The Perennial and Persistent Challenges of Leadership

On my travels and the variety of work I do over time, last week was particularly interesting in that I was working with NHS leaders in a Trust one day and the very next day I was setting up coaching relationships with four managers who run a glass bottle making factory in the North of England.

The two environments couldn’t have been more different; from the relative comfort of an air-conditioned classroom adjacent to a large Hospital Trust to the heat, oil, grime and noise of a 24-hour, 365-day production unit moulding high quality glass bottles from a constant stream of molten glass directed through the heavy machinery at warp speed and at a temperature of approximately 1,100 degrees Centigrade.

Yet despite the highly contrasting work environments I encountered human beings as leaders with a lot in common. On the positive side there was pride, passion, care, a desire to be successful and above all an understanding that real leadership is all about people and not about ‘things’. On the challenge side was a common frustration of not having enough time to ‘lead’, of not having enough budget and a strong pull to dive into the weeds (“if I want it doing right then do it myself”) rather than stay out of those weeds and direct things with a clear vision and view of the world.

These challenges are both perennial and persistent and across every industry and sector, small or large in which I work.

What I also observed is there is a common solution and that is to create time to think… thinking, reflecting and space give the human mind time to calm down, to really think about priorities, about root cause, about appropriate delegation, communication and motivation to get the important things done. It is the space in which innovation, creativity and new solutions can appear. It is the space in which we can get out of the activity ‘trap’ and realise that not doing a task can be much more effective than doing said task.

This is, of course, where coaching & mentoring comes in… whether that coaching is delivered by a professional external coach or by a colleague or professional internal coach, it is the very act of stopping, thinking and challenging the status quo where leaders can suddenly feel a whole lot better and take a fresh view and approach to the challenges of leading in complex organisations in this high-speed millennium.

So far, I’ve addressed the persistent side of my title – in which this common set of challenges and an effective solution is persistent in most of the organisations in which I work…. What about perennial?…

This is where the embedding of the coaching mindset comes in – all too often we feel good when supported by a coach and we can often maintain the momentum during a coaching or leadership programme, but what about when the coaching stops. For me there is something that many coaches are aware of but don’t address… what will you do when we’ve done? I’m increasingly building this conversation into the programmes I run, and it is designed to develop a sense of self-awareness, self-management and in the fullness of time, self-coaching. I’ve had these conversations over coffee, sometimes many months after a formal coaching relationship has ended in that the former client finds themselves saying “I wonder what my coach would ask me right now?” In this way they build a stock of self-challenge questions which can be brought to bear when circumstances dictate….

In summary:

  1. Wherever/however you work there is great value in STOPPING and THINKING before ACTING
  2. Using a coach/mentor whether a peer or professional coach can be a powerful way of creating change
  3. In time learn to self-coach… build that stock of challenging questions and take time out to ask them of yourself