It’s 8.00 PM on Sunday. I usually take this precious time to plan my schedule for the coming week. My second child Alex comes to my desk and asks me to help him with his Math homework. He’s in Primary Five. Slightly annoyed, I tell him to sit quietly next to me and only consult me if he gets stuck. I’m not happy with the invasion of privacy, but I want to be a good mum.
“Mum... I don’t know how to answer this question. Can you help me?”, Alex pipes up. “Sure, darling”, I reply. I stop my work, give him the answer, and get straight back to my work. Just leave me in peace.
“Mum... I don’t know how to answer this question. Can you help me?”, Alex pipes up again. This is starting to test my patience. “Sure, darling”, gritting my teeth. I give him the answer and get back to my work. Pleeease, just leave me in peace.
“Mum.... ”, Alex pipes up again. It dawns on me who is doing Alex’s homework. Not Alex. Obviously. Alex wasn’t even trying; he was just waiting for me to tell him exactly what to write. I blow up at him: “This is not fair! Why can’t you do it yourself?!!”
“I really can’t do it. I’m not good at Math”, Alex says, with his big innocent eyes.
This was not the first time Alex was asking me for help. I’ve been helping him with his Math homework since he was Primary Three. He would approach me at the last minute: right before bedtime. I’d be so knackered at the end of the day that I just dictated the answers to him. I had no patience to teach him “by first principle”. I just wanted it over and done with. Chop chop lollipop, which suited Alex just fine. Over two years, this had become a finely tuned habit.
“How you do one thing is how you do everything.”
At meetings at work, people come to me with their pressing problems and vent their frustrations: “It can’t be done!” My plate is already full, but yet I grit my teeth, put on my Dalai Lama smile, and fix it for them. It doesn’t stop there. It happens again and again. I carry around a beautiful red backpack. “Oh, you can’t do it? Let me fix it”, and pop it goes into my gorgeous backpack. I keep filling it. Until I end up with a situation where people are always frustrated and venting; no one grows, some regress, and I’m overwhelmed. Organisational psychologists have a term for this: learned helplessness. People no longer feel like they can make their own decisions but instead become overly dependent on the boss for direction or approval. Repeated over time, they gradually begin to lose their sense of confidence and competence.
As I’m writing this, it’s dawning on me how ridiculous this sounds. It like I’m working really hard taking a giant leap backwards. Oops.
If it’s bad for you, why do you keep doing it?
I want to be a good boss. I just want to help.
Erm… when I’m under intense pressure, or when I have irate customers screaming for blood due to a screw-up, or when catastrophic failure seems imminent, it’s next to impossible not to get involved.
That’s honest. But let’s go deeper… do you get a kick out of it?
Well, it does make me feel good about myself. I feel like a hero: "Move aside. I can sort this out in 5 minutes.” I’m such a perfectionist. I nitpick at people’s work: “This is unacceptable. Let me handle it.”
And in it goes into my red backpack. But each time the backpack weighs a little more until one day it becomes too much. My teeth are gritted out. The power bitch fully emerges, “Why can’t you do this yourself?!!” And marching orders ensue.
EASIER SAID THAN DONE
This is not the image of the leader that I want to be. In an ideal world, I’ll be 100% focused on developing people. I’ll be the poster child of enlightened leadership, promoting the virtues of delegation and empowerment. I’ll be a paragon of virtue, exercising godly patience and divine wisdom.
I’ve read all the leadership theories. But too many times I’ve fallen into the trap of clinging to power instead of transforming people. I feel like a schizophrenic sometimes. One minute I’m a coach acknowledging great work, the next minute I’m a military dictator barking orders.
JUST KEEP SWIMMING
But I didn’t give up.
And as I clumsily persist through my split personality disorder, I begin to understand that leadership presence is a powerful and practical method to elevate the habitual conversations that actually comprise most of my day: the venting, the griping, the snarky remarks, the TWOT meetings (total waste of time) and the NATO summits (no action, talk only).
If I view these as everyday conversations to rush through or tolerate on the way to something more important, they become a crushing waste of time. Just another tick in a long list of back-to-back meetings. But from a leadership perspective, each of these interactions is a golden moment, an opportunity to bring about profound change. People leave the conversation feeling more confident, empowered and energised for action.
