Perspective ~ The Ultimate Test
We recently published an article in our Perspective column written by Madeleine Homan Blanchard entitled “The Ultimate Test ~ What I learned about leadership from Covid-19”
I have been working with leaders for more than 20 years. Many clients have sought to make the leap from senior management (e.g., leading a team or business unit) to executive leadership, which would involve making decisions about strategic direction. Many have received feedback about behavioral derailers, or simply that they are not “strategic” enough to be considered for an executive position. Often, what stands in the way is a mystery.
What I have observed is that the two most critical elements in making this leap are confidence and having the courage of one’s convictions.
Confidence is required to grow and learn; to try on new behaviors and let go of reliance on old habits, many which have resulted in success over most of a career. And conviction is essential for:
- values and the behaviors that align with those values;
- the capacity to enable and develop others to get things done;
- direction that is strong enough to make the case for, and take responsibility for, decisions that could ultimately be wrong.
I had seen this process in others but had never really been tested personally until recently.
Our company is a leadership training and development firm that, as of March 2020, employed about 350 people full time and worked with hundreds more partners and independent contractors around the globe.
When the world ground to a halt, my husband had been in his role as president of our family-owned organization for two and half months.
About 80 percent of our business involved traditional face-to-face training, so our core business was instantly paralyzed due to global lockdown – and payroll was looming. One evening in early April, my husband and I stood on our back patio looking up at the sky, grappling with the question, “What do
It was up to us. There was no one to ask. No one had experience with a situation remotely like the one we were facing. No one had more information than we did. No Yoda appeared to give us insight. We were on our own.
I had never had a panic attack in my entire life, but I knew enough people who did to know what it was when it came. Like any kind of suffering, the experience has served to give me more empathy for people who have them all the time.
Both of us had led several teams and companies and were used to making big risky decisions, but it wasn’t until that moment that I got a blinding flash of the obvious. Leadership is making decisions that will affect others’ lives when you don’t have enough information. It is making decisions with no guarantee that they are the best decisions, or even the right decisions. It is the willingness to take responsibility in situations where nothing is clear and where there is zero margin for error. It is the courage to do what needs to be done and take the hit when a lot of people will hate it – and maybe hate you.
Leadership is stark. It is terrifying. In some ways, it is the ultimate creative act.
Until that moment on the patio, looking up at the stars – which were not offering assistance – I kind of knew all those things. But I had never before felt the stark reality of just how risky and fraught it is to lead. Or the complete and total leap of faith required to lead.
As a coach of leaders and a leader in the coaching community, this experience had several implications that have taken me some time to process and articulate.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THOSE WHO COACH LEADERS
Coaches who work with leaders often get bogged down focusing on developing skills such as time management and delegation – which are, of course, helpful. But this can be at the expense of focusing on the bigger picture and more intractable issues that keep leaders from being someone others will choose to follow.
Confidence can only be built on a foundation of clear values. I define values as that which is important to us. Having values to rely on to make decisions and inform our choices is how leaders can show up consistently regardless of the situation.
Coaches are often reluctant to press clients to define and articulate their values, but nothing is more important in the long run. Many leaders have not taken the time to really understand their own leadership values. When asked, they might say family, faith, integrity –big, abstract concepts that aren’t really going to help when the chips are down.
My husband had done this hard work and had already shared that his values were forthrightness, mastery, and self-determination. He used them to inform the decisions that were made over the course of 2020 and reiterated them as the basis for every one of those decisions. His values gave him the confidence he needed, and in turn built the confidence of those who were looking to him for leadership.
There are many tools available to help clients dig deep and articulate what they truly believe is most important to them. One free tool and a good place to start is the Values in Action Survey (viacharacter.org). It focuses on strengths but started as a way to determine values. Another way is to ask clients what leaders they most admire and whose qualities they aspire to. Or ask about the crossroads moments in their lives and how they used what was most important to them to choose their path. It is these choice points that shed the most light on values.
Courage can often be an intangible concept, because the scary truth is that you really only find out you have it when you are under duress. It is a muscle that can be built, but only with testing and use.
One of the greatest gifts coaches can give their clients is to help them pinpoint the small risks and acts of courage they might employ in their day-to-day work, or seek out and put themselves in the path of things that scare them, so they can continually develop that muscle.
Eleanor Roosevelt said “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” It is obvious that a coach’s job is to support clients in getting out of their comfort zone. But when working with aspirational leaders, this must be non-negotiable.
Leadership is a little like writing a book or choosing to dedicate one’s life to God – if it were easy, everyone would do it.
When I was young, I briefly explored becoming a Catholic nun. I attended a boarding school that was led by Dominican nuns, with whom I had many discussions. I was often told, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” This, it turns out, is a biblical quote – Matthew 22:14 – with all kinds of potential implications for the religious. But in simple, practical terms, the phrase can also apply to both leadership and the coaching profession.
Many aspire to leadership but find, at the tipping point, that the things that matter most to them are incompatible with the sacrifices required. Or they realize they just don’t have the stomach to constantly summon their courage. Similarly, many seek to be a professional coach, or are professional coaches who want to coach leaders, but aren’t willing to role-model facing their own fear day after day after day.
Covid-19 was a litmus test on many levels. We were able to pull our company through it, and it is stronger for it. And as I prepare for another day of meeting my clients, every one of whom is smarter and braver than me, I am deeply grateful for the experience.
How does it apply to you in your life?
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