Leadership. It is a big word, and it gets thrown into lots of professional conversations, but not everyone is using the word in the same way. I’ve spoken to people who believe leadership is the responsibility of the people appointed to be in management. Others want it, but feel they don’t have it (perhaps they are waiting for someone to give it to them). Many miss the essence of leadership, it is within each of us - we all have the capacity for it. At a basic level self-management is effectively demonstrating leadership, albeit in a narrow construct. Leadership is not something that comes with a job title or appointment; leadership is everyone’s responsibility (not just managements). As an example, if you choose to apply disruptive (negative) behaviours in an environment, whatever leadership is present now needs to focus on the disruption, often at the cost of something else (we don’t work or live in vacuums). Choosing to work in a way that minimizes disruptions allows more valued activities to take place consistently; this is one application of leadership. So how do you grow and exercise your leadership skills? Emotional intelligence has leadership components within it, work on your EI skills and you work on your leadership skills at the same time to leverage what you have and build what you need. But how do we do that? The topic of the next few blogs will look at this in more detail, to start lets look at leadership and how we can exercise it regardless of position or authority.
Little things make a big difference, and leadership (at it’s core) is made up of small consistent acts that require us to move beyond ourselves. Leadership is essentially the ability to meet others where they are when that is what is called for. It requires awareness, self-management, and communication skills. It is fed by curiosity, patience and observation. Anyone can practice these behaviours, we each have the opportunity to do this every day. Look at this through a more mundane part of many people’s daily lives, traffic. What do you do when you are on a busy highway (maybe you are late, held up by traffic) and a car would like to merge in ahead of you? What are your first thoughts and feelings? A normal human response would be “You’ve got to be kidding!” or maybe “What makes you so important that you should get in ahead of me?” Contextually it may make a difference how the car approaches the merge (fast and pushy or slow and cautious), but at the end of the day the action that will cause the least amount of conflict and help the situation (rather then exacerbate it) is to let the car in, regardless of the driving style exhibited by the other driver. From a traffic community perspective it is the safest option for all concerned; the driver looking to merge, you and other drivers on the road. Allowing the merge to happen in a measured way keeps the pressure off all the drivers and no one is snuggling up to bumpers or exhibiting other behaviours that create more risk in rush hour (flipping the bird for example); it is a win-win. However, many of us feel this is an imposition and inconvenience. We reduce the space between our car and the bumper in front of us (becoming unsafely close) and curse the audacity of the driver who chose not to apply more forethought and get in the lane they needed earlier. We may block them out without thinking about the fact the other driver might be new to this route and unable to apply that forethought….the other driver might have an emergency you will never be aware of or they may have needs that if we were aware of them would allow us to happily make room for them in the flow of cars. But traffic doesn’t work that way; so the people who drive the cars need to.
Reaching beyond your own emotions (“idiot driver!”) to do the safest thing (let the car merge in) is an act of leadership. When you do this you are exercising empathy, social responsibility, objectivity, impulse control and flexibility. This demonstrates a lot emotional intelligence in a circumstance where you have anonymity; leadership is also about what you can do for others when there is nothing in it for you, like the simple act of letting a car merge in traffic. We have many opportunities to do this throughout our day, riding the bus or train (letting people maneuver around us, giving up our seat for another when we are close to our stop), holding doors to allow others to safely navigate them, etc. In meetings we do this through active listening and a focus that takes us outside of the dialogue that may be constantly running through our heads. We become present for others and by doing so can contribute at a higher level to our friends, family, organizations and community. This is something many of us do without giving it much thought and you may not have viewed this as exercising leadership. However, successful leaders do this consistently, it is ever-present. By successful leaders I don’t mean those in charge of profitable companies, I mean those who contribute to fiscally responsible enterprises and healthy organizational environments. Win-win.
People who are chosen (from a field of candidates) to become managers typically have been exhibiting leadership behaviours in their current role and beyond. Interview processes help to determine if leadership skills are present; for a candidate who practices them as a matter of course they shine through. For a candidate stretching to display the required attributes in the interview it quickly becomes apparent that they don’t apply leadership consistently in their daily lives. I’ve been on the interviewer side of the table in hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews – very rarely can someone fake consistent leadership attributes in that type of process. If you’ve ever heard someone remark that “you either have leadership skills or you don’t” this is what they are referring to. Leadership is a choice, one we all have the power to make in our daily activities. Do you choose to be a leader?
There is an interesting study underway at Carleton University between being hungry and taking risks (in particular as it relates to gaming http://http-server.carleton.ca/~mwohl/Dr_Michael_Wohl/Home.html). Correlations are suspected between hunger and higher risk behaviour during gambling. Hunger after all is one of the foundational items on Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Human Needs” making this a fascinating field of study. For those of us who’ve tried to reform our eating habits we’ve learned we make poorer choices at the grocery store when we show up hungry to shop (at restaurants too for that matter…yes, I’ll have fries with that!). There is another type of hunger that hits Maslow’s list that has to do with our emotions. We need to feel safe before we are able to process much in our day; fortunately this is present (at a foundational level) for most of us - we don’t have James Bond type careers, nor do many of us work in a war zone. However, there are important emotions tied to being heard, being understood and being accepted that help us to feel comfortable (even safe) in our day-to-day work. These are not consistently present for everyone in workplaces today and they can have as much of an impact on our behaviour at work as being hungry does on the types of decisions we make.
