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The world has changed. We’ve gone through an enormous shift in how we communicate. We’ve undoubtedly become accustomed to and comfortable with communicating via text messaging, social media and emails. This has been a mainstay for many years now. What has shifted, due to circumstance, is the rise and competency of using technology across platforms to communicate. We’ve actually become very good at it. What it’s highlighted though is the fundamental need and significant benefits of face-to-face interaction.
Humans are social animals. This has never been more evident than now. Whilst many enjoyed isolation and the chance to maybe slow down elements of their world, this only lasted for so long. Ultimately there came a yearning for contact with others. The virtual world has its place and is here to stay but nothing compares to a real community, spending physical time with people in a place with shared purpose, collaboration and support. The feeling of being in the physical presence of others can never be replicated online.
I’ve written previously about how we must learn from the last few months and identify how we can keep the best of the technological revolution. This period has certainly given us time to master the tools at our disposal. Over the last few months we have started to understand how powerful technology can be in allowing us to collaborate virtually. We’ve Zoomed, Teamed, Skyped, shared on Google Drive, connected in hangouts, brainstormed on Trello. There has been a widespread embracement of technology as an effective and efficient tool. Those who may not normally contribute to meetings have found their voice and stepped out of the shadows, they’ve found a way to overcome whatever it was that may have held them back in the physical meeting world. We’ve found more efficiency in splitting into virtual breakout rooms with counters timing us and bringing us back to share our contributions. I’ve noticed in the virtual world that the more people can actually see each other the greater the virtual collaboration. The ability to see the person you are connecting with is so powerful. The visual provides connection. The one common denominator across all platforms has been has been the presence of people. Regardless of the tools there is no collaboration without people and without relationships.
There has certainly been a change to the way we work. Many of our professional interactions have now transitioned online. In our online professional world we don’t have to carve out travel time, we have the flexibility to move from meeting to meeting instantaneously and then exit straight into another body of work. There is no doubt that this is more time efficient and has the potential to increase our productivity. At times, I have enjoyed working without the distractions of a physical office, the ability to concentrate and maximise the cognitive load without noise has had its upside. At times though the isolation has left me reaching out feeling professionally isolated from a collaborative space. The ability to walk past a colleague and have the incidental conversation, the opportunity to bounce ideas around whilst waiting for a coffee, or standing by the photocopier, to walk into a colleagues office and be able to brainstorm or problem solve and then reach out again when that next thought comes to mind are parts of the physical office space that have the potential to enhance our creativity. When new ideas start to emerge you can actually feel the energy in a room, the enthusiasm increases, the vision builds and the motivation to act becomes palpable. These elements combine to make the physical office space an effective working environment that is potentially lacking in the virtual world.
I acknowledge that professionally, the use of technology has brought people together by allowing us to easily connect with colleagues through the click of a button. We are not completely isolated. The opportunity to easily connect across geographical boundaries has been extremely beneficial. What I miss from the physical meeting space though is the ability to read the room and get a feeling for the conversation or the mood of participants. We know that research suggests that 93% of communication is non-verbal. In the online environment it’s difficult to identify the micro elements of body language, a shift in energy, the non-verbals that allow you to adjust your delivery are components lost in our online world. It’s difficult to tell if you are capturing the audience, if you are able to maintain their attention, the temptation for participants to multi task can be overpowering regardless of how good your message is. The research suggests that 65% of your audience are sending emails, checking social media, eating or marking off their task list whilst you are delivering statics. The social nature of our make-up requires you to interact, ask questions and get feedback to keep people engaged and on task. This is a challenge for our online presentations and again demonstrates the power of face to face.
At some level almost every person will be looking to embed the use of technology in their professional world and use the lessons learnt to enhance what they do. Technology used correctly has the power to enhance relationships, we must ensure though, that it doesn’t take them over. Having our heads buried in a device can have a negative impact.
