His opening gambit was, What do you do? Not my ideal subject for small-talk during a short flight, but Oh well . . . I spoke of coaching leaders to lift their game through a systematic focus on developing their own and others’ capacity for effectiveness . . . how this saves an extraordinary degree of otherwise wasted energy and . . . As his eyes began glazing over, I invited him to talk about his work.
Although my companion spoke enthusiastically of recent developments in his (very interesting) professional field, he kept returning to the challenges faced in implementing them: a lack of focus, motivation and cohesion among his staff . . . constantly increasing workloads . . . unresolved tension, friction, cynicism and resentment . . . the difficulty of delegating work to people already overwhelmed . . . doing anything really well when everything is urgent and important.
I listened carefully (always good for research into the realities of the workplace) and his story took up the rest of the flight. As we landed I offered him my business card and encouragement to check my website for strategies to “bring out the best in yourself and others”. He said, Ah . . . OK. I’ll give this to our HR manager; I’m just a Team Leader.
That’s the problem.
Leaders often behave as though their responsibility for developing individual and collective capacity of those who report to them, begins and ends with a focus on getting the core task achieved on target and within budget (the hard stuff). Developing individuals’ capacity for pursuing and collaborating with others on that task (the so-called soft stuff), is regarded as a lower-priority matter for HR. They’ve got it entirely wrong.
They take too few opportunities for developing better practices in others through their own role-modelling. They overlook the potential for better outcomes through systematically developing the “asset” referred to in the cliched “people are our most valuable asset”. Their own and their direct reports’ approaches – to managing priorities, plans, decisions, problems, delegation, meetings, team development, workplace relationships, coaching practices and their own stress – remain unexamined and (mostly) improvisational.
This is the case for many leaders, because they’re overwhelmed; but continuing to attack trees with blunt axes while reporting that they’re too busy to stop and sharpen the tools, is madness.
Most leaders have strengths in the practices I advocate but tend to use them randomly, if at all, because they’re too busy to think about . . . well, anything other than the hard stuff. To isolate those soft stuff practices, enhance them and intentionally apply them systematically for better effect, they need get off the closed loop merry-go-round of business-as-usual. That takes courage to begin and discipline to continue. But they’re necessary steps.
Somehow, [ . . . ] we have acquired the idea that the mind is working best when it runs at top speed. Yet a racing mind lacks time even to finish a thought, let alone to check on its quality. When we slow down the mind, we work better at everything we do. Not only is the quality of our work better, we are actually able to get more done. A calm, smooth-running flow of thought saves a lot of wear and tear on the nervous system, which means we have more vitality and resilience in the face of stress. [Eknath Easwaran]