To Lead Is To Accept and Improve

While this post is NOT about new year’s resolutions, it IS about the reflection that naturally happens this time of year. And, more specifically, it is about the unconscious mental conflict that comes along with it.

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Jan 29, 2019
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You see, of the many messages that permeate our culture, there are two that are in conflict - almost contradictory. And these messages are both positive. Yet attempting to reconcile them both simultaneously can be challenging.

The first message is: I am perfect as I am.

One of the favourite films in our household in 2018 was ‘The Greatest Showman’ where Hugh Jackman plays the role of P.T. Barnum. One of the resounding messages from this film was how the troupe begin to accept who they are despite public perceptions of who they “should” be.

This is a great message for people because we are all different, coming from different places, with different talents, imperfections and ideas. So many people try to conform and lose their identity; dampening what they offer to the world in order to fit in and forever feel stifled and false. No matter how hard they try they will never reach this benchmark of “fitting in” and will never feel “good enough” so the message of “accept who you” are is incredibly liberating and empowering when one can finally, and fully, believe it. The best leaders are the ones that know who they are (imperfections and all) and are comfortable with that.

One of the biggest challenges to accepting yourself the way you are is Impostor Syndrome. I have written about this in my book The Coach’s Casebook and I have vlogged on the topic too. One great way to help yourself in this area is to consciously look for and recognise your strengths.

People with Impostor Syndrome have a tendency to dilute or not accept compliments. They will put their successes down to luck or other factors rather than internalise them.

One way to begin to counter this is to ask for and, most importantly, practice accepting compliments. Imagine a compliment as a gift: you wouldn't reject a birthday present, would you? So why reject a compliment?

One technique, taken from my book, The Coach’s Casebook, that can help you here is called “5-5-5”.

Follow these steps:

  1. Think of five people whose opinions you respect and trust - ideally from different areas of your life - and give them a short form with five questions to complete. The questions should only take five minutes to answer. If you can’t think of your own, here are 5 you could try:
  • What one word or phrase describes me best?
  • What do you think is my greatest achievement?
  • What do you value most about me?
  • What one thing could I change for my own benefit?
  • What do you believe to be my greatest strength?

2. Ask each of the five people to read out their answers to you. (Many people do this exercise over email, which is still beneficial but not as powerful as having that person in the room actually saying the words).

3. Ask them to pause after reading out each of their answers.

4. During that pause, repeat what they have said in the first person in your head. For example, if the person says, ‘I think your greatest strength is your creativity because you always see options that others would never even consider’, you would say to yourself: ‘My greatest strength is creativity because I always see options that others would never consider’.

5. Thank them unreservedly for the feedback and then ask them to continue.

This exercise will boost your ability to accept yourself as you are and appreciate the value you bring. Then move on to the second message.

The second message is also positive and this is “I can (and should) improve”

Knowing that one will never reach perfection but that one can always improve can be both a daunting and liberating idea.

Roger Federer, arguably one of the most successful tennis players of all time, completely remodelled his game during his peak years which has since allowed him to become the oldest winner of grand slams in the open era.

If you are asking or expecting your people to improve and develop, just think what you are asking them to do. Or at least consider what you are asking them do may be perceived as…

By expecting them to take on some personal development, you are asking them to potentially admit that they are not yet “good enough” because otherwise why should they be looking to improve? This takes a lot of courage on the part of your people to admit vulnerability and weakness - even if you don’t see it as weak. In a highly competitive environment, admitting “I could use some extra training” could be seen as a weakness.

You know the logical rebuttal to these concerns, right?

We can all improve…

This is a reward and an investment in your future because we believe in you…

If you’re not moving forwards then you are moving backwards…

Even having these rationales to hand, effective and inspiring leaders will still ask themselves whether their actions match these words. Because what a leader DOES is far more important than what a leader SAYS. Are you modelling these behaviours yourself? Or do you feel you have to show strength and solidity?

I would argue that one huge part of a leader’s role is to inspire their people and role model the behaviours they want to become the organisation’s culture.

Leaders who can be themselves are inspiring.

Leaders who admit imperfection are inspiring.

Leaders who accept who they are while constantly try to improve are role modelling the kind of behaviours they want to see.

There are a couple of techniques you might be able to use to help you enhance your ability and readiness to improve. Both of these are, again, taken from my book, The Coach’s Casebook.

Try Something New

This might sounds strange but I really mean it. Try something COMPLETELY new. Perhaps horse riding, or still-life art or a musical instrument. By forcing yourself to start something completely new, you will get back into the habit of learning (there is so much to learn when you are a novice) and there is a good chance you will learn how to learn again. And even enjoy the process of learning.

50 Values

The 50 Values exercise will help you get back in touch with who you are at a fundamental level. Doing this can be enlightening and empowering as well as sometimes being surprising. It is so useful in fact that I end up using it with almost every person I coach. Knowing what is important to us and knowing what kind of leader we want to be helps us make decisions on a day to day basis that keep us in line with those values. We are then also much better able to consciously develop our values on an ongoing basis.

It’s a simple exercise, involving narrowing down from an initial set of 50 values to 5 or 6 core values that are the most important to you. You can even buy [UK] [USA] a deck of cards to help you do this yourself. It will also be available in my Inspect & Adapt Coaching Cards app available on the App Store and Android Store coming in 2019.

So back to the two messages being in contradiction:

If you are perfect in your imperfections yet always need to be improving…how does one reconcile those? When we attempt to hold two conflicting views in our heads simultaneously, we call this “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance can be stressful because, above all things, people crave certainty. How does one square this particular circle?

Growth Mindset

As with most things I post and comment on, the answer is in how you think about things. Over the course of the holiday season one thing you can’t really avoid is adverts for products. One that stuck in my mind was from a razor company - I won’t name them because I am not sponsored :-)

One of the lines in the advert was, “The best men treat every challenge as their Everest but don’t beat themselves up if they only reach base camp”.

I think this is a good example of Carol Dweck’s famous “Growth Mindset” and an effective balance of those two competing thoughts.

I posted a while ago about my stance of “compassionate ruthlessness” when I coach and I think this is equally applicable to oneself. We need to be compassionate with ourselves because life is tough and we will never be “perfect” or “complete” but being ruthless with ourselves will also be what drives us to greatness. Being compassionate without being ruthless can easily lead to stagnation and excuses. Yet being ruthless without compassion will lead to a lack of fulfilment and burnout.

And remember a leader’s behaviour is the number one driver of culture. So if your people are overly compassionate, perhaps you could demonstrate a little more self-improvement in yourself (and this means acknowledging your imperfections!). Likewise, if you see your people as being too self-critical, think about how you can role model something a little more healthy yourself. It’s a win:win.

It’s a new year ahead and an opportunity to redefine everything. Why not make 2019 the year of compassionate ruthlessness? Create an inspect and adapt culture, starting with yourself.

If this sounds like one of those things that is easier said than done, then getting a coach can be helpful. We often find it much easier to be kind to others than ourselves and we also find it much easier to see what others should do than what we should do ourselves. This is where having a coach can be that other side, that other viewpoint to help you see yourself in perspective and help you carve out time and build a new habit while keeping your other plates spinning. If coaching is something you might be interested in you can find out more details here or book a discounted taster session direct online.

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Geoff Watts

Agile Leadership Coach, Inspect & Adapt Ltd

Geoff is the co-author of The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering the Traits that Trap Us with Kim Morgan. He is a keynote speaker on agile coaching, leadership and also author of two other best-selling books. Geoff’s focus is on coaching leaders to develop an agile culture within their organisations through servant-leadership, reflection and self-mastery.

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