Connection, Development, Leadership, Learning, Reflecting, Staying Curious

The Heart of Leadership


My audible groan is not appreciated. They are looking at me without warmth.
I slightly surprise myself – oh, bugger. Did I make that noise out loud?

What is on the table at this particular design meeting is the integration of a case study. This case study, or variations of it, has been used for the past 4 years with great success. It enables a venerated Professor type from London School of Harvard Tech or wherever to join the programme and work with the leaders. He talks them through something about growth in emerging markets. It’s interesting. They do stuff on it. They discuss and puzzle. They learn.

I really like the Prof – he’s looks good for his age (I’m guessing 60?) and has been doing this leadership stuff for over 30 years all over the world. We have this amazing conversation about a recent Desert Walk he undertook. I totally get why we want to work with him. He’s charming and experienced and avuncular – a natural mentor for the guys trying to create growth in emerging markets. A foil for the raw ambition 70-hours-a-week behaviours that are happening.

And I’m groaning because to the depths of my soul I believe that what would be most in service to this group of leaders, is not another technical, building mind-muscle challenge. They’ve got this. They are a smart, committed, fairly hungry ( if a little knackered) group. They can think their way through complex, VUCA whatever conditions. Demonstrably? They are all OVER that stuff.

What this group of leaders is lacking is joined-upness and trust in each other. The emotional maturity to share without churlishness. The empathy to understand how their behaviour impacts on their team and the grace to accept that sometimes, it’s not great.
The willingness to admit they are scared to let something go, because their need to be perfect and capable and strong means failure is not an option….even though that need is waking them up at 3am and they are a shell the next day, ergo more like to fail.
The recognition that their deep need to always be right and clever means someone else has to be wrong and stupid – and that sometimes, that’s a shitty choice.

The ones who have emotional maturity have been doing the hard graft for ages – building relationships, sorting out issues, oiling wheels, making things work by getting under the egos. Where what is valued is mental dexterity and logical outcomes, this emotional work goes unrecognised, unsung and those who undertake it often don’t value it themselves/ are slightly embarrassed about it – but an engine without oil grinds to a halt…

What the group of leaders we are designing for is lacking is a language to express this stuff – a means of articulating the fear or the joy, the disappointment, the paranoia, the impatience, the shame – and if you can’t talk about it or write about it, draw it or walk with it… if it is nebulous and shadowy and can’t be named, how can you ever work with it?

This can be gnarly work – coming face to face with your nasty, with the bits of you that haven’t contributed to your high-flying career thus far – the Case Study is a breeze in comparison. An easy option. The lovely comfort zone.

For some, emotional, relational stuff is literally learning a new language – something unspoken before, something they don’t understand – it can take a long time… your accent might always be terrible….how embarrassing.
Some folk find working with this stuff overwhelming – they feel the absence of something they “ought” to have and equate that to failure – so run madly from it, muttering about Fluffy crap, no place in business…only to be faced at some point in their lives with the inevitability of lifestuff – death, divorce, illness, change….and then it can all come crashing down.

So why ask leaders to look inward and build their emotional capacity? Easier to stay cerebral and crack on….

Because work without heart leads to heartless outcomes – and we need leadership who operate with compassion and care more than ever. This is not a platitude, it’s a thing – an actual thing. We talk about the future of work, of improving working lives – but a good future requires leaders who can access empathy, compassion, generosity, failure-as-learning and make decisions about their people, resources, markets etc with some ethical and emotional intelligence. A case study in emerging markets kind of bypasses that bit.

I say some of this at the design meeting – not all of it, because me on a soapbox isn’t anything particularly useful at this stage… and we talk about how to get the connection part, the relationship part more front and centre…. and slowly something more heart-felt & human emerges and I’m glad…..

When they arrive they are polite, slightly scared or bored and the conversations involve a lot of comparisons and competitive niggles. Fast movements, rapid talk. Status games, power games, jostling, laughing….

They leave, days later, quieter, less scared. Less bored. They know each other better. They know themselves better. For some, this is still not right or good – the world seems altered and that’s uncomfortable as all hell – they will very quickly try to recreate their status quo. For others, and the people they lead, it is the beginning of, or the next steps to master, this new language, with all that can bring.

10 thoughts on “The Heart of Leadership”

  1. Lovely.

    I must admit I have moved away from “the case study” as a tool in leadership development.
    Most, I suggest, of the people who come on such development programmes are all over their subjects. They are often experts in their field. What is a case study – a time squeezed simplified exercise of a complex, real, not easily solved issue – going to give them over and above the real, complex and not easily solved work they are already doing?
    If, as you suggest (and I would tend to agree), “a good future requires leaders who can access empathy, compassion, generosity, failure-as-learning and make decisions about their people, resources, markets etc with some ethical and emotional intelligence” our work with leaders should be to enable them to be more of those things in their work and lives and better able to work differently with their real, complex and not easily solved work.

    1. I’m reading this and nodding, James. Yes. Yes, of course Yes – and for me, that “enabling” includes working with creative, expressive methods to access some of that non-rational, learned problem solving… Which I why I love the work you do at the V&A with leadership.

      I am not against Case Studies, as such – it’s how they are framed and used, as ever with these things…

  2. I’m reminded of the title of a poem, “The Dream of a Common Language” by Adrienne Rich. The process you describe is a pursuit of that dream, and necessary to any really functional relationship.

  3. Working ‘under the egos’ really rang a bell with me – I’ve seen this my whole career. I believe there’s a pattern to the type who propels themselves to senior leadership, whether a Director or World Leader, and sadly emotional intelligence, wisdom, integrity and logical long term thinking doesn’t typically come with that package. It’s a powerful combination to aim for i.e. balance of ego, competition etc. and the ‘good stuff’, but I’ve only come across it once or twice. If what you do in your ‘leadership’ work is draw out the ‘good stuff’, then that’s a worthy cause indeed – go girl!

  4. Hey Jen – You were with me at the very beginning of this journey, when leadership was often about the size of ones boat & I began to question culture and power and how do we shift the things that are so unshiftable?
    I think self-propulsion is an interesting one – the least damaging leaders are, perhaps, the ones who work with quiet subtlety – but I think it is a broad church.
    I wonder if the “fashion” for boorish, know-it-all leadership is changing? If something new is required? I wonder what massive social inequality will do to what we expect and need of those in charge of our organisations and workspaces in the future – and I hope that words like Integrity, wisdom, emotional intelligence are at heart of what lasts… Certainly, It’s what I intend to push for.
    Lovely to hear from you – glad you commented x

  5. Spot on Julie, so often learning is just aimed ‘above the neck’ and feeds the intellect of a group. Often these are highly intelligent people who ‘get it’ but struggle to ‘be it’…… Thankfully there are a growing number of organisations who have realised something is missing in leadership approaches and need the help of people who work in the way we do to. Hope all is good with you

    1. I’m just enjoying the different wee Monster image thingies Gwen!
      Yes- the distinction between thinking it and being it. The transfer from head to heart & all the good stuff that brings.
      do you have organisations in mind? Obviously, I go with AMOC at Ashridge, with Centre of Leadership Embodiment, with Relume and Metanoia and places like that.. I wonder if you have others too?

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