• Christine Lithgow Smith

A new type of leadership is emerging. Are you out of date?

cc image of "old 25/96/011/12"​ by Mohamed Ismail Shawki is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 courtesy of Behance

Working with leaders to help them create change, there is always the great debate about why it is so difficult; how do you make it work? Often, it’s the simple things in life that remind us that at the heart of change is people – it always comes back to people. Think about it: who programmes the technology? Who uses it? Who signs the deal? Somewhere at the centre of what you want to work is a human being, and most likely tens, hundreds, or even thousands of them.

Recently I was at a friend’s hen do back close to my home town in Essex. We took a drive to what I believed to be a taster body board session, only to find it was paddle boarding! As we arrived the sun was a vibrant orange, looking glorious over the serenity of blue sea with an array of yachts and dinghies in the bay. Heaven. Then I saw three people apparently standing up on the water with paddles in hand. Yes, standing. As we drew closer I saw they were on what looked like enormous surf boards. I looked in horror at my friend who’d arranged it and she nodded; yes this was what we would do today. I sh@t myself. Not literally, you understand, but I felt a combination of fear and teenage-like excitement appearing in my belly, and adrenaline flooding through my veins. Nervous laughter erupted between four over-40s as we walked towards a trendy-looking surf shack, already 30 minutes late and petrified of the impending doom of being submerged in cold, murky water. We approached the hut and met Mark, our sun-kissed host who was as chilled as I like my wine to be. His calm, relaxed manner soothed our nerves somewhat and we enjoyed a heady feeling as we shared the anticipation in the air and faced fear number one: the dreaded wetsuit (I know you’re with me on this one ladies). Sausage-like, we emerged into the kit-out area expecting a briefing and instead being handed these colossal boards before trekking down to the water’s edge.

Experience is the best teacher

We looked expectantly at Mark and asked, “Can we expect to stand up by the end of the lesson?” he laughed and said we’d be doing what we thought we’d seen experts do – we’d be serenely gliding across the water by ourselves. Now writing this I admit I feel a bit foolish having completed the experience but as someone who has spent the best part of 20 years in an office, and who stares adoringly at surf dudes but genuinely believes they are a god-like species with special powers, I was scared. We all were. With Mark’s expert guidance we edged into the water. The coolness of the water was a pleasant surprise around our ankles but, looking down, close up it looked more like a pool of mud than the gorgeous blue we’d witnessed from a distance. First, we had to get on the board on our knees. It was nerve-wracking, but we managed it. Then we had to learn to use our paddles. Again, so simple but as soon as I picked mine up I could feel the weight of them. It was like the muscles in my arms were ripping – I thought to myself “How the hell am I going to manage an hour of this!?” Holding ourselves upright on our knees we paddled out. I started to feel more confident, so I asked excitedly “When do we stand up?!” The excitement disappeared quickly to be replaced by my old friend fear as the answer came: it was imminent. I laughed nervously. Looking at Mark I said “I don’t know why I feel nervous, I’ve been standing up all my life. I know how to do this.” He agreed and observed how funny it was that everyone forgets that. Anyway, I stood up! I was up! At that point I felt the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and I began to paddle. It was tough at first. My thighs were shaking just from holding up my body weight! I focused on the task at hand, listened to my instructor and guess what? I did it! I was paddle-boarding! And better than that, I felt a strange combination of peace and exhilaration all at the same time. The further I pushed myself, the greater the rush. On and on I paddled. Mark was chatting to me. I said I wanted to go faster so he taught me how to. Together we paddled on. At some point Mark turned back but I continued forward. Enjoying the sensations, the rush, the freedom! After a while I realised I was still alone. Shakily I looked behind me and realised I was so far out compared to the others. I knew how to stop but not how to turn around. I decided to give it a go. I swept my oar deep into the water and tilted the same way I’d be taught to turn and fairly swiftly I was facing back to my pals. I couldn’t believe it. I’d done it! I felt amazing. Invincible. Independent. It was incredible, and I wanted my friends to feel it too, so I headed back to get them with the aim of encouraging them to go faster.

It’s good to fail. Fast.

I don’t know when or quite how it happened. Perhaps I got over-confident. Anyway, at some point I went from feeling like an Amazon goddess to the Emperor’s New Clothes. I lost control. I could feel the board shifting beneath me, I was struggling to keep my balance. The oar felt heavy, an enemy in my hands. In that split second, I knew, and I thought “S*d it. I’m going in!!”. There is a video of this moment and it’s hilarious to watch. It looks like I decide to run from one end of my board to the other and jump in! I can still taste the sea water in my mouth, feel the coolness of the water seep through my wetsuit, and see the murkiness that surrounded me as I swam to the surface. I clung to my board and was grateful I emerged with my paddle. Even more grateful as Mark paddled to my side. I waited to be rescued only to hear instructions being shouted: “That’s it! Grab the other side of the board with the other hand too and pull yourself up!”

