I was recently asked the following question by a client…
“What do you see as the enduring development challenges and issues that leaders struggle with the most?”
It was a good question, and certainly not the first time I had been asked a similar question.
The question helped me reflect more deeply on the things that ‘keep on keeping on’ – regardless of how much personal development, reflection, meditation, life experience or organisational trench warfare we may have survived.
This led me to creating what I am calling the ‘Seven Immutable Growth Challenges’. These are the things that – while some do well – many (even most) leaders are found wanting in one or more areas. They are the things that leaders often find difficult and energy sapping – usually occupying way too much mental headspace than they deserve. They are the things that I get asked to help with the most. Hands-down.
Starting at the one o’clock position, the model moves from a strong ‘inside’ focus to a strong ‘outside’ focus, beginning with self-awareness.
Challenge 1: Self-Awareness
Self-awareness can be considered to be the foundation of the human experience.
Carl Jung once said:
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
It is not an over-statement to say that growing our self-awareness is a lifelong undertaking. However, for some at least, the requisite skills, will and courage may actually not be enough.
Of all the challenges, growing our self-awareness is perhaps the most important and arguably the most challenging.
Challenge 2: Bulletproof and Perfect
A term borrowed from Brene Brown, ‘bulletproof and perfect‘ refers to our inability or unwillingness to be vulnerable. This occurs in a society of scarcity which drives a ‘never enough‘ culture. Never good enough, fast enough, skinny enough, smart enough….you get the idea. Only when we can accept that we are good enough. Right now, today, as you read this – you are enough – full stop will we allow ourselves to show up and be seen.
Challenge 3: Real Dialogue
At least in part, our difficulty in being able to engage in authentic, constructive and robust dialogue is due to challenges 1 and 2. In my practice, I work with individuals and teams every single week and have done for two decades. Having difficult conversations – and sometimes – just having a conversation with another human being often presents real obstacles, perceived risk and fear. This is why I focus heavily on the process of interaction and dialogue when working with teams. Becoming skilled in this area is a gift that just keeps re-paying itself over and over again.
Challenge 4: Productivity and Resilience
There has been a lot written about in this area of recent times – and for good reason. My own experience is that people in organisations, particularly senior people, are becoming more overwhelmed because of what is expected of them. This requires a new muscle to be exercised that most of us are not good at exercising. It requires good self-care, being able to set and maintain boundaries, and being able to shift our thinking about a range of life challenges. In my own practice for example, I like to invite people to practice saying a solid ‘no‘ at least daily.
Try it. See how liberating it is.
In a single coaching session, it isn’t unusual for people to re-claim 10-15 hours per week by doing a simple audit of their ‘busy’ work. The trick is to create more good work and great work.
Challenge 5: Being a Team Member
It’s harder than it sounds right?
I once heard a definition of ‘team’ which summed it up nicely! The definition was that a team was a bunch of smart people who came together to do dumb things! While not always true of course, this is how it feels sometimes. Why? Because we are human and therefore suffer from all the normal human flaws, fears and frustrations that comes with being part of a tribe of fellow humans. This is double-edged sword: on one side is the magic that can happen when smart, motivated people come together – while on the other side is the often messy and time-wasting interplay of egos, ambitions, and personal insecurities.
Challenge 6: Leading a Team
If being a member of a team can be challenging, leading it can sometimes feel like a long, hard slog. When working with teams, I like to use the metaphor of a relationship in a personal lives that we care about – it requires constant attention and investment. Teams are no different. Too many times leaders fall in to the trap of thinking that the conversation they had about the strategy three months ago is enough. Or that subversive and undermining behaviour that crops up from time to time will just go away by itself. It requires a constant focus on three things: (1) direction (where are you heading?); (2) interaction (how are you working together?) and finally (3) renewal (how do you grow, develop and look after yourselves?).
Challenge 7: Change & Complexity
Perhaps the Holy Grail is being able to manage and lead (meaningful) change in service or organisational objectives. This is where the ‘leadership rubber’ really hits the road – or not.
Apart from the important objective of creating a meaningful employee experience and context which enables people to thrive, surely leadership is about making a real and substantive difference? It is in this area that the biggest mistakes are made. Those who choose to exercise leadership do so in a ‘soup’ of politics, shifting landscapes, silos, turf-protection and good old-fashioned legacy cultures that have taken years to develop and remain remarkably resistant to change. Navigating these murky waters is challenging for the most seasoned of executives.
So what does it all mean?
Leadership is an art and a science. To be effective – really effective – requires attention across the full-spectrum of the seven growth challenges, particularly the ‘inside’, which is arguably the most challenging.
So what should your focus be?
Well, perhaps surprisingly, its actually not a linear proposition. In our fast-paced world, there’s no time to focus on self without a focus on the other levels. We work with leaders and teams to orchestrate a plan of action that focusses on all seven levels to varying degrees based on the context. This helps support rapid progress and success.
And I’m 100% sure of one thing, and that is that it is an incredibly worthwhile journey.
I wish you all the very best.
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