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  • Writer's pictureSheila

Leadership is a partnership

If you have ever watched a dog work sheep, you will know that there is an interesting phenomenon that takes place. Especially in the final moments of getting the sheep into a new and potentially scary place. In competitions, the skill of the handler is determined by a number of things, but one of the requirements is that the dog not contact the sheep (unless for reasons of self defense). Nor can the handler touch the sheep. This means then that the sheep must move in the desired direction simply by the pressure put upon them by the dynamic of the handler and the dog in relation to the sheep themselves. It is as though all three parties are in a bubble. If you watch carefully, the handler and the dog will do a dance, moving relative to each other while always both moving and protecting the sheep.

Similarly, effective leaders must find that perfect balance of pressure and safety. I am not suggesting that the people in organizations are sheep! Simply that they must be led with respect and care, and that sometimes a healthy level of pressure can be positive, but only when supported by safety.

As a leader or manager, you need to be able to practice this daily. And, like learning a dance, some people are naturals, and others have to learn, and to count the steps. They will feel a bit awkward and uncomfortable, but over time, practiced consistently, they will become smoother and more natural.

I am going to suggest that the first step in this dance is that of establishing safety. If your employees don’t feel that they can do anything without fear (of failure, recrimination, being dismissed or shot down, of being unheard, or disrespected), they are not going to respond well to “pressure”.

Safety can come from your consistency as a leader; clear expectations; and practices, supported by policies, that are geared to provide psychological safety.

Let’s look at a case study.

Tim, the leader of a group responsible for developing and delivering training, is seen in the organization as someone who is innovative and great at implementing. What his team sees is something different, and their enthusiasm changes in direct relation to the length of their time on the team. They come in, excited and full of great ideas and a desire to help make change. Tim invites all these ideas, letting people know that he wants to hear about them. So they share, and generate plans – sometimes detailed plans with implementation clearly laid out. Then they wait, excited to see the fruits of their work.

What they come to realize is that one of two things happens. Either a change is made, and they hear through the grapevine that “Tim” is doing great things – that he had this new idea, came up with this new initiative, or developed some new program. Tim’s team are never mentioned, he takes and gets all the credit.

OR, nothing happens. There is no movement on any of the ideas that were so enthusiastically received by Tim on the surface.

After a cycle or two, people stop offering. They feel unheard, disrespected, and not valued. They don’t feel that they can share their ideas, since they are either ignored, or “stolen” by Tim.

In addition, if they try to express their concerns, or offer anything that seems like a challenge, Tim has been known to limit their opportunities, removing the chance for interesting work or projects.

Tim has not created a safe place for people to do their best work. And so they don’t.

So what could Tim do differently?

Tim has a long row to hoe with his existing team, but, he can start by understanding how his actions are perceived and how they help or harm his relationships with those around him. Self-awareness is aa critical component of leadership. Without it, Tim will never recognize the harm he is causing by doing the things he is doing. It is unlikely that his team members are going to give him honest direct feedback because they don’t know how he will react, and will fear recriminations. So, he will have to find another way to get it.

Once he has a better understanding of his leadership style and its fallout, it will give him some insights into the next steps.

What about you? How do you show up each day? Are you the same steady, dependable, predictable person day to day, or are you distracted one day, short with people, impatient, seemingly disinterested in your employees, and then the next, the happy-go-lucky boss who wants to check in with folks and tell them jokes?

Do you provide clear expectations?  Having clear expectations that are well communicated, and understood can go a long way to creating safety. And not just clarity about what you expect from others, but clarity about what they can expect from you.

Understanding how you show up, as seen through others’ eyes and then creating a safe and predictable place for your employees will be the first step. This will allow you to work with them in such a way that you can push them a little, or a lot, so that they can bring their best to their work. You will figure out how you can both move in and out in such a way that together, you can achieve your goals.

Much like a sheepdog and handler.

Note – one tool that is very helpful in developing self- AND other-awareness, and the implications of various ways of showing up, is the HBDI®. If you are interested in taking that first step, please contact me.


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