Several little data points have come to me over the past few weeks, reminding me about how hard it is to be a great or even a good leader. It's been comments made by executives about their teams. The anger of team members when their leadership team had got something wrong. What appeared to be a jealous pile on after a business announced it was giving their staff a week off for a rest.
I write a lot about leaders needing to be accountable and to understand their teams are people. I don't write much about the reality that our leaders are no different. We expect our leaders to be better than us. To know more. To 'see us'. To not be an arsehole. To lead the way. To be brave. To not be avoidant or biased. To be devoid of blind spots.
And our leaders feel they need to be this too. Often they will have convinced themselves they are just to keep going. And off the back of that they project their failure to be so on to staff. That under performing person? That team not coping with change? That's their problem. Nothing to do with the leader. Because it's not safe for it to be their fault any more than it is safe for the under performing staff member to say they need help.
I often tell a story from my late twenties when I was employed as an independent panel member to sit on Public Sector recruitment panels. The majority of the work was for senior and executive roles, and it gave me a profound insight into the humanity of being a senior leader. It was clear quickly that most senior leaders are simply the people who put their hand up. Executives might have more 'experience' they can point to than others (because they are the ones who repeatedly put up their hands), but they don't necessarily possess any greater capacity to lead or even more knowledge than anyone else.
So what traits do great leaders have? Of course, there have probably been more words written about this than any other topic (and I have written a bunch of them here), so I am just going to draw on a brief description that resonates with my experience working with organisations in this space. Executive Coach Monique Valcour, writing for Harvard Business Review, states the following:
"Tools can be handy aids to good leadership. But none of them can take the place of fearless introspection, feedback-seeking, and committed efforts to behavioural change for greater effectiveness and increased positive impact on others."
Note here she is talking about the leader's behavioural change for their own greater effectiveness, not their team's. Insofar as great leaders considers themselves at all, it is in understanding how they can be better people.
Better people. Not better leaders.
Pause now for a minute and ask yourself how many people you know in your life (not just your work) who undertake fearless introspection, seek and maturely examine feedback and commit – genuinely commit - to behaviour change for the sake of others. Not for the purposes of getting ahead or getting one over someone else. And if you reflexively think, "well, I do", then I can tell you now you probably don't. And that's ok, as I'll go on to explain.
Because none of us does. Even the very small number of people actively seeking out this kind of personal development – which doesn't come from simply reading self-help books or the latest management speak – are flawed and human. They will, from time to time, be irrationally angry or intentionally unkind. They will miss an important point or have an area that's too raw to allow them to respond rationally. And let's face it (and certainly this corresponds to my experience working with teams), these people - the best among us - are not the people putting up their hand to run the show. They are the people humbly just getting on with it.
And for the rest of us who largely walk around like hot messes trying to pretend we have our shit together - those of us who make up the vast majority of the population, including our leaders - we'd all do much better to lose the pretence and engage in some genuine "how do I be a good human" reflection ourselves. It means when we judge our leaders, we should understand that they are simply us plus the audacity to put their hand up.
It might seem that the logical next step from that is to be wary of anyone who puts their hand up. I'd suggest the answer is actually to seek out and encourage those who don't to do so. Think about who doesn't put their hand up for a moment. In addition to those who have the humility to be great leaders, it's those who are marginalised. In the above mentioned article, Valcour talks about fours ways all of us can be a better leader (quoted):
Share your experience. To serve as a role model for self-directed learning, share your own learning process and experiences. Discuss the problems you're working on and ask for ideas from team members about how to resolve them.
Ask the right questions. When team members ask you how they should proceed, stimulate their thinking with questions rather than answers. Ask team members to talk you through how they are thinking about work problems and what might help. Ask other people to contribute ideas.
Put yourself in their shoes. When you feel frustration at a team member arising within yourself, label the feeling as an opportunity to learn something about leadership. Try considering the situation from their point of view instead of reacting from frustration.
Acknowledge achievements. Recognise and praise proactive behaviour whenever you see it occurring.
These are the kinds of acts that create a culture where anyone – the humble, the marginalised – anyone who is interested is much more likely to put their hand up simply because they have been asked, heard and respected. And the leader, in these conexts in asking for input and support, is able to be and be seen as human too.
While this might feel all a bit too lovie-duvie, Amy C. Edmonson Novartis, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and the pre-eminent voice on psychological safety, believes creating this kind of culture is key to running successful and sustainable businesses. Without it, innovation is stifled, employees fail to highlight issues, diversity and inclusion initiatives fail, and in the context of health and community services organisations, clients' wellbeing can be put at risk.
Don't get me wrong, the creation of this kind of culture realistically needs to be driven from the top to create system change in an organisation simply because of the power dynamic inherent in hierarchy. And that is why I focus so much of my work there. But our organisations are human systems, with all the wonderfulness and complexity and frailty that entails. While we continue to pretend that our boss's humanity is left at the door when they enter the workplace (even if that's often metaphorical these days), we'll be frustrated by their imperfection and we'll contribute to the bubble they find themselves in where they feel compelled to avoid hard things and/or deflect or project blame. The traits of great leadership are the traits of being a great human. There aren't many of them. It's something all of us can aspire to.