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Weeknote: 13.03.23


  • Leadership development is about cultivating broad capabilities, such as self-awareness and resilience, rather than learning specific tactical skills.

  • Asking "how" questions, such as "What can I do to be helpful to you today?" instead of "Is there anything I can do?" can lead to greater empathy and action, which equals compassion.

  • Effective leaders must balance challenging the status quo with conforming to the organizational culture.

  • The 4-day work week has growing research on the benefits for employers and employees, but larger companies struggle with uptake.

  • Effective leaders need to move between closeness and distance and remain rooted in the vision/purpose of the organization.

Ideas I found interesting?

It has been a few weeks since I have been able to put together a week's note. A lot is happening, and several different themes have caught my attention and sparked my interest. The first was an HBR article on what makes leadership development work. In a sense, the article didn’t fully answer the question, but it did make me think – about the value of leadership development. The article contended that “leadership development is less about learning specific, tactical skills than it is about cultivating the broad capabilities, such as self-awareness or resilience, that are necessary to adapt to dynamic, evolving challenges.” This makes sense to me; leadership development training is an opportunity to develop new skills by reflecting on your current ones. As the authors put it, “To make the most of this rare opportunity, it is crucial to give employees plenty of time and space for structured self-reflection and to explicitly encourage them to reflect on their purpose.” In a sense, leadership development then is about having time to think.

I’ve also found this GreenPark event fascinating. During the event, Jo Heath led the participants through an exercise. The question was, “You’re walking through an airport, and you pass a pilot. A CEO is boarding the plane, and a couple is on their honeymoon in front of them. Did you picture the pilot as being of Black heritage? What about the CEO? Was it a man or a woman? Was the couple a same-sex couple?” I found it fascinating to reflect on this question and think about similar ones that we can use to reveal our frame of reference and are an insight into privilege dynamics.

The final theme has come from a combination of factors that coalesced around the book Why Should Anyone Be Led by You. I’ve been enjoying this, and it has encouraged me to think about my leadership behaviours over the last few years. It has also made me think more about the leadership behaviours around me – for example, who do I see creating distance? Or playing a dance – moving in and out to support their teams. And perhaps most importantly, what are some of the challenges our ideas about ourselves and how we position ourselves create when leading teams?

A lucky extra: “While the concept of social distance applies universally to human relationships, the manifestation of closeness and distance varies between cultures” (What Should Anyone Be Led By You, p.139)

What did I learn?

First, “in the UK, 82% of women will be mothers by age 40. That equates to 42% of the nation’s workforce.” The argument in this article, from Raconteur, was that messaging matters. Organisations need to consider how they communicate that school pick-up times, family, and children matter. It linked to an interesting podcast from the Institute for Government that focused on how to get more women into policymaking. There is a real challenge here about setting the norms and standards to enable 50+% of the population to engage productively in the labour force. I’m still not 100% sure I quite understand how to do this the most effectively.

This point that “effective leaders both challenge and conform” (Why Should Anyone Be Led by You, 126) also resonated with me. In essence, an effective leaders can show up as themselves and integrate into the culture while remaining part of and able to challenge. I reflected that this was something I did quite well in one of my roles, where I was able to build close personal relationships with colleagues and challenge the team. It didn’t work as well when I stepped into my next role. This helped me to crystalise the idea of role distance. That as a leader needs to move between closeness and distance. We need to tune into the organisational context but also stand back. Keep an eye on the goal, and remain rooted in the vision/purpose of the organisation. (Why Should Anyone Be Led by You - 118-119) It's also the question that Dave asks, “What’s right for the business?”

As “how”, not “if”. I found this point fascinating from the HBR post on Leading with Compassion. The point is that if you ask, “What can I do to be helpful to you today?”, “What can I do to make your day a little better?” or “What can I take off your plate today?” – how questions – you are more likely to be able to help rather than asking, “Is there anything I can do?”. In essence, the point is that it’s about Empathy + Action = Compassion. I like this point. It’s not just about being empathetic to an individual but also about what you do.

This point on the 4-Day Work Week was fascinating. I’m intrigued by the growing research on the value to employers and employees. And yet, we still seem to struggle to get uptake from larger companies. These two articles from Raconteur were great for summarising the state of these ideas – here and here.

What did I enjoy?

I enjoyed this point from Margaret Heffernan – a bit of a blast from the past - “...the athletic image of leadership as an act of solo heroism has proved persistent and potent. Magazine covers sporting the rugged profiles of business leaders and the motivational life lessons of CEOs (strategy akin to athletes’ memoirs) perpetuate the same trope: the heroic soloist can and will save the day, single-handed. Ambitious organisations just need to pick winners...” (A Bigger Prize, p160)

I also found this idea of what makes an effective vision useful. It has staying power, and it is memorable over time. And communicating takes longer than expected. (Why Should Anyone Be Led by You 181)

This HBR Idea of the Day: Being a great manager isn’t just about helping individuals reach their full potential but also about leading your team as a unit. HBR set out three coaching approaches to help:

  • Problem-based coaching. Treat problems and challenges as opportunities for team development.

  • Discussion-based coaching. Take a Socratic approach to team discussions, asking great questions and giving your team the space to problem-solve and brainstorm in their way.

  • No-blame coaching. Treating success and failure as opportunities to learn will allow your team to become more willing to challenge assumptions, admit when something isn’t working, and pivot from mistakes—which, in turn, enables faster and cheaper failures and bigger breakthroughs.

What did I find challenging?

The ideas around remote working and finding the right balance. I’ve been struck by how different individuals perceive remote working. For some, it becomes second nature; for others, it remains something to avoid. Finding the right language to close the gap around remote working, and developing your team strikes me as important. Raconteur had an interesting article on the value of stretch goals – specifically in setting the clear language and a vision for the team to help bind individuals together. Beyond this, I wonder how team coaching could be used to develop leadership. Apparently, only 15% of companies include mandatory training for line managers (linked nicely to the economist article on UK productivity and the lack of middle management). This gap is increasingly important with remote working as line managers are their main and potentially only point of contact with the companies.

One of the other challenges has been balancing the dance between what’s going on and “situation-sensing”, figuring out my role in different situations and with various organisations. I understand the importance of the dance, but I’m often struggling with how to step in and step back at different moments in time.

What did I achieve?

The last three weeks have been full of achievements. I managed to climb in Scotland, visit DC to deliver training and take the lead on some team coaching that I hope will embed new ways of working into the company I work with. I am also starting to get moving on writing, and I’ve been powering through several books – including Buttler to the World.

What am I looking forward to next week?

Skiing. And I am exploring ChatGPT more and trying to make progress on some of the work I’ve been doing on Ordinary Leadership to develop its thinking.


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