I thought “Pull myself up? Who is he kidding! FFS I can’t even do monkey bars!” Then the sheer embarrassment of the situation set in. I could see my pals watching with interest. I’d been heading back to encourage them to go faster and now I had demonstrated the worst that could happen. I had to get out of this! I heaved myself up. It wasn’t graceful, and it wasn’t completed as quickly as I’d dived in, but I did it! I did it. Sorry, still enjoying that feeling of pride. With Mark’s help I did it. Now I had to stand up again. Oddly, I felt powerful. I was filled with determination and I set off again. Stronger than before because I knew that if I fell in, I could take care of myself and get back up again. That was the worst that could happen! This wasn’t failure, this was learning! I had nothing to worry about now, I could focus on fully enjoying the experience and being the best that I could be.

What’s does this have to do with Leadership?

Later that night I was talking to my friend who had found the experience the toughest. Oddly, it was the person who had booked it, who has also travelled the world, so I look on her as an adventurer. She said that when she was at the back, Mark was coaching her and had looked to me then said, “She’s a leader, isn’t she?” My friend, bless her, agreed, “Yes, she’s the leader of our tribe.” I blushed on hearing the story and honestly, felt a little confused. I wasn’t trying to lead anyone. Then it dawned on me. What is leadership? We all talk about it in business but what about life? The Oxford dictionary didn’t help on this one but Yuval Noah Hurari did. I’ve been reading his book “Sapiens”, which is all about the evolution of our species. How did we get so far, so quickly? By people doing things differently. By people being brave. Someone taking the first step in a new direction. Taking a risk. Enjoying it, going back and encouraging everyone else to come along. And when then followed, that person became a leader. That kind of raw leadership comes from my experience. From being alive and following your heart. Not from wanting to be a leader or being given a job title. Anyway, my point here is not bigging me up. I was genuinely loving the sheer crack of the experience and wanted to share it with my friends; I wasn’t discovering new lands or anything. But what about Mark? What was his role in all of this? You see by being the so called ‘leader’ of the tribe I was all consumed with my experience and the destination. I was thinking about bringing the people behind me on that journey until I realised how far apart we had become. That’s where Mark came in. He was back there. Watching, listening, coaching my friend who was so scared of falling in to help her join in the fun. And it made me think, in business we all make such a big deal about leadership but what do our people need? They need more than just leadership from us. They need coaching too. They need us to help them feel confident, feel like they want to change, want to take that journey with us. That doesn’t come from talking about how great it will be to get as far as a possible on a paddle board as, at that point in time, they want to get off it. It comes from being human. From caring, from sharing and encouraging people in whatever way is most helpful to them.

High-performing organisations use coaching to drive effective change and transformation

Time-consuming? Can be. Effective? You bet. Change is constant. It is around us all the time. It can be instant – I see people transform in front me during a coaching session all the time. They do that. Not me. They change how they see things, which changes how they feel and ultimately what they think and do. That’s why I think ‘coaching cultures’ are all the rage. In 2018, 15% of organisations surveyed met the definition set by the International Coach Federation and 61% of those are deemed to be high-performing, meaning that their talent and business outcomes outperform peers. The same study showed that 85% of organisations have been unsuccessful in driving change over the past two years. High-performing organisations that had embraced coaching as part of leading change were the other 15%. Does this prove cause and effect? Having led change in industry and now being a professional coach, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” for me.

I’ve been fortunate; I was first trained to coach as a manger 15 years ago when I worked for forward-looking, innovative organisation that – surprise, surprise – was hugely successful. There is a clear benefit in leaders being able to coach but, with the pressures brought by shifting priorities and growing targets is it possible for them to be the ones to do it? Could it be there is a new type of shared leadership emerging? One that recognises that to successfully change an organisation you have to successfully change its constituent parts. Most crucially, that is how people feel, think and do things. As leaders, we can’t be experts in all things, but we can recognise we and our teams may need a guide to help us successfully navigate change.

With thanks and appreciation to Mark and Mersea Island Watersports: https://mersea-island-watersports.co.uk/

For more information about what a coaching culture is, visit the ICF website: https://coachfederation.org/research/building-a-coaching-culture To talk about change in the context of your organisation and how coaching or changing your approach can help, contact me at cls@chrisalyst.com

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