Quite often when we have to deliver an important message with a degree of detail we default to using email. It’s quick, it’s effective, it captures all the information and is an efficient method. It is can also be couched in professional language that can appear to be quite impersonal. At times perception plays a part as the recipient tries to ‘read between the lines’ or misinterprets the message, the tone of your voice and your body language reinforces your message and underlines your intent. I challenge you next time you are going to send that email pick up the phone and have a conversation or better still when permitted and if you are able, walk through the building, find them and have the conversation face to face. To tailor your message to the recipient in person is a highly effective strategy. I guarantee it will be more productive, more enjoyable and potentially more empowering for the person receiving the message as they can clarify, question and deepen their understanding.
In our fast paced digital age we need to slow down and take time to interact in person. Successful leadership requires personal interactions. We are in a people-centric profession. The personal interactions that build a sense of community set the foundation for trust and ultimately this is the bedrock of relationships. As we all know the 3Rs in education are so important. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Technology has its place but it will never replace human connection.
Uncertainty is a great catalyst for learning. When we are faced with uncertainty a signal is sent to the brain that something is not right, that something is different. There is often a feeling of discomfort and a range of emotions that accompany uncertainty. In our current climate uncertainty is possibly the only element that is certain. Our current global challenge has provided the most uncertain period in living memory and has left many people in an unfamiliar environment where they have been forced outside their comfort zones. Many of us have found ourselves operating in the discomfort zone. This is a place where, whilst uncomfortable, we are open to new learning and if we act on it, accept it and wrestle with the challenge we have a significant opportunity to expand what may be possible.
The discomfort zone is a place that challenges how people view a system, a behaviour, a belief, an attitude or a plan. Being in the discomfort zone interrupts how we would normally deal with or behave towards a certain situation or in a particular circumstance. It poses enough challenge that it forces you stop and pause. In some cases it seems insurmountable which can lead to us finding a work around or in some instances ignoring it altogether and refusing to engage. Those that choose this path are closed to learning at this stage and will find it difficult to engage with the predicament. Currently, there is no ignoring the discomfort, it’s worldwide and how we choose to sit with discomfort may be a defining moment.
In many circumstances skilled leaders have used the discomfort zone as part of the development process for those they lead. Through targeted conversations they draw people to realisations, shifts in perception and possibly self-awareness of how values, attitudes and beliefs impact on behaviour. By having these conversations at the right time with the right person you may be able to help create a new awareness and see growth and change by developing an agreed course of action. For this to be most successful the person has to be open to change, feel safe and be ready for it. However given our current climate change is here whether we are ready or not forcing us deep into the discomfort zone.
While it may not feel like it at the moment, this period of discomfort will go a long way in building your leadership skill set. No one likes to feel uncomfortable especially when others are looking to you for guidance and answers. For many of us when we get into an uncomfortable situation in professional settings we start to second guess our ability. We have doubts, we question our skill set, we make comparisons with others ability to cope in this setting. A flood of questions wash over us, are we intelligent enough? Do we have enough knowledge in this area? What is someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t have a solution? This leads us down the next path where we start to think of reasons why we shouldn’t take on the challenge. The fear of making a mistake in front of our peers or those we lead can be crippling. This negative self-talk, this skewed perception, this sometimes visceral emotional response is a result of being in the discomfort zone. As leaders we like a plan, some certainty, there is comfort in knowing we have control over the direction. It can be extremely challenging to lead in uncertain times, when you don’t have all the answers. But we need perspective, this is not excruciating pain that is never ending. It is for the most part a moment in time, a series of events that are punctuated with briefs moments of discomfort.
Moving into the discomfort zone has become increasingly challenging in modern society. We have shifted from a landscape of challenge to one where we have so many supportive structures in place that we limit our interaction with discomfort. We have unintentionally eroded some of our natural resilience to discomfort. On a personal level we surround ourselves with like-minded people, our social media feeds are made up of those that we agree with, our posts are highlights carefully crafted to reflect a particular image, photos are cropped and retaken to ensure we are comfortable with what we are portraying. In some ways the ‘everyone is a winner’ and ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality that has gripped our society has impacted on our ability to work in discomfort. These carefully constructed environments limit our potential to grow and explore what is possible.
