One of the first things we notice when we start working with a new group of leaders is just how much information on leadership they have. Most, if not all, have been through extensive professional development. They have been taught they should manage up, manage down, and manage sideways. They know all about the importance of handling performance reviews, and engaging their employees in mentoring conversations. They know all the political ins and outs of their roles and their organizations. In essence, many of them are a walking textbook for leadership. Yet with all this knowledge on board there’s one surefire way to make even the most determined leader shake a little in their boots: Start talking about transparency and authenticity. More succinctly, start talking about what it’s like to be transparent and open with feedback in their organizations.
In a world where consultants and businesses have been throwing around these words like candy, one small question about how transparency is handled in an organization can send the whole house of cards tumbling. Here’s the truth: We don’t like being vulnerable. We don’t like sharing our failures. We don’t like giving feedback. And we sure don’t like getting it. We may as well make it a four-letter word. And so it gets relegated to yearly performance reviews, managed in a “feedback sandwich” and given clumsily. At best we are ineffective with our feedback, at worst we do damage.
You may be wondering how a world that is currently spinning on a high of corporate trainings that involves transparency, honesty, and authenticity can be struggling with feedback. After all, timely feedback is the very foundation of creating transparency and honesty in our relationships. So just what exactly are we being transparent and authentic about? Turns out, not that much. By and large, most organizations are still laboring under the old paradigm of hierarchy and politics. Sure some authenticity and transparency would be nice, but no one really wants to lead the charge on that initiative. The risks, it seems, runs way to high.
So where does this leave our textbook leader? Well, for starters, confused. After all, considerable amounts of time and money have been spent on professional development. There is often a mandate from the top to integrate more of these teachings into the day-to-day interaction of employees. But how do we integrate these types of development tools in an environment that is not yet ready to accept them? This is the heart of the question we asked ourselves when we first started working with corporations. The desire for deeper relationships, stronger communities, and more honest transactions was deeply evident in every person we worked with. Yet, the ability to do anything about these desires felt shaky, potentially unsafe, and about as clear as mud. We knew without a doubt that the first thing that needed to happen was a to take a giant step back. After all, if one is going to develop themselves into new capacities the first thing that needs to happen is a deeper understanding of where their current capacities came from. In short, we started asking our clients to get a lot more introspective. We asked them to really get to know themselves. Not just who they thought they were supposed to be in the organization, and not just what their role was but rather, how did they personally experience themselves, warts and all.
In hard-charging environments, taking a step back is often greeted with as much enthusiasm as an ice bath. We have been subjected to more crossed arms and rolled eyes than most consultants. What we’re asking is not easy. There is no formula for getting to know yourself. Yet in order to become a truly effective leader one must be willing to take some courageous steps towards understanding what makes them tick internally. We spend so much of our time focused on how to manage things externally, and almost no time developing our ability to manage ourselves. Unfortunately this means that when things get complicated, or hostile, or uncertain, the only thing we truly have to fall back on is ourselves. When we try to lead from an external place of leadership (focused only on others, trying to please everyone, unable to see our part in things, gossiping, blaming and withdrawing) we continually feel off-kilter and unanchored. We are at the whim of whatever wind is currently blowing through our organization.
Anchoring leadership in a deep and intimate knowledge of yourself first (we call this our internal leadership) is one of the most impactful things you can do to develop yourself. The good news is that it develops not just your work leadership, but also your life leadership. How you do relationships at work, as it turns out, is often how you do relationships everywhere. Learning how to lead from within yourself, from a quiet and sure place of knowing, is a gift for yourself, your organization, your family, your friends, and the world at large.
So how do leaders go about strengthening their own inner leadership muscles? This is a question we have asked ourselves for the last few years. This spring we were fortunate enough to run a pilot of a new program we had created. We called it ARC (in reference to the arc of a circle) and it was an ambitious program. We worked with a group of fifteen high-level up and coming leaders at a prestigious university. We asked for a six month commitment from each of them. Our time with them included lots of experiential learning (learning by doing), as much private coaching as they wanted, and group calls to cover topics that included awareness, mindfulness, how to coach yourself and others, giving and receiving feedback, setting boundaries, and understanding different types of leadership. For six months we pushed each of these individuals incredibly far out of their comfort zones. We asked them to get to know themselves in a radical way. Our private coaching sessions focused on everything from ongoing work issues to marital crises. Through all of it, we asked them to keep coming back to themselves.
We’re not going to pretend this was easy. These fifteen people were amazing individuals. And yet, we met a fair amount of resistance along the way. People chafed under the ambiguity of what “getting to know yourself” really meant. They wanted a linear formula. They wanted a deliverable to take back to their organization. They wanted to know what the final goal was. It took close to four months for this resistance to finally clear out. The group were able to accept, at their own individual pace, that there wasn’t a finish line to the work of knowing yourself. And that if they were able to view this as the gift it truly was, they would without doubt see a shift in how they worked with each other as well as others who were not part of this group. At the conclusion of this program, we hosted a two day retreat. There was learning, laughter, tears, and camaraderie. Each and every person in the group expressed their heartfelt gratitude for the space this program allowed them to create both within themselves and with each other.
There is no way for these individuals to go back into their organizations and not affect change. They have changed themselves and deepened their understanding of themselves and in doing so, they will change their environments. The holy grail of authenticity and transparency won’t feel like a game of dress-up anymore, because these folks will be leading themselves with the truth and knowledge of who they really are. Giving and receiving feedback becomes part of a natural rhythm of daily life. The practice of openness starts to feel safer and safer. Things feel OK, even when they’re not, because internally these leaders know they’re OK. For organizations seeking to become more open and transparent you can’t get any more authentic than that.
Susan McCusker is the co-founder of The Circle Up Experience. She and her partner, Beth Killough, offer people the opportunity to interact with horses in order to learn more about themselves, reclaim natural elements of leadership, and transform their human herds. Visit us on Facebook for more leadership lessons learned the hard way.