Many of us who aspire to be great leaders and wanting to make an impact know how much leadership is a learned skill that is a mix of theory (all the leadership resources we consume) and practice (actually dealing with people).
You can read piles of leadership books and understand the core principles of good leadership but it is when you are faced with real actual people that you learn how to use (or not to use) a whole range of skills.
In that learning journey, a range of issues remain crucial such as how we interpret a situation, how we can clarify expectations, and the role self-awareness plays in this.
Stories matter for how we manage
I am more struck than ever before by the fact that developing our core leadership skills e.g. having difficult yet brave conversations with our staff, colleagues and those who we report to, can only emerge through sustained commitment to learning.
Some of the key skills in leadership and coaching is the art of asking questions, understanding what story you are telling yourself about a situation is, and then moving on to reconcile the different stories in a transparent manner.
“The story I am telling myself…” is rarely a conscious effort in that process but it should be: approaches like the Acceptance Commitment Therapy (that is close to coaching) is about recognising our thoughts and sitting with them, rather than pushing them away.
In many situations, we often decide on a story about a colleague or someone working for us, and make decisions on how to handle the conversation and set things “straight”.
Embarrassingly, this happened to me recently without me even knowing that it had happened.
I thought I had been very clear about the expectations (theory) that had been set in what a particular role would do, but it turns out this had not translated into clear actionable directions (practice).
So we were all going around in circles, having made different stories about the situation in our heads, worrying about those different scenarios in our heads, and acting based on our story about the situation and not meeting each other in the middle.
My greatest learning here was what I have been told all along: ask clear questions, and “stay curious just a bit longer” as Michael Bungay Stanier recommends.
Fierce conversations can embed clarity
A friend borrowed me a book Fierce Conversations (which is now in my book queue) when I was going through this process.
In the book, there are a range of questions that you can use in preparing to have a conversation with someone where the expectations need to be clear from both sides, and where a joint outcome needs to be reached.
My friend said she often writes down her answers to these questions beforehand, prints the answers with her, and takes the print out to that conversation so she is clear what she aims to achieve and what needs to be said.
I really admire her wisdom and experience in knowing that preparation is a key for learning and that it enables us to be more courageous in having fierce and frank conversations.
This does not mean that we just face the situation head on, stick only to our story, and get the outcomes we want in the end as not everyone is ready to participate in such conversations.
But leading is much more about hearing people out, asking more questions, and reflecting also what you are hearing, and whether you are piecing together the story in a way that is helpful.
In the last few months I feel I have been really challenged with all of this, and that I have failed time and again with leading through curiosity.
I have not been ready to have frank conversations (and yes, I have a list of those I should have) because although in theory I know how to handle these and how important such conversations are, in reality it scares the X out of me to actually do it.
This last experience did humble me (in a good way) because I saw the different stories, understood the complexity of expectations resulting from blurred boundaries, and can now see much more clearly as to what I would do and say differently.
Can leadership be actually fun?
The thing with leadership is that it is not always fun.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a fun leader; someone who can make people laugh and feel excited about the task ahead, feel like they are being heard and that I am there to support them.
But it comes also with complex problems of navigating the different stories, trying to identify the right opportunities for change when needed, and having a whole range of pressures set on you.
What I do find comfort in however is what Simon Sinek always says: that leaders are not there to lead but they are there to enable the growth of other people and themselves.
Leadership is an attitude of greater service than focus on my career goals and vision; it is about finding opportunities to assist others to grow and in that process also grow ourselves.
It is a bloody hard process that is often mirrored also with doubt “did I make the right decision?”, “did I hear her or him right, am I following the right story?” where we do fail.
It is a sequence of decisions that either enables you to move forward and become much more self-aware and self-reflective or pushes you into a spiral where you keep running into the same problems because you are not learning.
Growing self-awareness means that you take a hard look at yourself, how you think and behave, and for many that is too much or they don’t see the value in it.
Because taking a hard look means you will notice things that need to change, and if one thing that humans are uncomfortable often with is change.
But there is and will be a different quality in those leaders who are ready to say they are sorry, ready to admit that they are wrong and that they are learning but who also give themselves the grace to be at that exact place and journey where they are.
Leading is about learning how people function, and the harsh truth is that we can only control ourselves, our thoughts and our behaviour.
That is all that sits within our true circle of influence.
Moving between theory and practice
This has as always clear linkages also to climate adaptation: that we know in theory how we are supposed to adapt to climate change (just look at the number of guidelines that exists and are developed) but are often at loss when we have to do it in practice.
In a recent event where I spoke about climate adaptation theory and practice, one participant asked me: “So, what am I supposed to do in the morning when I wake up? How am I supposed to adapt to climate change?”
That question really hit home to me because a lot of my work is focused on the theory of adaptation, those underlying assumptions that are driving our decisions, and trying to understand the broader global trends at play.
So leaping into the practice side is challenging especially at the individual level although of course there are a range of somewhat easy answers that align with e.g. seek information on risks and changing trends, insurance, risk management in property investments, installing solar energy systems, energy efficient systems, planting shading trees close to property.
But again, this leap between what we know something should look like in theory and what it actually looks like is a key area of climate adaptation that we need to pay much more attention to.
It is not just a pure theory-practice or science-policy gap but a learning process, just like when we develop leadership skills, where the theory and stories we tell ourselves about the aspired outcomes need to match and learn from what happens on the ground when people and organisations make decisions about adaptation.
This is the knowledge that we need to gather and learn from, and over time, develop robust guiding principles that can help us in dealing with similar situations that arise over and over again.
I do believe that both adaptation and leadership development are the same forever stuff: neither will go away or be finalised any time soon.
So the best we can do is to pay attention to how we can leap between theory and practice, and learn to achieve the outcomes in the process that we aim for.