There are many who try to resist discomfort. In doing so they deny themselves an important opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, to break away from underlying assumptions and perspectives that may be limiting their view or potential opportunities. The challenge is to persist and move past that feeling of wanting to return back to what was comfortable. It’s a valuable exercise to listen to your internal dialogue during times of discomfort. What thoughts are you having? Are you looking for ways out? Are you using language that escalates your feelings of discomfort? Do you have a physical reaction? Does your pulse race? Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? How do you manage this? Making yourself aware and drawing your attention to your reaction is the first step in overcoming it. Remember emotions are responses to stimuli and are no reason not to take on a challenge.
Once your mind settles into the discomfort of a challenge a change happens. As the work starts to unfold it actually becomes increasingly comfortable and possibly exciting as you lean into the challenge and explore what is possible. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort may be the most important skill we take out of this pandemic. Sure, no one likes feeling uncomfortable, but think of the incredible work you and your teams have been able to achieve whilst operating in the most uncertain of environments. Discomfort forces us to view our circumstances from a completely different perspective and stretches us to imagine what might be possible. If we learn no other lesson maybe we could inject some unpredictability into our leadership challenges to normalise the feeling of discomfort. By doing this we can ride the wave and understand that it will end.
What is it that you will take away from this period that will become the new normal for you? What will you let go of that you have done without? What will you continue to use, do or act on? How will you manage another period of uncertainty when it comes, because it will come, maybe not of this magnitude but you will face uncertain situations in the future. We are now deep into this challenge. It would be interesting to spend some time reflecting on how you have responded. Did you lean in or did you try to swerve?
Just recently I was asked this question ‘Why would anyone be led you?’ It’s a pretty big question and one that I found difficult to answer. The natural reaction was a well-considered “I’m not sure”. There is certain degree of humility required to answer it properly. It definitely provides a significant pause point for reflection. I started by thinking about the most influential leaders that I have worked with and others that I know of or have read about. I considered the leadership traits that they displayed and tried to compare how I lead with how they have led me or lead their teams. It’s an interesting point of comparison. What was it about their style that had people follow them and, in some cases, actively choose to enlist support for them? They certainly displayed a range of highly developed leadership attributes that they were able to draw upon depending on the setting/context they found themselves in. As I started to cross reference the skills and try to identify if I shared similar attributes, I came to a conclusion. People follow you because you are you. Whilst I may collect elements from each leader, ultimately it is how I choose to implement the various skills that make up my leadership. I can’t try to be like another leader, I need to be me.
It’s not just a compelling vision or an ability to inspire that will see people willingly be led by you. Vision and inspiration help to get a journey started but they only last for so long. When the day to day work begins and the routine sets in it’s your leadership that helps keep the momentum. There is a wide range of leadership characteristics that form part of any successful leaders’ armoury. Courage, honesty, integrity, humility, instinct, empathy are all key qualities and not every leader has access to them all. The one quality that every leader does have access to though is themselves. Why would anyone be led by you? Because you are you. Being authentically you and not trying to be anyone else is a significant leadership lesson. I’m not suggesting we are all perfectly made, we all have flaws, but they make up you. The is no definitive list of leadership attributes because as the context shifts and relationships change successful leaders must adapt to the circumstances and call upon the skills needed at that time in that context. When circumstances change and they will, trying to lead based on someone else’s style can be difficult to navigate and leave you feeling like a fraud. If you are always trying to be copy of somebody else then your talents and gifts never get an opportunity to shine.
It continues to surprise me how many leaders try to be someone who they are not. It takes a great deal of energy to be someone you are not and those that we lead get a sense that there is an incongruence between your words and actions. Being ourselves and showing that we have areas for development sends a very strong message, that we accept growth, that we can’t do it all alone and that we will always strive to improve because we can. Being authentic in your leadership by knowing who you are, what your strengths are and your areas for development will do far more to enlist support than striving to be someone you are not. Authentic leaders show a self-awareness that allows them to display their vulnerabilities without losing influence. These leaders have an sharp sense of timing. There are times for strength in leadership, when everyone is looking to you for guidance and there are times to share vulnerability. Authentic leaders are astute at taking the temperature of the environment and picking the right time to share. It’s not a case that they are trying to manipulate an environment but more an emotional intelligence that allows them to determine that this is what is needed at that point in time. Sharing one of your less glorious moments can certainly take the heat out of a room and lighten the mood whilst a well-crafted narrative about a success can rally support and inspire action.