I knew this theoretically. But the slow, tedious task of listening and acknowledging others is a way of bringing this piece of intellectual knowledge into my own experience. And to keep people from lapsing into learned helplessness, I discover, I have to slow down - I have to help them generate their own ideas and solutions to their problems, instead of trying to solve it for them. In practical terms, that means taking the time to “listen" to the whole person - verbal, physical, emotional, ask thoughtful questions, articulate my deeper thinking, patiently repeating it again and again, without bringing out my bazooka and blasting away the problems preventing me from reaching some future goal I view as more important.
This kind of leadership presence forces a kind of full-bodied awareness, sensitive to every thought and gesture. We’ve become so used to working half-bodied: over-developed IQ and infantile EQ. So this way of working will take time. But it also gives time back. It gives me back my life, every moment of it.
I’ve been consciously nurturing my leadership presence for over five years now, and I’m still not done. But I am making progress. Two of my sons are sitting for their national exams, and they are managing themselves. When employees leave us, they don’t go to work for a competitor, they become entrepreneurs.
I am not in the list of Top 50 CEOs, at least not yet. Someday I’ll become a great CEO, and be revered for my bold vision and charisma. In the meantime, I’ll show up. Fully. To lead. In the way only I can.
7-DAY CHALLENGE: EMPOWERING CONVERSATIONS
Often when we have conversations, our attention is on solving the problem for other people. To have an empowering conversation, focus instead on helping them generate their own ideas and solutions to their problems. It helps to remind yourself that your role here is to help people think better, and not to tell them what to do.
These are powerful tools for building trust and collaboration with other people. They will feel heard and understood. They feel acknowledged and valued. It gives them an opening to bring their ideas to somewhere new and take their game to the next level.
There are four steps to this power combo, but each step on its own also packs a punch. Try a different step each day, then combine them all. Commit to at least give it a try and experience for yourself the difference it makes.
I recommend experimenting with this 4-step power combo (LAST):
Listen to the person for 2 minutes without interrupting them. Meet them where they are. Focus completely on them, giving them your full attention, as if every word they say, every tone of voice, conveys a special meaning. Notice when your own thoughts creep in, or when you find yourself drifting off into other thoughts. The key thing here is to recognise it. Then bring your attention back to where they are.
Share with the person the essence of what you heard as clearly and succinctly as possible, ideally, in 7 - 10 words, in your own words. It’s like you’re sifting for the gold in what the person is saying, polishing it, and then holding it up for their consideration.
Employee: The global team just dropped a bomb on me. They want me to organise an event in 1 month for our important clients, and they don’t have a budget. It’s like they are setting me up to fail!
You: Sounds like you’ve been given an impossible task, but you’re up for it.
Employee: Yeah, it’s ridiculous, but I may have a few tricks up my sleeve.
Ask questions that support the person to be in a confident and motivated state so that they can come up with their own ideas and solutions.
“How would you like this to be different?”
“Could you describe the ideal outcome in this situation?”
“How can you hit this one out of the park?”
“What will blow their minds?"
Make a big deal out of what they do that’s right. “Thank you!” “I love it!” “That’s awesome!” Provide supportive comments about their analytical thought process, innovative ideas and emotional resilience. It’s about catching people doing things right. People want to feel trusted that they are doing their best, and appreciated for the difference that they make. And even more important, don’t make a big deal out of people's mistakes. Pay more attention to the behaviour you want to encourage and don’t dwell on the behaviour you don’t. Energy follows attention.
EXPERIENCE ITS MAGICAL EFFECTS
Having an empowering conversation requires being relaxed and at ease, fully present in the moment with the other person and open to your intuition. Don’t worry about getting the technique perfect. The key thing is to stay open and present in the moment with the other person. It takes time. Go slow. Pick one conversation a day. Enjoy it. Experience its magical effects - on yourself and the other person.
WILL LEADERSHIP COACHING WORK FOR YOU?
Some of you may be feeling exhausted and depleted, and you are beginning to see that to scale yourself and your organisation, you have to become a different type of leader. You have read the leadership literature. You want to simplify your approach to leadership, becoming more strategic about where you put your attention. Laser-sharp focus on the things that matter, and create profound impact. You want to unhook from old patterns that are holding you back. You are committed to making it happen.
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