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Leadership: Putting On Your Own Mask First

You know when you're on a flight and the security briefing says "Please ensure you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others"? Well, I thought I'd set this article to that tone.

A view of the sea from a white building

In my role as a leadership coach, I regularly hear people talking about the changes they wish to make and there's often a great deal of looking outside rather than inside. What do I mean by that? Well, it's people saying things like..."I just need my team in place" or "When everyone is in a 'ready state'" or "We've just got to get through this quarter and then the pressure will be off...".

So, I've yet to hear someone say...

"Yes, we have the right resources, plenty of time, no pressures to deliver to deadlines and quality and cost standards. Everything is completely on track and I now have time for all those other lovely bits of work that I think are nice-to-haves, such as, truly engaging with everyone and having authentic values-based conversations."

Sorry to burst the bubble folks, but we can find ourselves in this world of 'and when' for an awfully long time. So, first things first, when I coach, I like to find out how you are doing and I tend to hear metaphors like -

I'm a swan on the water- others wouldn't know this but I'm serenely moving along, all appears well but my legs are going like the clappers and my mind is whirring non-stop!

I feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I feel paralysed by the volume/complexity/challenge of the work ahead.

Sometimes I don't know where to turn or where to start; it's overwhelming!I just have to toughen up - it's a case of "survival of the fittest", so I'll just keep going and eventually I'll pull through.

Clearly, these are just a few of the many thousands of possibilities, however, I do know that in leadership coaching the more we focus on the leader themselves, the better they are able to make the tangible differences they are seeking from coaching for them and the business.

Case study - the uncomfortable truth

Let's take an example. I worked with a client over 5 years ago. The issue that was being presented was team morale, communication and engagement. When we looked at the root cause for some of the responses, the uncomfortable truth was that the leader's interpersonal skills were disempowering the departmental leads.

1.Unpacking the oxygen mask

We began the complex task of unpacking their own oxygen mask. I learnt about their previous role as a director in another organisation and their own perceived 'failures' in that role and how in this role they were overcompensating with opposite behaviours to those that they thought had made them 'fail' elsewhere.

2. Putting the oxygen mask on and adjusting to make it fit

Next we worked out how this individual could be more of the person they wanted to be, however, clearly they felt the need to mitigate against repeat experience from past scripts. We discussed their approach and the client took some time to do some real-world trial and error to work out their way forward.

3. Breathing new oxygen

The client started to feel better as their behaviour was more aligned to their own true values, the client was coming across better and through discussed techniques was implementing actions that were starting to sway wary direct reports. The client demonstrated appropriate leadership vulnerability - admitting that they'd made some mistakes and were prepared to learn from them. They became the breath of fresh air that was so desperately needed.

4. Helping others put on their masks

This leader, had previously created an environment where weakness, challenge and error were scolded. There was some hefty work to do to change that, as you can imagine. The leader role-modeled this through their own behaviour and talking openly about wanting to change and being seen to ensure their behaviours were consistent with the message. They introduced concepts such as 'lessons learned' and managed their responses when others revealed less than perfect actions. They fostered a culture of learning rather than the former culture of blame.

5. Everyone safe and breathing

The journey wasn't without its challenges and in this article I couldn't reference the whole journey. However, what I aim to highlight is that much of the time, we think the problems are outside of us - yet, the only people we can actually effect change with, is within ourselves. This then affects the response that we get from others.

This, like so many other coaching stories, has a fab ending, I encourage you to remember that the brave are out there in the arena getting sweaty, making mistakes and becoming their best selves, not in the cheap seats heckling and watching the others be brave. (Brene Brown reference - Dare to Lead)

As always, feel free to ask questions and post views. Thanks for reading.

Should you wish to set up a free of charge chemistry call to find out more about leadership coaching and if it's right for you, feel free to contact me.

03450 950 480


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