Reflections on art and leadership

I use my art to reflect an artist and a senior manager in the financial services industry. I notice that the deeper I understand myself the more I succeed to impact others; in both art and work.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Searching for pain

Sometimes I notice that people are speaking about company politics preventing the right decisions to be taken; lack of support from management to do the right thing; bad behaviour of other people; others attacking them which puts them on a defence; working much harder than others but not being valued; others not playing ‘team’ etc.
Worse is when I hear myself speak like that. I have noticed that sometimes when I am tired I start talking like this, and generally my energy level does not go up. It's a bit (and sometimes more than that) like complaining. And why should I complain while as a manager myself I could have more influence on the situation than many others?

Art work:
Mooi gekwetst / 'Beautifully hurt'
Basically this type of complaining behaviour is a way to externalise the issue, kind of finger point at someone or something else - other people that have to change or having to solve the ‘real’ problem. This thinking becomes a reason to not have ownership of the issue we are facing. And what happens if all of us do that, if all managers do that...?
In fact putting the blame outside ourselves prevents us from facing the real pain: our personal limitations in influencing the situation. And it prevents us from making real choices; in fact for all these challenges we have only 3 options:
(i) Change or influence the situation
(ii) Accept the situation as is
(iii) Walk away
All 3 options may be okay. Choosing the option to change things requires acceptance that it is an important issue and that you have sufficient energy and fascination and take time to reflect, explore and learn. This is not always the case and there is no need to engage with each challenge or 'battle'. So accepting it (for now) can be an option and sometimes it is just best not to pursue but take another road that fits more with your personal values or skills. Sort of a “Pick your battles” approach. Complaining, however, is a way to avoid taking a decision on how to deal with the issues and therefore only takes away energy without solving anything.

As a famous expression from Chinese philosophy states:
When you are in pain you are just before the point of learning something important about yourself.
Basically, when we are frustrated or feel anger, it implies that something is touching us that we can not handle and that is close to our values. As an example, someone telling me that there is an issue with a slide in my presentation will probably not hurt me, but someone telling me I have not provided an honest view of the situation and I am just ‘arguing in my own interest’ could hurt me (the impact would also depend on the person that tells me this). The frustration and anger I feel in these situations come from the point that a couple of my key values are honesty and transparency. And people challenging me on these values while ‘I have done everything possible to take all arguments into account’ seems unfair.
My natural reaction to what I would see as an 'attack' would be to defend myself, but is that the right way to react?
In fact when I take a close look at the situation I could really learn from it, for example:
- How do I react when people 'attack' me when I am making a proposal in a meeting?
Defending somehow always keeps focus on me and my integrity. And when I keep arguing it increases the part this issue will have in the decision and whether management is willing to follow me. Maybe it is better even not to speak when under attack, because somehow I observe that whatever I say and how neutral I try to express myself, it just comes out in a defensive way. After reflecting and trying I have discovered a few ways to deal with these situations: (i) asking an open question: "which arguments do you feel should be added or changed?” This will take away the topic from my integrity and focus on the content. And it gives me some time to 'discharge' and reflect on what is happening and how I want to take it forward. (ii) Another option is to take a step back, lean backwards and share an observation about the situation: "Hmmm, somehow it seems we end up in a discussion about personal views and qualifications. I wonder what would be the best way to continue the discussion. Maybe we should sit down together and ensure the overview is complete and then present the updated view in this group?”
I have observed that this approach is much more effective, and helps to ensure that people follow me. And as a friend of mine used to say: "definition of a leader is someone that people decide to follow".

Another element here is that people normally learn 'more of the same'. When things go well they add knowledge that is similar to what they know. Even artists would often reduce experimenting once they have found a style that is rewarded by a certain audience and give them perception of success.
Similar things can happen when we have developed a style and approach of making presentations that seems effective in most cases. Why would we go and look for structural improvements to our presentation skills then. It is easier to blame the audience that they did not pay attention this time than to explore how I could have better influenced the dynamics. This type of learning makes us comfortable with our present skills and we just make small variations on our own patterns; I would say that this type of learning is stagnant and I would call that 'horizontal learning'.
It seems that when people are in pain they are shown that their current skill level is not enough and when they have the courage to face the challenge they could actually learn on a different level. It requires to ask different sort of questions.
‘What can I do ahead of the meeting to ensure I have some people there advocating for me?’.
‘Which seeds can I plant ahead of the meeting to ensure I can harvest during the meeting?’.
‘What will be the flow of the meeting to make view and decisions logical?’
‘What are the hot topics and opinions for the audience and how can I include that in delivering my message?’
Reflecting on pain and experimenting with new approaches brings people to a new level, it is vertical learning. And whenever there is pain there is the opportunity to discover a new level; and as it shows there is an infinite number of levels and there is therefore no end to the learning; and as a result it is good to accept that then there is no end to the pain.
An additional point this raises is that we should be humble as we are never done with learning, and we should keep listening to others to keep adjusting our views. In fact as Edward De Bono explains:
"A difference of opinion is based on a difference of information, experience or values". This means that when we approach issues we should see them as an opportunity to explore what information, experience or values of other people make them have another opinion. Instead of defending we can try to explore, and often then I have discovered that opinions are not that different and I learn new things.

So what can we do with all this information?
On a personal level I will challenge myself when hearing myself complain about the same thing for the third time. I will write this down in my notebook and take some time to decide how I want to deal with it.
When I feel frustrated I try not to vocalise my frustrations. People do not tend to follow a complaining manager that shows no ownership and influence on the situation.
When people on my team complain about something for the third time I will set up a one-on-one meeting. I will use the concept of 'pain' to verify whether they are at the point to learn new things. I have observed that these moments in fact are a valuable opportunity to make people change views, transform knowledge into insights and behaviour, and make leaps in influencing the team results. What helps in these conversations is: create a reflecting moment, sit back and openly explore the situation, what are the root causes and how could the person be influenced in order to change. Also important is to see where the manager can help or support, and/or if the manager needs to change an approach to help achieving the result.
I have also noticed that sharing concepts and views of types of learning and putting things in a broader perspective help people to step away from daily issues and really openly reflect.
I noticed when taking this approach that - once people see what they can learn after going through this experience- it is easier for them to develop energy the next time. The focus is no longer on the pain - it is on personal development that will be the result at the end.
In fact: we shift from focus on 'what is blocking’ towards the creativity of exploring new ways to influence our skills and results'.

Leadership comes when having the courage to transform your pain in showing ownership to change the situation and behaviour. It will show people the right role model and help to maximise effectiveness of the team.

1 comment:

  1. Found your art provokes so many thoughts and emotions, particularly when I have recently endured such a challenging time from an organization where i truly believed in the leadership at the top!!! For me it shows a sports glove that can be used to win the game!! if you catch the right ball. Even the best catchers cannot always connect with the team. Your picture depicts missing fingers from the glove, which really is the team who one by one let you down or maybe you let them down. The blue depict the mark that they have left on you as they try to get the glove from you but most importantly the mark that they leave on your heart and mind which should be where you place your focus to move on to the next team or next challenge at work, in whatever guise! Its all very positive because within the glove is the hand which lives on getting stronger from experience "a glove is material" where the hand is spiritual". Material fades and dies but the spirit grows and if connected to the higher being you can inspire through learning from those who challenge your being daily... so my glove is on and my mark is understood and through peace and learning I can lead with a knowing heart!!!