Monday, 1 March 2010

Leadership under pressure

"This more effective breed of leader takes time to reflect and consider,
they create thinking space around them."

Most of the people I work with are pressured. At a senior level there is an ever present fear of cuts, whichever party wins the 2010 election. Many are already making efficiency savings, or dealing with actual reductions. This causes a rigorous self-evaluation and justification as the calls for "Impact Evidence" and "Value for Money" become shrill. A stressful and distressing context. How do leaders react to this?

There are poor leaders, mere managers, who transfer their pressure downwards by hectoring colleagues below them. When I meet their unfortunate colleagues I hear them feeling undervalued and demotivated. Unless they are strong themselves this dumping downwards becomes a hopeless spiral as, in turn, their subordinate front line workers soak up the pressure to perform. They then go home to, "kick the cat " the weakest link at the end of the line.

Financial and political "churn" is an overwhelmingly negative experience for people like this and those they, literally, manage to demotivate. Such colleagues are the bewildered recipients of seemingly disconnected initiatives, victims unable to do anything but attack their mounting list of urgent doings for the day. They try to work longer, speak louder, drive faster and do more and more themselves in a belief that somehow, "it can all be done". They are attempting to become "Supercolleague" (see poem in Writings). Behind this lurks the self destructive belief that, "Somehow, it is all my fault ". If we start to believe that we risk seeing ourselves as failures - clogged up cogs. Many of us have "been there" at some time in our career. I learnt most about good leadership when I was "there".

But there is hope because I meet a different breed of colleague who inhabits the other end of this continuum. They are a calmer and more measured professional who is either a good leader or led by one. Their mental model of leadership is fed by a clearer moral purpose. These effective leaders take the longer view. They are able to incorporate the same pressures, the same initiatives, the same drives for efficiency and effectiveness into a coherent pattern of work. They have learned to develop a strategic view. They understand we cannot have long lists of priorities. They say, "No", more often, in order to say, " Yes" when it is important. They make time to reflect and consider. They create thinking space around them and want to be sure that we get things right.

In reality, most of us flit up and down this continuum and whilst we know where we should be and what we should be doing, we find it hardest to be strategic when we are pressured and tired. We tend to do rather than delegate and to cut our reflection time. At worst we fail to build the capacity of other to take the load.

Most of us know we ought to think strategically and remain calm - remain calm and think strategically. We know that having colleagues, friends and "wise others" is critical. We sense that these very best of people, in the worst of times, generate a measured sense of, "How we might do it better - How we can work through this". They help us become the, "Yes, we can" leaders. Sometimes, they do this by becoming the extra pair of eyes and ears, or the extra thinking head we need. Or, they just roll up their sleeves and become an extra pair of hands to share the burden.

I now understand that these leaders have passed through the middling stage of independence - the, "I can do it!" the "I'm OK - not my problem - over to you" stage and climbed to the highest stage of interdependence. They have summited to a better place. They say, "We are in this together - sometimes I'll need you - thank you - sometimes you'll need me - I'm here". They understand there is such a thing as society because they spend their time creating it. This is where we should all aspire to be.

I want to work in culture, and yes, live in a society, made up of people who see the interconnectedness and are willing to lead and, on occasions be led , as interdependent colleagues and citizens.

"At times of greatest pressure, when the temptation to go it alone is strongest
- it will be the interdependent who are most useful to us"

As I write I hear the mantras, "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good people to say nothing".....
"You can judge a society best by how it treats the vulnerable".... "No man is an island"... And I am appalled at the professionals who ignored baby Peter's injuries, or ignored the calls from Fiona Pilkington who, in despair, took her life and that of her daughter. I have less and less tolerance for those who see their independence and temporary invulnerability as a mark of success. I admit to despising those who go it alone, walk on the other side, or pity the vulnerable whilst feeling good and taking the bonus. Why? Because, they are behaving like the poorest leaders I described above - fixated by their own survival. And, I agree, my distaste, is fuelled by knowing that I when I am pressured.. I veer there too.

So what marks out the interdependent leaders? Listen to what they say, watch them work and they will model "I can help you - let me" and later, with equal meaning and importance and without a shade of failure, "I need help - help me".

If enough of us understand this interdependence and take the help offered, or offer the help needed it will all balance. If we can achieve a critical mass it will work. If independents prevail - there is less hope. At times of greatest pressure, when the temptation to go it alone is strongest - it will be the interdependent who are most useful to us. Because they embody sustainability

Perhaps I should rebrand myself as an Interdependent Consultant...