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?

 

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.

 

Time and space is the greatest gift

Anyone who has ever been through the process of moving house understands the sensation of discovering a vast array of stuff that has been squirreled away in various cupboards, drawers and hideaways over the years. We also all probably recognise the thought process that led to us holding on to the item in the first place. It goes something like this,

I’ll get rid of that. 

Wait, hang on…maybe it will be useful.

I’ve got space.

I’ll just tuck it in here.

Fantastic, I’ll always have that, you know, just in case…

And of course, the extra foot for the microwave oven, the instructions for the long broken CD player, the box from the expensive chocolates that we were bought by a random relative several years ago, all sit idle in the cupboard in which they were placed until we are absolutely compelled to face into their inutility and avoid the transportation costs.

Unfortunately, we very rarely have the same opportunity within our organisations to spring clean and start afresh. The one exception that I can think of is in a merger or acquisition, where there are a new set of eyes looking in the metaphorical cupboards. So instead of cleaning out we continue to either force more “stuff” into the available space or instead increase capacity.

But we aren’t dealing with cupboards and stuff, we are dealing with people and processes and the effect of this is to place our colleagues and teams under increasing pressure to manage the conflicting requirements in a bewildered and beffudled state. How many times have you heard, “I just don’t know why we do this anymore?” or, “I’m not actually sure what happens with that”?

And our organisational lives are even worse, because when we “move house”, instead of taking our rubbish with us, we leave it behind for someone else to come and add to. Generation and generation of leaders come, take a look and implement. Because we all know that if something isn’t happening, the answer is to change the process…right?

Every organisation exists to fulfill a clear purpose, management is about helping to achieve that purpose, it is never and should never be an activity in itself. We exist to help and facilitate our teams and people, to make their lives easy, to allocate resource and to remove barriers.

Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to get the hell out of the way, to declutter and throw out those unnecessary activities and to create a bit of space to breathe, think and act. That, my friends, is true leadership.