Four lessons from 2014

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21 December 2014

1.  Stepping outside ourselves more

I write down this heading because it’s part of what I talk to clients about in one-to-one coaching. It’s what we all need to do more of – and what I assumed I wasn't bad at. Until this Autumn.

We know that lessons are best learned from telling the story of what’s gone wrong, so I think I should share a story here.  In a lot of my work people share their "dirty washing" with me; now here is something of mine that should have gone into the washing machine earlier!

I’ve written before about the lovely old baking house that I live in on Dartmoor, and I rent from a couple who live opposite. Earlier this year some things happened that I wasn’t too happy about, and after mentioning them, to no avail, I sent an email.

I told myself I mustn’t be stroppy or aggressive or anything like that, but, you know, I was fed up, and I’m sure there was a certain coldness in the email.


The response was pretty hopeless from my point of view, so I pursued my case, if anything colder than before, but still of course telling myself how reasonable I was being – and how unreasonable were they!

A few weeks later, with no resolution and a growing sense of frustration I found myself saying that unless we sorted things out I would have to … move.

"If you were advising yourself ..."

Isn’t it remarkable how quickly things can escalate, as our pride and ego get firmly into the driving seat. I remember one evening telling this story to a friend, and thinking to myself I had gone a bit "victimish" about it.  She said,

It’s rather ironic, Pete, isn’t it.  During the week you do your work going in and helping Chief Execs sort out their stuff, and here you are getting yourself into a real mess. If you were advising yourself, I wonder what you would suggest”.

You know those moments when someone says something to you about yourself and you laugh out loud, as if it’s uproariously funny, whilst thinking to yourself “They must think I’m a number one prat!”

At some stage during the following night I woke up wondering what I would say if one of my clients phoned me up and told me they’d got into the situation I was in.

I knew the answer immediately. I’d say scrap the emails and go and see the owners and suggest the 3 of you get together and sort it out face to face.

The next morning I did just that, and a few days later the three of us met and strong coffee was followed by some strong words and slightly raised voices at times – and three hours later this was followed by wine and apologies and reconciliation all around, and the inevitable agreement that if things go wrong again we would keep on talking and never again revert to emails.

It’s no rocket science, is it. Over some years I’ve been called in to help sort out some really sticky disputes in various organisations and in every case I’ve said, as part of the agreement at the end, “No more stroppy emails, deal with the difficult stuff face-to-face”.

And here I was, having broken one of the most elementary rules in the book!

I had managed to extricate myself from the mess I had created for myself, by stepping outside the situation and looking in.

So, next time you find you’re casting yourself as one of the leading players in a conflict that you don’t want, just pause and imagine that you’re being invited in from outside to give yourself advice.

It won’t be many seconds before you know what you need to do.

2.  I wish there WAS an 'I' in TEAM!

I can’t remember the first time I heard someone say, “There’s no I in TEAM!”

This is one of those phrases that isn’t too bad the first time you hear it, but by the 20th and the 50th it does begin to wear thin.

This year I’ve worked with more teams than in any previous year, and even though I’ve loved the whole experience I’ve become evermore struck by the extent to which so many good teams hold themselves back because they’re hooked on the politics of being “nicey-nicey” with each other.

I’ve been through a few moments now where I’ve seen individual Directors wanting to disagree with a view that’s being put forward and just sitting back and saying nothing, going along with what they think the others want because they don’t want to be criticised as being “difficult”, or given the cold shoulder at their next team dinner.

Now, this is potentially a big subject, so I'll get straight to what I see as the lesson that I take away. This is that in too many teams we’re too concerned with making sure that we all rub along together and are good buddies – and we’re not concerned nearly enough with pursuing issues as far as we need to, to satisfy ourselves we’re in the best position we can possibly be in, or in helping others develop those aspects of their leadership where they have something exceptional to offer.

