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I saw the look of shock on her face and had to laugh. When Fiona’s boss had signed her up for this Learning to Flourish leadership course, she’d been a little hurt and asked whether he was unhappy with her performance.
Now, sitting at a conference table with a range of postcards, she fiddled with an image of calm blue water. When I handed out the day’s agenda and introduced myself, she pointed to the titles of the morning’s sessions: ‘Pushing Boundaries’ and ‘What sparks your drive?’ and said to her neighbour ‘now I get why I’m here – I’m not what you’d call a daring leader!’
My introduction to positive psychology didn’t impress her. In contrast to traditional psychology which focuses on human frailty and helping people to survive, this new field pushes those boundaries by understanding how we can use our strengths to unlock our potential and thrive.
As a teacher, already Fiona knew this. She regularly used ‘three stars and a wish’, a practical classroom exercise that emphasises 3 strengths to 1 weakness in students’ work, to build their confidence in taking on new challenges. But when I asked the group to think about their leadership strengths she gave me a blank look.
Leadership’s a funny thing. I’ve always loved the scene in the movie Gladiator when the reluctance of General Maximus to push himself forward as a leader is what makes Emperor Marcus Aurelius certain that he’s the one for the job.
Unlike Gladiator, senior leadership has often been the reward for people who are anything but reluctant. High profile corporate executives tend to have impressive self-belief , even before many of them have successfully managed anyone. Research suggests that the ‘dark triad’ of psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism is six times more common in elite leaders than in the general population.
Dominant leaders, who are ambitious to rise through the ranks, often need support in learning the softer skills of self–awareness, emotional intelligence and humility. I saw this frequently when I worked with the future leaders of multinational corporations as an organisational psychologist during the first 15 years of my career.
But what about the unassuming leaders? When I moved to Scotland in 2011, I set up Learning to Flourish because I wanted to give young people a head start in developing the courage, initiative and self-belief needed in today’s workplaces in tandem with these softer leadership skills. Then teachers jokingly told me that they needed these training courses just as much as their pupils.
Many of the people I now work with in education, health and social enterprise are modest leaders, like Maximus. Dedicating their working lives to supporting and enabling other people, they often don’t need softer skills. The challenge for these individuals is seeing themselves as the daring and courageous leaders that other people already see.
Daring and Caring
Just for fun, Fiona completed the personality questionnaire I’ve developed called DRIVE which measures leadership on the five dimensions of Decisions, Responsibility, Influence, Vision and Energy. This self-evaluation tool describes core leadership competencies and helps people to understand the distinctive strengths that motivate them as leaders.
Fiona’s top three leadership drives were protecting, intuiting and experimenting. These are captured in the image of calm blue water that she’d been drawn to at the start of the day. Everyone has a distinctive combination of strengths which gives their leadership its authentic character. This insight can be a light bulb moment for many people.
Fiona’s moment of shock came when she described how her strengths show up at work. As she shared how her drives enable her to bring out the best in the people around her and to stand up for the educational issues that matter to her, her neighbour declared: ‘You sound really daring to me’!
We all have daring yet reluctant leaders in our lives, the people that see the positive in other people but struggle to describe their own strengths. At a time when leaders seem more egotistic than ever, we need these Gladiators to put themselves forward. You could make a difference just by telling one of yours how daring they already are.