Authentic leaders hold to their principles. Principles are different from values and beliefs. Your values and beliefs can change over time as you become exposed to a range of experiences. Your principles however are fundamentally you. These are the things that you will not compromise on. Authentic leaders stick firm to their principles, and this shows through in their leadership behaviour and decision making. I’m not suggesting that authentic leaders display a stubbornness that does not allow for compromise. It is more a case of their moral compass is strong in particular areas and this will always drive their decision making and leadership behaviours. These leaders are often described as being genuine. They are honest and don’t have hidden agendas which leave people guessing about their intent. They may not be open books and are certainly gifted strategists knowing when to share and when to keep information close, but their purpose is always aligned to their principles and is perfectly understood by those they lead. There is a consistency about their leadership that provides a degree of certainty and dependability. You know in times of complexity these leaders will roll up the sleeves and get to work to ensure that those they lead have the confidence to get the job done. There is a great deal of trust that develops when our leaders provide certainty amidst the chaos. The calming influence of a leader who has both hands on the wheel as they navigate the obstacles can never be understated.
The one significant challenge that authentic leaders face is growth. Being authentic can mean sometimes the default position is to rely on the skills and talents that have been successful for you in the past. The difficulty here is that what has gotten you to your current level may not be what is required to get you to the next. It’s been described as being caught in your stylistic comfort zone. Expectations change as responsibility increases which can leave you feeling like you are not being authentically you as you are challenged to move outside your comfort zone and potentially re-invent your leadership style. This is where a strong sense of self awareness is needed to identify what it is that you need to do next to continue to develop your leadership capacity. Successful leaders have the self-discipline that is needed to test themselves, to move outside their comfort zone and take on new challenges that will expose them to new learning. The attitude of ‘if you wait until you are ready, you’ll never be ready’ is a driving force here. At times being able to move toward a goal and keep moving forward despite setbacks displays more about your character and authenticity than the actual achievement.
The paradox of authenticity and leadership growth is a natural part of the leadership pathway. I guarantee that you are not the same leader now that you were 5 years ago. We must learn from other leaders. It would be foolish not to examine different styles, but it is your responsibility to take the various elements of leadership and make them your own. You can then choose to implement them in your way, in your context with your people. As you grow and adapt your style you are making it your own which brings authenticity. Herminia Ibarra, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, describes this as being playful with your leadership development. Just like a child would explore and experiment during play, leaders too can extend themselves by moving outside their comfort zones bringing new dimensions to their leadership. Trying on different styles and seeing if they fit your purpose and work for you is all part of the journey. In the end being authentic in your leadership is about being you. Yes, we need to develop, yes, we need to grow but when you look in the mirror you will know the truth. It’s not the title, the position or the power that makes a great leader, it’s the ability to add value to the lives of those you lead. Authentic leaders build trusting relationships, they understand it’s about the people they lead. How do you know if your leadership has left a positive impact? How might you identify this? Take some time to reflect on these questions and then maybe you can answer , why would anyone be led by you?
Have you ever had to make a decision and it just didn’t feel right? As leaders we make decisions all day that have a direct impact on those we lead. We aim to get them right and use all evidence at our disposal to ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of doing so. Occasionally, we’ll be faced with a decision that has us feeling uneasy and a little voice in our heads starts nagging that something is not right. You know that feeling that makes you go back and check that you’ve turned off the iron or makes you hesitate just that fraction before you cross the road in front of a car. We all have those stories when we ‘just knew’, when we had a ‘gut feeling’. Using our instincts has long been a mechanism used for survival. Our ancestors used instinct to recognise that big prehistoric monsters coming over the horizon were dangerous and needed to be avoided. In the modern world our instincts protect us from the metaphorical monster and if used correctly can assist us to navigate the complex nature of leadership.
