I have tried to define leadership over the years, both as a leadership tradesman and now as a coach, but always seem to end up with a grab-bag of platitudes. I now find it is best to describe the experience of leadership.
Leadership is waking up in the morning, and just as the new day puts its hand out to welcome you and shake you from your dream state, birds chirping, and cracks of sunlight creeping into your dark bedroom, a wave of dread hits you, and you think:
Welcome to leadership, be it day one or year thirty.
For some, this feeling impairs, the morning sun injecting self-doubt and perhaps some self-loathing. For others, after a couple of moments to redirect their emotion, it soon energises, almost grateful, whatever the crisis they are facing…it is an opportunity to lead.
I have been both these leaders, my inner voices telling me different things, arguing with each other. Same person, dissenting voices.
The first voice is one of self-sabotage and labels. “You are a fraud”, it tells me, and today, everyone who doesn’t already know it or believe it will find out — laid bare, for all to see.
The second voice is one of wisdom, the learned voice. The one I had to develop, encourage, practice, and personalise, sometimes dig deep to find to respond to the first voice. Soon it became more than a voice; it was both a mantra and a system, the one I needed to access in these moments.
The words I say to myself, often out loud. It would immediately lighten my mood, make me smile, and refocus my attention from what is going on inside me to how I’m going to show up.
Real confidence, it took me too long to learn, is more than belief in your plan, training, ability and experience to achieve an outcome; it’s knowing you will be ok if all of this fails.
If your confidence relies on you ‘slaying dragons’ every day, as a leader, you soon learn there are only so many dragons to slay, and dragons are fierce adversaries. They can burn your leader’s arse.
In these moments, self-compassion is more important than self-confidence.
As a leader, you are signing up for a life of ambiguity, uncertainty and friction, but mostly judged in hindsight as if none of this complexity exists. Leadership is many things, but it doesn’t promise to be fair.
The struggle of leadership will reveal who you are, from which you can assess and take action. Will the struggle build you, or break you. Will you give in to it, or grow from it. Either way, leadership will pick you up somewhere, and leave you someplace else.
You will be changed, because it changes you, often in unexpected ways, but mostly because you will want to change because you will see the need to change to enable you to lead.
This sounds circular, I understand, and maybe it is meant to be.
Leadership is not about doing more. It is doing different, and this requires a deliberate practice of reflection, deep introspection, focusing on who you are, and therefore what you bring to this role, and to this moment.
By choosing to lead, you are doing something extraordinary. Whilst chance and fate will play a role in both journey and destination, if you leave it up to these vagaries, you give up your power, and now you are not a leader. You are a watcher, a spectator of sorts, and you might as well sit in the stands.
To lead, and I mean genuinely lead, by setting standards, impacting and influencing emotions and thinking to create the culture and behaviours that build trust, supporting individuals whilst stretching and challenging, all aligned to a vision that sometimes only you can see… that is not for many, in fact, it is for the few.
By accepting the role as leader, and honouring its inherent aspiration to make a difference, we are making a series of understandings, and the first of those is personal.
Accept that you are no longer ordinary.
“A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.”
Half Wheelin’ Podcast
Not my usual style to recommend a podcast when I am the guest, but this one was deep and fun. Scott Barrow is a good friend who has been a trusted ear when I have struggled with many of the challenges I have articulated above.
He is one of the reasons I ride bikes.
…and a timeless song lyric:
Shine On You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
“Wish You Were Here” is my go-to album when I just want to give space to make sense, mainly when I write.
You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon
Shine on you crazy diamond
Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light
Shine on you crazy diamond
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision
Rode on the steel breeze
Come on you raver, you seer of visions
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine
CEO & Founder
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