Two weeks ago I began working with my fifth class of Leadership Fellows at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and this coming week the Fellows meet the groups of first-year MBA students with whom they'll be working this Fall in the school's Leadership Labs. It's prompted some reflections on what I've learned over the last five years about leading groups, with an emphasis on leader as coach and guide rather than as directive authority figure. (Although note that I continue to re-learn these lessons regularly--while I recognize their fundamental importance and try to integrate them into my own practice, I can't say I've mastered any of them.)
1. Initial Conditions Matter
And much more than we realize. I don't mean "Make a good first impression," because that connotes phony, superficial positivity--a pasted-on smile and a hearty backslap. I do mean that in any leadership position or differentiated role we need to pay close attention to our first interactions with the people we're serving and to all of the factors that might affect our initial meetings. Because human systems are so dynamic, with so many variables shaping their outcome, even the smallest things at the outset can have a big impact on the initial course of the relationship. And in any differentiated role, the smallest things we do will be noticed and parsed for meaning. There are some simple guidelines to follow here--take a moment to get centered and present before getting started, connect on some level with everyone in the group, remember everyone's name--but my overarching advice is simply to raise our level of awareness: Notice everything we can, reflect on the experience afterward, and test our assumptions as the system evolves.
2. Embrace Mistakes, Failure and Surprises
As leaders and coaches and teachers, we typically design experiences for the people we're serving with the expectation that certain things will (or won't) happen. We define a set of parameters for the experience, and we work to insure that things stay within that boundary. These structures and plans are sincerely intended to support others' learning and grow out of our legitimate expertise--but while those good intentions and that expertise provide us with some structure and safety, they also serve to limit the possibilities before us. And our need for structure and safety can be driven less by a concern for the people we're serving and more by our desire to appear competent and avoid embarrassment. So don't flinch when things go wrong, because that's when the richest learning is possible, and that's when we become learners right alongside the people we're serving. I'm not saying it won't be scary--it will be--but perhaps the most important lesson, for us and for others, will come from how we respond to that fear; lean into it.
3. Growth May Look Like Struggle
Even when things aren't going entirely wrong, they may not be going well. Groups cycle in and out of periods of struggle, and particularly early on in their development they may look to a leader for resolution. But before we leap to rescue the people we're serving from what looks like struggle, it's important to recognize that most growth actually looks exactly like struggle from one perspective or another, and if we're took quick to jump in we may be depriving the group of its most valuable experiences. The first step is recognizing what we're thinking and feeling as leaders when the group is struggling--we tend to view it as an indictment of our leadership and feel anxious to push the group past the difficulty. The next step is to use this awareness not as a spur to action, but as a signal to pause, do nothing, and start asking questions instead: What growth might result if I hold back? What opportunity might be lost if I intervene? And am I worried about the group...or about myself?
4. Feedback Is A Gift
We say this a lot at Stanford--so much so that it runs the risk of sounding like a cliche. But it's never more true than when we're getting candid, meaningful praise or criticism from someone who's experienced our leadership. And yet to make it possible for others to give us this gift, there are so many steps we must take to establish the necessary conditions. Ask for feedback and act upon it--and be aware that how we respond to praise is as important as how we respond to criticism. Give feedback, and do so honestly and candidly, and yet be aware of the influence we wield in our differentiated role--own our feedback as our subjective, personal response, and insure we're not being viewed as the source of objective truth. And note that the more of this we can do in public with our team--particularly when it comes to people giving us feedback--the more everyone will learn, not only because they'll absorb the content of what's being shared, but also because it will normalize the process and make it safer for them to do it on their own.
5. Safety, Trust and Intimacy
I've previously described these three factors as the foundation of any group that aspires to help its members learn and grow. I define safety as "A belief that we won't get hurt," trust as "We mean what we say and we say what we mean," and intimacy as "A willingness to make the private public." The presence of these characteristics in a group supports the experimentation, risk-taking and vulnerability that are essential steps toward meaningful learning and growth--and the safer, more trusting and more intimate the group, the greater its potential value to its members. But a challenge is that the steps required to establish this foundation can appear to take time away from more pressing tasks--and as leaders we can easily get distracted by short-term deadlines and obligations and neglect the group's longer-term development. In my experience group members themselves sense the need for these factors to be established in the group, and they express that need quite clearly, although often indirectly. The key for a leader is to listen for and respond to any signals related to members' needs in these areas, while noting that it may be particularly difficult for members to articulate them in the face of our (perceived) indifference if we seem too focused on deliverables and results. This aspect of group development is a true test of a leader's ability to focus on what we know to be important rather than what appears to be urgent.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out Dan Might's very thoughtful response to this post, Six Leadership Lessons.
Photo by Nicolas Vigier. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.