The Reflection Pool

Leadership and Learning under Lockdown

Reading Time: About 4 minutes

In the beginning, I was smug about being an introvert. This “stay at home” thing would be a cinch. I like spending time on my own: thinking, reading, watching, writing. I look forward to the end of the day when I walk up the steps to my front door and enter the safety of home. My best weekend has always been one with no plans.

Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

The first few weeks were fine. Working from home was an adjustment, but mainly I felt as if I was supporting others in this difficult time of physical distancing. I read, I thought, I watched, I wrote. Then something changed.

I started to feel disconnected, at odds with myself and missing others. I had an uncomfortable few days where I felt rudderless. My interactions and decisions with work colleagues and those I supervise weren’t very positive. This wasn’t me! It was disconcerting because I’d been so confident that I was fine.

The stay at home order has turned our lives topsy turvy. There’s a huge range in how people are experiencing it. For some, fear and uncertainty about work and family add tension. For others, caring for elders and children, along with the upset to routines, feels overwhelming.

Aside from the obvious differences in our daily lives – no travel, no social gathering, no hugs – there are other subtle differences. Everything takes longer. We can’t pop in to say hello and solve a quick problem. We don’t chat in the hallway or office kitchen. We have a view into colleagues’ homes (and loungewear!). Screen time is mentally exhausting. Skills and solutions we’ve relied on to get work done don’t work in the same way. Life feels more raw somehow.

And yet, this unique situation that we’re living through presents an unprecedented opportunity to know ourselves better. Why not ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I need that I never realized before?
  • What have I always taken for granted in how I influence others or get things done?
  • How might I find ways to do things differently?

Strong leaders know themselves: how they prefer to make decisions, how they synthesize information and which modes they use to communicate. They know what they’re good at, and what they struggle with. In a recent conversation, a trusted colleague shared how this time has reinforced how much they value the daily routine and structure of work. This thinking is leading them to a deeper understanding of their leadership.

I’ve discovered that I need daily interactions with others. I enjoy meetings (who knew)! I crave thoughtful discussions about human behaviour, ideas, and learning. I miss the synergy that can come when people work on a problem together. One of the reasons I love my work is precisely because it offers so many moments to think and talk with those who think like me and, more importantly, those who don’t. It’s an essential part of who I am as a leader and how I influence.

I need to create these kinds of interactions while working at home. It’s not impossible with video conferencing, phone calls and 2 metre distant porch or front door visits. But it needs attention, just like every other facet of leadership and learning. I’ve started to use the camera much more in video conferences so I feel more connected with whom I’m meeting. I’m beginning to plan for deeper conversations.

I hope all leaders will reflect on what they’re uncovering about themselves. We are all trying to survive right now. It might be possible to bring forward these lessons once we’re back together so we can also thrive as leaders.

How to Appreciate Straight Talk

Blunt. Direct. Forthright. Candid.

I spent a year in Paris when I was 18. In 1982, the City of Light was full of possibilities for a young woman unafraid to explore. I met many international and French students that year. I was often introduced as “Suzanne – don’t mind her, she’s very blunt”.

My 57 year old self and my 18 year old self have a lot in common. I still talk straight, but I’ve learned to temper how, when and what I say. When I was 18 I was blunt because I didn’t think. Now I’m direct because I consider what’s needed to make decisions or to improve. Even so, my propensity for honesty is too much for some. Colleagues have insisted they want candour, yet it’s not always welcome. People don’t want to know what’s not going well, they don’t want to have their viewpoint challenged, or they equate disagreement with rejection. They’ve internalized the message that honesty is too risky, maybe from family members who taught them to “be nice”, employers who punished directness, or a friend who didn’t appreciate them saying how they felt.

I stand by talking straight. Saying what I mean leads to greater trust over time. People understand that I don’t have a hidden agenda. If they want and value honesty, it’s there for them. To be clear, honesty isn’t about being mean or unkind. Kindness must always be part of straight talk.

In the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott, she says to move away from the nice – you need to care personally and challenge directly to be a great boss. Another book, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor talks about how specific steps towards candour makes companies more effective. There’s a move towards being direct and open: it’s good for people and for organizations.

We can only get better if we know how others feel, what isn’t working and what other options or opinions can go on the table. You might take these steps:

Ask for straight talk. Create a space where it’s safe for people to speak honestly.

Prepare yourself to listen carefully. Don’t justify or get defensive. What are they trying to say?

Ask clarifying questions. Make sure you understand. Use paraphrasing to seek clarity.

Don’t take it personally. Hurt feelings are the enemy of improvement.

You may have a situation in your life that you could try to solicit and appreciate straight talk. Perhaps a colleague, friend or family member? Please comment below to let me know how it went or to share your thoughts on straight talk.

This post is part of a series inspired by Steven M. R. Covey‘s Speed of Trust.

Influence Really is That Important

In my first naive years as a school leader, I didn’t understand the power of influence.  I wasn’t so sure that Dale Carnegie really knew what he was talking about. I used to think that if you told people what to do, then they would do it. I spent very little time reflecting on my leadership and my impact on people.

Photo Credit: wajadoon Flickr via Compfight cc

Fast forward 9 years.  Now I know that leading people is much more complex. Lots of reading, observation and my own mistakes and successes have taught me that. Compliance does not mean commitment. Not only that, but if you lose the ability to influence those you work with, you become an ineffective leader.

The Ontario Leadership Framework rests on this: “Leadership is the exercise of influence on organizational members and diverse stakeholders toward the identification and achievement of the organization’s vision and goals”.

This kind of leadership needs respectful relationships, trust, and an ability to listen carefully and understand people. That means:

  • getting to know people, their values, beliefs and experiences;
  • demonstrating character (Steven M.R. Covey: How the Best Leaders Build Trust): trustworthiness, follow through and integrity;
  • demonstrating competence (Covey) and knowledge in your role;
  • showing vulnerability and admitting what you don’t know;
  • listening to understand, not to respond;
  • asking for feedback regularly;
  • showing that you value people through your actions and your words.

What strikes you about this list?  One of my biggest challenges is active listening. Sometimes the need to give my opinion or the “right” answer can be overwhelming, and I need to remind myself how to work best with people.

I want to influence others to do their very best, most creative and interesting work and so I keep on. It’s worth doing.

 

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