Its been a couple of months since I last posted anything. Apparently though, if my blog had been a San Fransisco cable car over the course of the past year then it would have taken 48 trips to carry the number of people who viewed it. The views came from 79 countries over the past 12 months too, and most commented on was my article on Leaders, Power and Openness. My first post of the new year took a while to put together – hope you enjoy it.
The late Tom Dorrance was born in 1910 and his life was filled with ranch work, farming and especially horses. He’s influenced the thinking of an extraordinary number of people over the years (including me), and he continues to influence long after his death in 2003. The combination of the circumstances associated with the photograph above, as well as a recent event involving a client who was extremely nervous about a recent meeting with the Chief Executive of their organisation has been tumbling around clumsily in my head for a while.
As the CE – or any other leader for that matter – do you have any idea of how you impact upon others? Do you have any sense at all of how your presence affects others? Do you even care?
During my military career, I’ve met a number of people who didn’t. They even seemed to enjoy the ‘bragging rights’ they were under the impression it gave them the right to express. Somehow, by being the ‘alpha male’ stereotype, they operated under the delusion that they were an awesome leader. I’ve also met people who didn’t possess charisma or good communication skills; they would employ micro-management and empty discourse instead. They would slavishly adhere to nonsense rules and policy, creating environments where people dreaded making mistakes for fear of what would happen after they did. I’ve met people who enjoy puffing their feathers and showing off their plumage. I’ve met those who hide behind the authority vested in their rank or position. In each case, I recall being staggered, but mostly disappointed, that the organisation rewarded such behaviour or example. The military isn’t perfect – it has people in it after all. Fortunately, I’ve been privileged to serve with some not just good, but outstanding leaders. The types you would walk over hot coals for; the types who put you in harm’s way, but not wantonly – and you go there willingly for them. I’ve met leaders where I’ve looked at them in awe of how they have done something, or interacted with others, and wondered how I could learn to incorporate even a fraction of incredible excellence into the way I lead. The very best ones I met weren’t interested in acquiring followers; they were devoted to creating and developing more leaders – who would be better than them.
My client and I have worked together for less than a handful of years now. The comment that has caused me to allow the thoughts to rumble around in my head came up during one of our regular discussions and it leapt out at me at the time.
Client: “I’m really nervous about meeting with the CE. Hope she is in an OK mood.”
Me: “You’ll be fine. She sits down to poop just like you do.”
Client: *smiles apprehensively and nods.
The conversation went on to wrangle with this a little more, but I was really struck by my Client’s initial comment. On reflection, I realised there were two parts to it; one was an internal issue and the other an external one. More interesting, the two parts work in the case of both parties (i.e. my Client, and their CE). I’ve often said that behaviour is the outward manifestation of what’s going on; it’s a symptom. The people working for and with a leader are on the receiving end of the behaviour – and the leader makes a choice about how to express their behaviour. The choice is either deliberate, sub-conscious, or un-conscious; but a choice is made nonetheless. Being conscious and mindful is hard work; the brain seeks energetically efficient ways to do things and so often, we make a choice that is the one involving least effort. Unfortunately, under pressure those choices are self-indulgent ways of articulating something or expressing ourselves and outwardly, what we project is perhaps not what we would mean to if we put in a little more thought and effort.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of high-profile figures, over lengthy time periods. Over a handful of them have earned international success in high performance areas. Who they are isn’t important – I’m not someone who seeks or wants accolade or testimonial from such figures so that other people think I’m somehow awesome. You shouldn’t be concerned about who they are either – I’ve yet to have anyone work with me because they want to boast about working with “the guy” who worked with this or that person. People work with me because I’m effective and I’m not interested in a one-shot encounter. My business model is counter-intuitive in some ways; rather like “Rule One of Fight Club – you don’t talk about Fight Club”. Ironic then that I blog, I suppose. However, I blog mostly for me; I don’t want to force what I do on anybody – that’s not the way I work with horses and so it just makes sense to me that I continue that approach with business. With all the people I’ve had the honour of working with, from all walks of life, what strikes me most is how little the horse cares about reputation. The horse just isn’t impressed.
What the horse does care about – and it’s why they are such good teachers – is how you make them feel. Humans are no different. As a leader, do you really want people to be nervous before they come to meet you? There are times when yes, of course you do, but I’m talking about on everything but those rare occasions. As a leader, how do you ever know you are wrong if you have created an environment where people are too nervous to speak the truth to you? Do you as a leader value the nature and quality of the relationships you have with people? How as a leader do you deal with ‘difficult’, or challenging people to lead? Are you intimidated by it, and so resort to using intimidation to give yourself a sense of control?
There is a Yugoslav expression that, roughly translated, means, “if you want to know a person, place them in charge.” Other cultures have something similar. Everything I’ve spoken about here relates to how you as a leader wield power, and the effects of how you wield power. It also relates to what ‘control’ for you might look and feel like. My experiences and my working with horses have enabled me to think differently about what ‘control’ actually is; and mostly, it’s a false sense. The first photograph above was a moment where ‘Benny’ – a handful of a young horse – made a decision that he would ‘join up’ with me. It was his decision, but it was crucial for us being able to work together; he had to want to be there with me. As with all the horses I work with, I can’t make them do anything – they have a say in it. Power can be an intoxicating thing and I know this – just like I know the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening: you ride a spirited horse with a light touch and on a loose rein. You don’t try to control it; you develop a relationship with it. You listen to it, you go with it and you ask it – you don’t tell it.
In 2016, don’t be the leader around whom people are nervous. I wish you all a positive and rewarding year ahead.