The one huge thing I learned about leadership last year (I can’t believe 2017 is already last year!) is this: leadership can be quiet.
I came to this realisation quite by accident when I heard myself saying to someone “I would love to have James* as my senior manager.” I hadn’t planned on saying that; the context was searching for the most graphic way to explain what my role involves to a colleague with whom I hadn’t yet worked much.
James is wonderful person who works very much in the shadows. He doesn’t travel to any of the global offices, he doesn’t have a team, he doesn’t have a budget … and yet he achieves so much is so respected by the rest of the senior team.
At the time that I surprised myself with that revelation and was contemplating James’ successful existence, I attended a BBG event at which Eithne Treanor was giving a media training session and pulled up a slide which had my lightbulb moment in words on it: “Communication is the real work of leadership.” Nitin Nohria. Dean of Harvard Business School.
Let that sink in for a moment. If you need to, re-read it.
And now apply that to the leaders you have known and, perhaps, yourself.
No doubt we are all aware of the difference between leaders and managers. However, I hadn’t fully appreciated the difference between leaders – which I really should have, being a leader myself. The reason I didn’t, though, is because I thought I was doing it wrong.
For years I’ve grown through the ranks. I’ve developed a talent for achieving strong results. Colleagues actively seek me out to ask for my guidance of support on projects – sometimes from start to finish – as well as with aspects of their personal lives or their careers. And, in all honesty, I simply could not understand why.
And then I did a 360 feedback exercise as part of an organisation-sponsored training programme in the company where I work and two dozen people – colleagues and external stakeholders – responded to the request for feedback and, across the board, marked my leadership skills and abilities as ‘strong performer’ or ‘role model’ where I had marked myself as needing further development.
How could this be? I currently have no team. I’m not particularly loud (unless I want to be). Everything I do at work seems to involve a massive struggle. So how can I be a leader?
Now go back to that quote by Nitin Nohria.
Communication is the real work of leadership.
Now go back to the realisation I started with.
Leadership can be quiet.
And that is why I’m considered a leader by my colleagues and peers. I communicate with them on a level they appreciate. I take the time to understand their goals, their challenges, their opportunities; and then I take the time to understand how I can work with them to make the most of the various resources they have to overcome their challenges and achieve their goals. In a work context, this always involves taking this time with colleagues from different departments and in different global locations and who, more often than not, have to work together to deliver particular projects which contribute to the achievement of their goals.
Now, after having met and worked with James, I can appreciate how that positions me as a leader. And now, rather than believing that I’m doing something wrong and almost constantly questioning my approach and benchmarking myself against people whose leadership style is so far removed from mine, I can work at improving, not changing, the kind of leader I am.
To be honest, I’ve grown to love my leadership style (thank you, James!) I’m the kind of leader people follow because they want to, not because they feel they have to because they report to me or because I pay their salary or because they are scared of me.
If you see yourself in this story, take heart that you’re not doing anything at all wrong. Keep doing what you’re doing. Work on who you are; work from your heart. People around you feel it and appreciate it.