Leadership. It’s a topic that exercises people in airless seminar rooms without number, up and down the country, every day of the week. Yet in its elevation to the status of a ‘-ship’ it becomes so far removed from the daily business of leading that I wonder how often what is said at these gatherings has any real effect.
One can talk about ‘leadership’ (although things could be worse: it could be ‘leaderology’, or ‘leaderism’) till the cows come home without having to do anything about it, without owning the idea of it, without ever turning the abstract concept into the concrete reality. Imagine going to a seminar on ‘swimship’. And what does leading mean anyway?
‘What did you do today, dear?’ ‘Oh, you know, I just led.’
I lead a team of one – me. So you could say I’m hardly qualified to speak on the subject. But I’ve observed leaders for years and I know that leading is often a frightening and lonely thing to do. We expect our leaders to be paragons of strength, wisdom and decisiveness, and we’re disappointed when they turn out, as they invariably do, to be ordinary, fallible humans like the rest of us; not only disappointed, but angry and unforgiving.
But we’re missing a trick here. Part of the reason they fail is that we don’t allow them to be human, when it’s their very humanity that would enable them to lead best. Leaders need followers; followers who believe in them and trust them. And it’s hard to trust or believe in someone whose ‘leadership’ carapace is so rigid and highly polished that nothing can get through it, in either direction.
A recent survey of followers revealed that the quality they rated most highly in their leaders was that they ‘show a genuine concern for others.’ How often does that appear on the agenda of the average day’s leadership training, I wonder? And even if it does, concern for others is not a hat one can simply pick up on leaving the training room. It has to come from within as, I believe, do all the really important qualities that allow someone to encourage others that their vision is one worth following.
“How can I let my team know that I’m as vulnerable as they are without exposing myself too much to them?” The question was put to me recently at a talk I gave to a group of young managers from arts and cultural organisations. The sub-text to the question was: how can I show I’m human and retain my authority?
My audience were taking part in a leadership programme, and we were talking about how our vulnerability connects us. I don’t have a handy toolkit for leaders, or a list of leadership tips and techniques, so I had spoken to them about what I believe are four essential qualities of any fully functioning human: the ability to connect, personal authenticity, kindness, and empathy (which the sharp-eyed among you will spot spell CAKE, the only mnemonic I’ve ever created, even if inadvertently, or am ever likely to).
In fact the four things are all so interconnected that it seems almost artificial to separate them. But I made the ‘leadership’ case for each with the aid of a couple of stories, some research from the business world, and a poem.
Connection, it seems to me, is at the heart of good relationships, and when everything else is stripped away, business is nothing but relationships. Authenticity is about being oneself, the opposite of which is being fake, and that never works for long. Kindness is not necessarily softness, but rather that recognition that we are all of the same kind and worthy of the same basic respect, as members of the human race. And empathy, one might say, is the necessary complement to the other three; as is vulnerability, at the opposite end of the spectrum. (My answer to the question was that simply letting another person know one has feelings is vulnerability enough, proof enough of one’s humanity, in a world where personal disclosure is so often seen as weakness.)
But the foundation of it all is self-knowledge: to be fully oneself one must know oneself well, warts and all. I wonder how many leadership training courses have that on the programme. And if they do I wonder how, in the modern management lexicon, it might be described: selfship, perhaps?