Shelley Flett (pictured below) is an expert in leadership development and team performance and author of The Dynamic Leader: Become the leader others are inspired to follow. In this guest post for B&T, Flett argues if you want to lead, it’s time to amp up the uncomfortableness…
There is endless amounts of theory, research and advice you can access on leadership and it’s all helpful if put into practice. The problem is we avoid the practice, we consume more and more theory and improve on the things we already do well but struggle with the things that don’t come naturally. To become a dynamic leader one must have an ability to embrace discomfort.
Embracing discomfort is the opposite of playing it safe and isn’t something we naturally gravitate to. When looking at successful business leaders it is rare to find one that has achieved great results without experiencing discomfort. One such successful business leader is co-founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, who says “ironically, in a changing world, playing it safe is one of the riskiest things you can do”.
When embracing discomfort, it helps to recognise that often the things that make the biggest difference are counterintuitive! Growing up around motorbikes and riding myself for over 15 years I have learnt that great riders embrace discomfort and learn do things that don’t come naturally. For example, on a motorbike, to go right you would steer left! When you steer left the bike falls to the right which gets you around a corner. While it makes sense when you see it, it definitely doesn’t come naturally – riders must trust the process and push through their fear.
For me, the biggest fear I had when riding was losing control and so I would hold on to the handlebars as tight as I could. What this did was create stiffness right through my arms and into my shoulders. I felt every bump and as a consequence restricted the bike from naturally absorbing the impact of any obstacles on the road. By holding on this tight I had less control than if I just loosened my grip and relaxed. After some coaching and feedback from a trusted expert I adjusted my grip and went for a ride. Despite my discomfort and nervousness, I found I was better able to ride, I learnt to trust the bike along with the new technique and through continuous practice, sitting in discomfort, I saw the benefit of letting go of the control I originally had.
Great riders, like great leaders, see the bigger picture and understand the risks of only doing what they’re good at rather than continually seeking the opportunity to learn. When leaders don’t embrace discomfort and continually improve the consequences can be long-lasting and far-reaching.
In the programs I run with leaders, I talk about three key areas a leader must become proficient in, which are relationships, respect and results. Most leaders are comfortable in one or two of the areas and struggle with the other. To become a dynamic leader, one must embrace discomfort in the area they’re struggling with and continue to improve and refine their skills over time.
Investing in relationships – encourages leaders to be their true, authentic selves and show genuine care and concern for their people. It highlights the importance of acting with integrity, doing what they say they’re going to do and doing what’s right, particularly when they think no one is watching…someone is always watching! It also challenges leaders to be vulnerable. Often leaders assume a ‘super-human’ persona when they move into leadership, thinking this is what their staff expect. In reality, staff want to know their leader is human and experiences disappointment and failure just like everyone else. A leader who can embrace discomfort and acknowledges that they don’t know the answer will build trust a whole lot quicker than a leader who tries to be everything to everyone.
Inspiring respect – encourages leaders to see other perspectives and acknowledge that there is no right or wrong way of doing things, just different. When we can learn to take on different perspectives, we can learn to respect different points of view. Respect demonstrates the openness to be curious, patient and to listen and learn more about others through well-formed questions. It also enables leaders to adapt to situations by determining the optimal approach and adjusting communication modes, depending on the context and audience, for a given situation. Leaders who are willing to take on a different perspective, have the curiosity to listen and ask questions and then adapt their style will gain the respect of their staff.
Influencing results – is how dynamic leaders move their staff to action and make sustainable and incremental improvements over time. Leaders empower their people, believe in their ability to give the task the right level of attention and trust that they will represent them and the business as best they can. They build confidence through holding their staff accountable on a regular basis, rather than avoiding or ignoring situations, hoping they’ll improve on their own. They also understand the need for transparency, which isn’t about full disclosure but more about being open to disclose what can be disclosed and being completely unapologetic about topics that must stay confidential.
What really creates dynamic leadership is believing that sometimes the best course of action is the one that feels least comfortable – the thing that is counterintuitive. For many leaders this is letting go of control and learning to influence.
So, where are you playing it safe? Which of these areas do you believe you have room to grow in? Doing more of what you already do well won’t create dynamic leadership. Dynamic leadership will happen when you embrace discomfort and focus on building and balancing your skills in all three areas of relationship, respect and results.