‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
What is it that makes certain individuals stand out from the crowd? How is it that some people resist peer pressure, seize the initiative and radically break the mould? Is this kind of personal leadership, the ability to think freely, move proactively and act autonomously, something we should seek to attract and nurture in organisations? Could it release fresh energy, inspiration and innovation? The relationship between an individual, group and organisation is complex. Organisations as groups often foster consistency, continuity and conformity. We test people during recruitment for their potential fit, we induct and orientate people into the existing culture and we performance manage people to deliver preconceived products and services.
It’s a brave organisation that recruits and develops social revolutionaries, people who will instinctively challenge the status quo, think laterally, refuse to accept time-honoured traditions and push for something new. For leaders who operate in a conventional management paradigm, it can feel threatening, confusing and chaotic. The risks can seem too high and too dangerous. I worked in one organisation where we recognised our culture had become too settled, too complacent, too safe. People often commented on its warm, supportive relational nature but it lacked its former edginess, struggled to deal with conflict and desperately needed to innovate. The challenge was how to introduce and sustain a shift without evoking defensiveness.
Social psychologists offer some valuable insights here, for instance in terms of social loafing and diffusion of responsibility where individuals are less likely to act independently or with the same degree of effort if they perceive themselves as part of a wider group where responsibility is shared. A challenge in this organisation was how to stimulate personal initiative and responsibility. Social conformity is another social psychological factor where people are likely to act consistently with the norms of a group if it provides them with a sense of acceptance and belonging within that group, or the approval of a perceived authority figure. A challenge in this organisation was how to ensure that personal initiative and responsibility were valued and affirmed.
We took a four pronged approach. Firstly, we worked with the leadership team with a skilled external consultant known for his outspoken, courageous, challenging style to develop a more robust leadership culture, capable of open and honest conversations without fear that this would undermine relationships. This enabled the top team to model a new cultural style. Secondly, we introduced a simple behavioural framework that positively affirmed personal leadership in terms including personal initiative, personal responsibility, creative thinking and innovative practice. This framework was embedded into the organisation’s recruitment and performance development to attract, develop and reward these qualities and capabilities.
Thirdly, we held an annual ceremony where staff were invited to nominate peers for awards where they had seen positive examples of such qualities demonstrated in practice. The peer aspect helped raise awareness and reinforce personal leadership as a cultural quality valued and affirmed by the organisation and to capture real stories that illustrated what it looked like in practice. Fourthly, we created a new innovation post, appointed an innovation enthusiast and allocated a new budget to stimulate and enable creative thinking and innovation across the organisation. This created a culture shift and a tangible symbol of the leaders’commitment to move in this direction. A willingness to question the status quo became a cultural value.
A corresponding challenge was how to engender a spirit of personal leadership that took the wider system and relationships into account. If individuals only operated independently and didn’t take account of or responsibility for the implications of their decisions and actions on others, relationships would become strained, the organisation would become chaotic and it wouldn’t achieve its goals. To address this issue, we introduced the notion of shared leadership alongside personal leadership, emphasising and affirming the value of collaborative working alongside independent initiative. This too was reflected in the annual staff award ceremony and in recruitment, development and rewards. It was a matter of creative balance.
As a tool for developing greater personal and shared leadership, I have found the following questions can be helpful: Who are my cultural role models? Who have I seen demonstrate great personal leadership? What can I learn from them? What would it take to contribute my best in this situation? What will I do to make sure it happens? In the past 12 months, where have I shown personal initiative? When have I held back from saying what I really thought or felt for fear of disapproval? What are the impacts of my actions on others? How far do I take responsibility to help others manage the implications of my decisions? How can I work collaboratively to achieve better win-win solutions? What difference do I want my life to make here?
Think of a great leader, leadership team or experience. A person, group or moment where you strongly noticed or felt the influence and impact of leadership. What made the difference?
I don't believe in the cult of the perfect leader, the person who lives and demonstrates perfect leadership qualities at all times and in all circumstances - except of course, God.
Nevertheless, I do know when I experience or exercise leadership. I have an intuitive sense that I'm being something, doing something, experiencing something that feels both 'me' and 'beyond me'.
I've noticed these moments most profoundly when certain qualities emerge at the same time. It's a kind of synergy that, in a particular moment and context, ignites a spark and something emerges:
*Identity. The intrinsic me. A sense of who I am, who I am in God, what I believe about myself, what others recognise in me, what my talents are, what I base my confidence in.
*Initiative. Personal proactivity. A sense of my own power, personal leadership, a willingness to be the first to step out and take a risk, a preparedness to take responsibility for action.
*Inspiration. How I motivate others. A sense of vision, imagination, a compelling idea, a grasp of opportunities and possibilities, an ability to help others believe in themselves, to release potential.
*Intuition. Deep insight. A sense of what's important, an awareness of my own feelings, an ability to tune into what isn't being said, an ability to notice and discern 'what's really going on here.'
*Influence. Inspiring others to follow. An awareness of what matters most to others, a commitment to role modelling, an ability to communicate, negotiate, convince and persuade.
*Inclusion. Valuing others' contribution. A sense of awareness of my own limitations, a recognition of others' gifts and talents, an ability to involve others and draw out their best.
*Intimacy. How I relate to others. A sense of empathy, a willingness to challenge and support, a preparedness to stand alongside others through good times and bad.
*Integrity. My values and behaviour. A sense of conscience, a moral compass, a determined commitment to ethical practice, a clear sense of parameters and boundaries.
*Innovation. Seeing and doing things differently. A sense of creativity, a willingness to be playful, experiment and take risks, an ability to reframe, to challenge the status quo, to enable paradigm shifts.
*Impact. A commitment to action. A sense of purpose, a desire to achieve change, the courage to get involved, a willingness to take decisions, an openness to experiment, evaluate and learn.
It's a dynamic combination of these elements that results in the exercise and experience of leadership, whether personal leadership or leadership as a team (where ‘I’ could be converted to ‘we’).
So I want to use this list as a checklist before God. How far does my attitude, outlook and approach reflect these qualities? What would it take for me to become more of a leader, more of the time?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.