An executive in an immersive, experiential leadership program that I facilitated – let’s call her Lydia (not her real name) – described to her colleagues in the program how she was now understanding that being leaderful back at work had little to do with what she had been encouraged to think over many years about leadership.
In the past she had bought into the view that there were people who "became leaders” – through the effluxion of time, arriving at a state of grace, a conferred rank. These “leaders” have to be authoritative (always knowing what to do next), decisive and clear – even in the face of the most intractable and difficult adaptive challenges. She acknowledged how this brought with it an extraordinary pressure to see all and to know all and, sadly, a sense of failure if she was unable to meet this impossible standard (as was often the case). It also created a crippling co-dependency with her subordinates that added to her already busy workload; they brought work to her that should have been theirs to resolve and they sought her guidance and input on matters that didn’t need her attention.
But now she was describing and modelling for colleagues and team members how she was rethinking leadership. She now concentrated on a different range of behaviours when adaptive challenges presented themselves. She was now able to separate out work that required management skills (mainly technical challenges, however complicated) from work that required her to be leaderful. She got her internal chatter about being perfect under control, she encouraged early dialogue utilising the insights of her team where before she had given in to pressure to propose immediate action, she concentrated on remaining poised and purposeful when her subordinates got anxious about not knowing what to do several steps in advance, she sought out stakeholders and raised difficult questions whereas before she was almost paralysed by the mere idea of being imperfect in front of them.
Where once her overriding issue had been self-confidence and she'd worry about how people would see her, she was now fully immersed in exploring the different ways she could turn up and still be effective in role. There was not one single way of turning up – the previously fantasised perfect way – but multiple ways that depended on time, place and circumstance.
Most importantly, Lydia found ways to bring her genuine self to work – without compromising her privacy or emotional safety in the process. And this, in turn, shifted the dynamics of several important work relationships, opening up greater dialogue and a wider tolerance for each other's standpoints.