There is a theory that trusting your gut instincts may be the result of years of experience playing on your subconscious guiding you away from a path you have been down before. Some call it instinct, some intuition, some relying on their gut. Research out of John Hopkins and Harvard Medical has supported a growing body of evidence linking the connection between the gut and the brain. They have identified that within the walls of our digestive system is the enteric nervous system (ENS) which acts as the brain of the gut. The ENS links directly to the brain via the central nervous system on what is known as the gut-brain axis. This axis allows for two way communication between the brain and the gut sending and receiving impulses, and responding to experiences and emotions. Any time you get a physical reaction when faced with decision the axis is at work. If you get a light feeling in the stomach when excited by an idea it’s a pretty good sign that this is an opportunity worth pursuing. On the other hand if you have a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and there is a sense of apprehension it’s pretty clear that this is a definite no. This system acts like an internal moral compass.
There are many great stories of exceptional leaders who are said to have great instincts; they have the capacity to read situations and react to them with a clarity that defies logic. They are able to pick up on subtle clues, patterns and changes to behaviour and automatically make a judgement without a thorough analysis. Is it a skill they are born with or is it something that can be developed? I believe it is something that can be developed, if you take time to identity the signs. Intuitive leaders subconsciously tune into these signs. The gut- brain axis connects to the limbic system of the brain where all of our habits, emotions, experiences and feelings are stored. This section of the brain is actually where all decision making happens and plays a vital role in action selection allowing us to decide between several possible behaviours to execute at any given time. Intuitive leaders can tap into this subconsciously drawing on previous successes and failures using this stored data to guide their instincts. You know when you just can’t put your finger on it, you can’t explain why you know you just know, that’s a culmination of your previous experiences reacting to the situation and letting you know to think deeper about the decision you’re about to make. That’s why we ‘sleep on it’ or ‘mull it over’ our gut instincts are telling us that our first reaction needs further consideration.
So what does this mean for us on a day to day basis? For me, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. In a system where rigorous analysis of data sets, increasing levels of accountability, compliance and fiscal responsibility challenge decision making it can be a brave decision to say no in the face of mounting evidence. Whilst all indications might be overwhelmingly in favour of a pathway, if it doesn’t sit right then take some time to think it through before making the final call. I’ve started to keep track of situations when I’ve had to make a decision and I’ve had an initial ‘gut reaction’. I am hoping that over time I can actually build up a profile of when my instincts where right and when they were off track. I’m not allowing my gut reactions to override all decisions making, that would be foolish, I’m just monitoring. What I’ve noticed is that my gut instincts have the ability to subconsciously read a situation, they pick up on ‘the vibe’ whilst my conscious mind is running the analytics. As my brain rationalises my gut will instinctively guide, the pair working in unison to survey the environment within which I am working. I’d have to say that so far my instincts have been pretty accurate and have aligned nicely to the supporting evidence behind the decision making process. In general, I’ve found when I’ve had to trust my gut; I have felt good about the decision believing that what I was doing was right. Obviously not all decisions will have a gut reaction, most made on a daily basis are founded in logic and reason, but tuning in when the odd situation arises may be useful.
We all have looming deadlines; we all feel pressure to make decisions but as leaders we need to take time to consider the implications prior to making them. When the situation arises when the gut says wait but the mind says go, I believe there are a few things you can do.
- Firstly determine if there actually is a choice, sometimes despite your instincts there is no choice, the decision can only go one way. If there is a choice, does it have to be a yes or no answer? Are there other possibilities that are a mixture of both?
- Take time to think of the pros and cons. Look at the decision from an alternate point of view and see if you’d make the same decision.
- Has your intuition clouded your judgment? Remember it’s influenced by past experiences.
- Does it feel right? Are you able to rest comfortably knowing that you made the decision?
- Finally, allow yourself time to make the decision.
I know there have been times when I’ve had to make a judgment call and for no particular reason it just didn’t feel like the right decision. Despite the logic, the reason and the mounting evidence I just had a gut feeling that this was not the right option so I chose not to do it. The next time you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when making a decision and you just can’t seem to figure out why, I’d ask that you consider your instincts, they may be better than you thought.