Susan* was excited about her promotion from leading a program team of four to COO of the organization. She had been with the organization for five years, lived the mission through the field programs she helped develop, believed in their impact, and was eager to help the whole organization grow.
Susan came to the first staff meeting with her new direct reports (chief development officer, new chief program officer, chief financial officer, and head of IT) with energy and a plan. She had read several books about leadership and knew it was important to come in with a clear agenda and outline her goals for the next 100 days. As she started speaking with enthusiasm, she witnessed her colleagues looking at their phones, reading ahead in the documents, or sitting back with arms folded. She began speaking faster, leaning towards them, emphasizing her points and what she wanted each of them to do. When she asked for questions, she heard reasons why her ideas would not work, rather than appreciation or curiosity. She ended the meeting asking for their ideas on the 100-day plan by the following staff meeting, and left feeling both confused and ready to lobby each individual in the meantime about her ideas.
We might discuss Susan’s communication skills with the new team, or listening skills, or facilitation skills to build consensus for the 100-day plan. Yes, skill-building is always useful, but………
What REALLY happened?
Susan was a strong and successful program leader that created results through her gusto and constant anticipation of what actions needed to be taken. Her team let her lead – they trusted her instincts. So for five years, Susan had led with “Let’s Do This” behaviors that garnered her praise, and ultimately this promotion. One could say she was well practiced to lead this way. Across five years, she had honed deeply rooted behaviors that she enacted consistently and almost unconsciously in any given situation as she led the program team.
Susan brought forward her well-practiced leadership behaviors with her new team. “I can DO this!” was the style she unconsciously applied. She did not consider that she might need new leadership practices for this new situation.
What NEW first actions could have occurred?
Before looking for new leadership tools, Susan would have benefitted from first becoming deeply aware of her current leadership behaviors as she stepped into this much larger role. Deeply rooted practices are rarely thought through – we simply use them to move into action. We think, “this is who we are”. Yet the “who we are” has been shaped by doing the same thing over and over, until it became “embodied” and we acted without thinking. How we shaped ourselves certainly served a valid reason at the time to achieve what we wanted. We cannot assume that it will serve for the future. When we use our unconscious behaviors in new situations, we may find we are ineffective, unable to build trust, or limited in our approach to the now larger system change we hope to produce.
What did Susan DO?
When the first meeting did not go well, Susan was still prepared to push forward with her enthusiasm, ideas and current techniques to get others to join her. However, she paused to ponder other signals her entire self was sending up to her brain. For instance, she felt confused coming out of the meeting. Why? In addition, she saw the arms folded and bodies leaning away from her enthusiasm. What did that mean? Finally , being honest with herself, she heard herself stumble while describing the plan. What was getting in the way of easily sharing her ideas with others?
Susan found these signals nagged at her so decided to look at them more deeply. She retained a coach to help her take some preliminary steps for her new role. She built AWARENESS by sharing with the coach her historical experience of leadership.
What shaped her “Can-Do” style? When did she start to lead like this, and what was her goal then? What was possible with this style? Could she recall situations when her leadership was less successful and what was different?
1. Susan increased her AWARENESS by exploring her current unconscious leadership practices
- How does “enthusiasm” show up in her entire self? Assuming it is a well-honed behavior, what is her natural body position when excited – leaning forward, centered, leaning back? Is her breath shallow and rapid, or steady and deep? What is her mood and level of energy? How does her level of energy affect others? How does high or low levels of energy from others affect her?
- What physiological shifts occur in her body to move from initial enthusiasm to a more committed “I Can Do This!” state? Susan learned to name body sensations and positions, energy shifts, and moods that were the underlying foundation of her previously unconscious behaviors.
2. With help, Susan created a compelling COMMITMENT that turned out to be even larger and more exciting than the one she brought to the meeting.
- While many leaders are told to create a “100-day plan”, to what end? What is the larger vision? How will the desired outcomes benefit the organization so that it becomes substantially changed?
- Having worked with the programs for five years, Susan tapped into many deep longings and desired outcomes she had felt while in the field. She knew more was possible, and saw even more clearly how her new role could help the organization make big shifts.
3. Together with the coach, Susan designed NEW PRACTICES that would both serve her communication with the team and well as help create with them a joint vision and each person’s role.
- When we make current “practices” overt, we then open up conscious choices for action. For instance, Susan was now able to recognize, with a felt sense, when she was leaning forward and chose alternate behaviors in different settings based on what she was trying to accomplish. Specifically in her leadership team meetings, she learned to settle back to widen her view of the situation. This settled her breath, her speaking and mood. It also settled the energy in the room, promoting connected, thoughtful conversations.
What Became Possible?
With deeper awareness, Susan slowly adapted her leadership behaviors. Just as her current unconscious behaviors were well honed by previous practice, she took on new practices that more effectively aligned with her larger role, new goals and vision. Susan stopped speaking about the 100-day plan, knowing that it was merely tactical steps. With a different presence and self-awareness, she began sharing what she had experienced in the field, what she was committed to, and asked for each of her team member’s longings and commitments. They built an easy rapport and a joint commitment together.
Susan changed. We all can change. Is it easy? No! Is it possible? Yes!! We do it every time we make a big commitment to ourselves and then intentionally practice new behaviors. I wanted to learn how to drive a car. I didn’t read a book about it. Instead, I started out awkwardly and hit curbs, ran over yard rakes, and then with consistent practice I drove myself downtown without thinking and with the radio on. I became a driver, and will never NOT know how to drive again. I now show up in the world as a driver and people know me as such. Some of you committed to dance, or music, or great leadership. You also didn’t read a book or just declare yourself changed. You too started out not knowing, tried and failed, kept practicing consistently and you are now deeply competent. You ARE a dancer, a musician, or a great leader. With your intentional practice, others know and describe you as such.
I’d love to hear your stories of changing yourself with intentional practice to achieve new goals and outcomes. What has worked and what has not? Leave a comment below or send me an email.