I’ll give you an example. I knew of a gentleman who was in what he described as a no-win situation, trapped in a role where he felt he had no way out. He did not get along with his “new” manager (a person who been put in place 2 years prior) and his repeated requests for a transfer were refused. Prior to the management change he’d loved his job, he excelled at the work and had a good working relationship with his boss and team. With the change in management he assumed things would continue along the same path. They did not. The management style of the new boss and his previous boss could not have been more different. He and his new boss did not understand each other and over time the relationship became toxic. However, due to his enormous proficiency in what he did (and his organization’s reliance on it) he was denied a transfer. His offer to cross train another person was also turned down due to staffing shortages and budgets cuts. The impact of all of this on my client? He mentally “quit”. He kept gong in to work and doing his job, but he stopped putting in any extra time. He ensured the important aspects the organization needed were attended to, but he didn’t reliably go to staff meetings or help on other projects; he isolated himself and stopped socializing at work when normally he would have engaged his peers. He realized things had gone “too far” when he went to work for a week straight wearing the same clothes he would normally wear to mow the grass and do chores around the house (a great departure from his usual standard of dress).
“That was the wake-up call for me!” he remarked. “I realized then I had not only given up on my job, but on myself too – something had to change”. It points to the impact of “emotional hunger” in the workplace. At the crux of the problem for this person was working with a manager who had different priorities, dissimilar beliefs and a leadership style he did not understand; essentially his manager could not meet his emotional needs as an employee. During the period where he and this new manager were getting to know each other they both mis-stepped, which snowballed into assumptions, culminating in a series of heated exchanges and then avoidance. There were no workplace structures to help them through this period and so it sat between them, like a stone…and much like a stone, the longer you hold on to it the heavier it becomes. The gentleman suffered under this “weight”, and his emotional needs at work went un-met; both the ones he could satisfy himself (socialization, teamwork, achievement) and the ones that his employer could reasonably be responsible for (recognition, encouragement, support). The result of this person’s emotional hunger was to check out, but you can’t do that in only one area of life, there is always collateral damage (hence the compromised personal appearance – he wasn’t just wearing chore clothes to work, they showed up everywhere else too).
Once this gentleman understood what his needs were he was able to achieve more equilibrium, even in the toxic work environment. In turn this set him up for more success when he needed to make decisions about what to do next in his career. In the end he did leave the organization, but not without first satisfying for himself that he had given his new manager a real try. He worked at building bridges back to his co-workers and (eventually) to his new manager because this was important to his self-esteem; he recognized he didn’t handle things as well as he should have in the beginning and he wanted to rectify that concern first. Once he had done all he could and realized that even in the new environment he had helped to build he had needs that could not be met he made the decision to look elsewhere. He didn’t leave “hungry” though, he left fully satisfied that he had done all he could and learned a lot about himself in the process. Not everyone’s emotional hunger will show up as “checking out”, it may present itself as perpetual stress, reluctance to go to work, a higher prevalence of anger and frustration on the job, etc. Everyone’s needs are different but what is consistent is that when emotional hunger is present it will assert itself. If you are feeling “hungry” how well do you work? Talk to someone about it – you don’t have to deal with it alone.
In my work I speak a lot about how emotions can effect performance; that of an individual, a team and an organization. What is interesting is the reaction I get when I bring up the topic of emotions - many seem to link the word to tears or outbursts, something to be embarrassed about or avoid as much as possible. While obvious examples, tears and angry words are not the most prevalent emotions in workplaces today. The emotions to be cognizant of are the ones that we carry with us all the time. Humans process much of their world through emotions, consciously and unconsciously we are checking to understand how things make us feel. It’s not possible to “park” emotions while we are at work and we cannot pretend we don’t have any - they are ever-present, like our own personal atmosphere.
To look at this another way, consider the example of a professional who took a role in an organization that met her professional skill set and objectives, but none of her personal needs. She was not a good fit for this organizations’ corporate culture and she knew it, but she felt she could adjust over time and was excited about what the organization did for their clients. Two out of three isn’t bad, right? It’s something that many of us have had to consider (and may have even done) in our own careers. The problem is (to paraphrase Susan Scott in her book Fierce Conversations) if you are an “orange” in a group of “lemons” you can present yourself as a lemon, but when the pressure is on and you get “squeezed” (stressed, etc.) you are going to leak orange juice. Your natural being is going to come out and it may become apparent that you are not in the best role (for yourself or the organization).
Emotions play a big role in how we handle ourselves, both in positive situations and negative ones; we are using them throughout our day to help us make decisions, to react and respond to our environment and to other people. It’s easy to point to overt emotions, crying, laughter, etc. but it’s also important to understand what role your emotional undercurrent plays, not just in terms of how you think or feel at any given point in time but the less tangible aspects of emotion, looking at why we think or feel a certain way and seeing patterns. Self-examination and awareness can give anyone an edge on managing the way they interact with their world (professionally and personally); but it’s not about changing who you are. It’s about understanding how you like to operate and finding ways to leverage your strengths. This is possible when you choose to look at how emotions play a part in your daily life because the good news is you can make small adjustments that result in positive changes.
There are tools to help you assess how emotions are working for you and where opportunities exist to make small changes that will increase your effectiveness and well being. Reading about emotional intelligence is one way, emotional intelligence assessment and coaching are another. Giving yourself the tools to be able to make incrementally positive changes can have a constructive impact on your professional and personal life, ensuring you’ll never find yourself leaking orange juice in a room full of lemons.