I woke this morning with an image of a person in a wheelchair in mind. Next, a flashback to social services many years ago. We were trained there to crouch or kneel when speaking with a person in a wheel chair, not to stand over them. It was about showing empathy, respect, meeting the person as a person, not ‘looking down on’ – in both literal and metaphorical senses. It reflected profound humanistic values of social work and community development philosophy and practice.
It’s only a short step from there for me to images of Jesus: God meeting us where we are, kneeling down to wash his disciples’ feet. I worked with a Christian organisation where the CEO, Gordon Holloway, made it his personal mission to know every one of its 1,700 employees, scattered throughout the UK, by name. He would spend time e.g. on reception, simply to experience how life and work were for ordinary staff. He modeled humility and servant leadership beautifully.
But what does this all mean for leadership, OD and coaching in our own contexts? How are we, in practice, to marry up worthy ideals like this in the midst of the very real competitive environments, complex situations, tight budgets and tough decisions we face? Should we not focus more on efficiency and pragmatics than ethics, do whatever it takes to get the job done? Is the luxury of ‘meeting people as people’ a great ethic but one we cannot really afford to indulge in?
Kimsey-House’s Co-Active Leadership and Arbinger’s Leadership and Self-Deception pose a deeper question: what kind of people, relationships and organisations do we want to be? If, e.g. I’m managing or coaching you vis a vis your performance, whose attitude and ‘performance’ do I need to pay attention to first? If I take a stance alongside you, don’t stand over you, what difference does that make to how we feel, who we become, what we achieve – and what becomes possible..?
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.