Meet John. He’s a hypothetical client, but not that hypothetical.
John was told last week that, in another round of restructuring, his business wanted him to take another, bigger role. One that it viewed with a certain amount of kudos.
He began to explain to me how he should be delighted. How he should be leaping to accept it. How he should be feeling grateful that he was being promoted at a time of great economic uncertainty.
When we looked at his shoulds we discovered how he was choosing to see himself as a rather well-paid lackey, needing the approval of his world – in this case, his company – to keep going. It was clear that what his bosses thought of him was vitally important. That keeping on-side with them was a top priority.
Listening to yourself
But when I asked him what his heart was telling him, John said that the job wasn’t really “him”. When we unraveled that, he saw his angst was that, as it stood, it didn’t play to his core strengths. In the language of Marcus Buckingham’s StandOut, he’s a Creator and Pioneer. The role seemed to call more for an Influencer and Connector.
Because it involved a lot more traveling than he’d done lately, he was concerned that it would also impact his values around family and faith.
We explored what it would be like for him to own his strengths, to trust that his world was receptive to him, and to negotiate the scope of the job so that he created a win for him and a win for the business.
But that was going to be tough. Because he saw that having such a conversation would mean he’d be uncomfortable, and would risk being ridiculed or told he should leave.
In his book Deep Change, Bob Quinn talks about the phenomenon of slow death. It’s where people adapt to changes in their environments by failing to make an active choice either to stay or to go. In slow death, leaders become lifeless. They keep taking the pay cheque, but they don’t rock the boat.
Great for them if their ambition is to leave a legacy that says they netted a ton of money, and paid the mortgage.
Not so good if, inside, they’re feeling that life and work are increasingly meaningless and that they’re just marking time.
I’ve had cause to think recently about what real leadership is. Too often these days it has been boiled down to a term that defines a level in an organisation; a series of jobs. But leadership, to my mind, is an attitude. Central to which is having the courage to be who you are and to act from that place, no matter the consequences.
Sure, the world is in the midst of economic crisis. But does that call for more leadership or less?
I’d argue that things may have been different if more leaders chose, however painful, to be themselves. To call the games and the insanity that has gone on in our corporations. They may be personally richer as a result of not doing so. But at what price?
Is it safe to be yourself in leadership?
Maybe we should rather ask the question, how safe is is NOT to be?