Leadership: Who’d want to do it!

Two of the texts I have drawn on over years when thinking about leadership are from the pen of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, both closely associated with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  The books contain some great ideas about leading adaptively, but actually, I like them as much for the honesty of their titles as the content within them.  The first is Heifetz’ “Leading Without Easy Answers” and the second is Heifetz and Linky’s “Leadership On The Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leadership”. In an age where every management book wants us to believe that there are “three easy answers” to this or “5 simple steps” to that, Heifetz and Linsky want us to understand that there are no easy answers and real leadership often requires the courage to step into harm’s way. They argue that leaders doing adaptive work have often been assassinated – usually metaphorically, but sometimes literally.  They cite examples like Lincoln, Kennedy, King, Rabin and Sadat who, in attempting to re-shape the values and beliefs of their nations paid the ultimate price. Even in the less lofty atmosphere of organisational life, leaders who raise unspeakable truths, seek to make genuine progress on systemic issues that have sat at the core of the organisation for too long or simply attempt to bring colleagues out of the false comfort of their history in order to face the stark realities of their present often get punished. They are ridiculed, ousted, marginalised, fired, all for attempting to lead the work that everyone else has conspired to ignore. So, really, who’d want to be a leader?

Well, let’s imagine it’s you. You believe in your organisation and you can see a bright future for it of which you want to be a part. There are lots of texts around on what you should do to, with and for your followers. I put them under the heading of “adjectival leadership” – you know what I mean, take the word “leadership” and put an adjective in front of it. Think: Servant Leadership, Situational Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Transactional Leadership, Transformational Leadership, Courageous Leadership and the list goes on. All that’s great, but it’s not enough.

Focusing on “them” if only half the battle

Many leaders with whom I work are very outcome focused, which isn’t a bad thing.  Their attention is “out there” on the people, processes, infrastructure and organisation that they are seeking to shape.  One of the ways they might actually be of service to their organisations is to bring some of their focus back on to themselves.  Not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that makes sure they are OK.  In order to separate themselves from the work, to realise that even the attacks on them that feel personal probably aren't and to maintain grace under fire as they do the difficult work of adaptive leadership, leaders need to be grounded and personally centred. It’s a bit like the safety announcement on an aeroplane: “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure oxygen masks will drop from the panel above you… If travelling with children, please ensure your own mask is fitted before attending to minors”. It’s the same for you; if you’re going to look after the wellbeing of others (collectively and individually) you need to look after yourself.

So, while this outward focus on task is critical, equally critical is establishing and maintaining relationships that represent safe places for you. Ask yourself, who are the people you can rely on absolutely, for honest counsel, for unconditional support for who you are (even when they disagree with what you’re doing) and for picking you up when the inevitable hardships of real leadership bring you down? Where are the places you can genuinely say whatever's on your mind, name your own anxieties or conundrums and 'fess up when you feel embattled, bruised or in over your head? Leaders I speak with repeatedly describe their role as a lonely one, which is sad, don’t you think? Imagine spending the greatest proportion of your waking hours each week doing something that leaves you feeling lonely.

There is another way.

You, however, have a choice. Open up your calendar right now and have a look at it.  How much time have you scheduled this week for connecting with the people that matter to you? Next week? Ever? How consciously are you prioritising seeking out the people you trust to spend time with them as a way of staying safe, and sane as you do your leadership work? Now open your contacts and scroll through them. How many people are in there that you just don’t spend enough time with? They might be people inside your world of work or outside. You know what comes next. Find spaces in your calendar; make spaces if you have to and reconnect with the people who matter most.

This isn’t some self-indulgent pleasure seeking activity and it isn’t something you do instead of or to avoid “real” work; it is the real work of leaders. If you really believe your vision for your organisation is important then you need to be around to help make it happen. If the work is about fundamentally shifting the entrenched, comfortable ways of your people then they’re going to put you in harm’s way. Creating a personal sanctuary through sustaining relationships might just be the missing link in your leadership practice.

Cameron Houston, Principal, Batley Evans & Co.

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