Exceptional leaders - developing the exceptional skills of others

What I absolutely love in my one-to-one work with CEOs is supporting them in working with their top team to develop the exceptional leadership skills of each member of their top team – and then ensuring that members of the team play to each other’s strengths as well as doing all they can to cover each other’s weaknesses.

This is part of why our next Windsor Experience for Leaders on March 22/24 is on the theme of Jazz Band Leadership. I think that great teams have some of the characteristics of great jazz bands: they enjoy ensuring that individual members of the team have their moment in the sun, just as they enjoy the whole process of leadership by improvisation, and testing out new ideas and approaches as they go.

Yes, they need to be able to present themselves as a single team and speak with a single voice. But a great team is also a group of great individuals. And this word has 3 I's in it - no lack of I’s to share around if ever we could create a version of team that wanted to borrow one of them!

3.  Liberation comes through owning our inadequacies

If the importance of I in TEAM is one of my big counter-cultural lessons of 2014, there's another one as well, that’s just as important in helping to liberate a team and enable them truly to establish who they are and what they stand for.

Yet again this year I have been struck by the extent to which so many leaders are so driven by their inadequacies – and, so often, their fear of these inadequacies.

I have had some moments in 2014 when some CEOs who I really, really rate have told me about their view of their own inadequacies, and I’ve told them I had no idea they felt that way. I was seeing all that they were good at and this was hardly compromised by the inadequacies that so preoccupied them.

When I first started one-to-one coaching, my instinct in this sort of moment was to reassure CEOs that they’re actually better than they think they are. And, if truth be told, we know that some people tell us about their inadequacies rather hoping that we’ll turn round and tell them how wonderful they are.

Nowadays I’ll tend to play it rather differently, and challenge them on why they seem so frightened of their inadequacies:

“What’s the big deal, we’re all driven by our inadequacies – so why the fear? After all, they’re hardly important compared to what you’re exceptional at, so long as you own them and acknowledge them in your relationships with your top team.”

Making it easier for others to follow suit

It’s almost always the case that in owning our inadequacies, we find that it’s much easier to identify the ones that we most want to do something about.

Once we’ve decided that we’re going to take them on, that’s exactly what we can do.

After all, we’re leaders, and if we can’t lead the drive to change something about ourselves that we want to change, we’re not going to be much good at helping anyone else to do the same for themselves.

In owning with others what we're not so good at, we make it much easier for them to follow suit.

And it then becomes that much easier to deploy people for their exceptional skills across the team, without coming up against all of the defensiveness that is the hallmark of under-performing teams.

4. Counting our blessings

The last big message that I take away from this year is one that I at first didn’t want to have to engage with.

During these past three months a very important part of my family life has been about my son’s Mum going through chemotherapy, and supporting her through that horrendous process that is all too familiar in far too many families.

It’s times like this when we have a chance to appreciate the bravery of those we love and too often take too much for granted.

It’s also one of those times when our sense of emotional bonding with the NHS and all that it stands for becomes that much stronger in our lives.

And it’s a time when we remind ourselves that in this life there are a very small number of things that really, really matter.

If we are lucky enough to have good health, and feel that we’re able to support those we love and care for, and if we're fortunate enough to love the work that we need to do to generate the income we need to put food on our family’s table – HOW BLESSED ARE WE!

It’s why my resolve for 2015 is to count my blessings at the start and finish of every day, and if I ever have any complaining voice within me just to tell myself to let it go and get a life!

I hope 2015 brings you good luck and happiness and success, and all of the stretch and challenge that we need for our ongoing growth and development.

Leadership in all of its many shapes and varieties is such a privilege and my sense is that among the leaders I am lucky enough to know, those who are the most effective are the ones who have a sense of how privileged they are.

Leading with a light touch

They generally lead with a light touch, because they share an awareness of the precariousness of life as well as how lucky they are to be in the position they are in.

More and more, I think it’s healthy for us to take nothing for granted. It’s then easier to live life more fully in the now, constantly drawing on the inspiration and guidance of those around us to enable us to share whatever gifts we might have as much as we can.

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