated when we complete a task, only to be told that it doesn’t meet the requirements of others?
Our ability to successfully contract is critical to collaboration, to organisational efficiency and to the effective delivery of goals. We have to balance the clarity that we need to achieve desired outcomes, with the empowerment that is required to ensure engaged, motivated teams working with forward momentum. It’s a tricky balance. And of course, the onus is not on one party, but all of those involved.
So next time you’re handing out a task, project or objective, or alternatively next time you’re being asked to complete one. Consider what assumptions you’re making about the outcomes that you think are required. Have you clearly articulated what’s important and what is free to be determined? Being specific and clear at the beginning might take a little more time and thought, but ultimately it will improve the performance of your organisation or team.
As the schools start to break up, thoughts turn to the summer holidays and, for many, their only true break from the world of work. Whether travelling away, staying with friends or family, or simply taking time out at home, a holiday is an important and valuable part of the employment deal and an individual’s wellbeing.
I’ve written before about the weird passive aggressive behaviour that tends to go on before the Christmas break, the key connection being our ability to demonstrate respect for one another. When someone is on holiday, they’re on holiday. Go back 30 years and we would have had absolutely zero opportunity to contact someone who had chosen to go away. Did businesses still run? Of course they did.
Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. But the responsibility sits on both sides of the fence, the boss that wants to know everything and prevents decisions being made in their absence is as bad as the one that contacts their employees when they’re trying to take a break.
Of course there are emergencies and exceptions, I’m not being overly purist about this, but for the large part the success of a leader is their ability to build teams who can survive prosper and be successful in their absence. The desire to always be involved or the need to have to be involved are both signs of imperfection within the system.
And at the heart of it, annual leave is an employee benefit. It is hard to think of any other benefit that one would give and then demand a bit back. “Your pension contribution is normally 10%, but this month we’ve reduced it to 8% to help us pay for an answer to a question we couldn’t work out on our own.” It just doesn’t make sense.
Whether you’re going on holiday or have team that are going away, ask yourself what you need to do to get the most from it, to allow everyone time to relax and recharge. You can’t change the behaviours of others, but you can always be a role model whatever your position within a team. Taking time out is as important as contributing fully when you’re in – we should be mindful to treat it that way.
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.