Difficult Conversations

I hate having a difficult conversation because it makes me feel horrible and it is rarely welcomed by the other party. Over the years people have sat down with me to tell me some home truths that I didn’t want to hear, and I didn’t much like it. But feedback is very important. Few of us are born self aware, so getting feedback from others can be terribly helpful. But it needs to be done well if we are to take on what is being said. Offered with compassion feedback can really help us make positive changes.

So let’s start with what can go wrong.

You set up a meeting and the other person turns up. As you start to explain the situation he or she

  • Gets angry and aggressive and denies everything you say
  • Starts criticising you
  • Looks for inconsistencies in your statement or approach, and points them out
  • Claims you are being unfair and failing to recognise their positive attributes or efforts
  • Tells you that you should have given the feedback before/in other forums/in writing
  • Agrees with your key point but only to get you off their back. You often only realise this when you discover later that they are just not willing or able to make any changes
  • Bursts into tears
  • And, if you are really unlucky, you can get all of this in a half hour meeting!!

So what is happening at the emotional level?

None of us enjoys criticism, which is perceived as an attack.  It is not surprising that the person you are talking to reverts to their most basic human/animal instinct which is “fight or flight”.


If the person you are talking to you seems to be getting angry, even if they are suppressing it in a socially acceptable way (going red, raising their voice, leaning in, swearing, glaring at you), you are seeing a fight response. Sometimes this is very basic and their arguments may be somewhat ludicrous, but in a high performing person their arguments may be quite sophisticated. They are fighting back, and if you are not careful there is always the temptation to fight back, as you get drawn into the debate as they are conducting it – for example saying that you were not being consistent, etc.

But it is very important not to fight back as it could actually come to blows. Or at the least the temperature will be raised and you will not get the outcome you want.

When the other person is very emotionally charged we have to respond in a calm and measured way. We need to listen carefully and with understanding. Using your emotional side listen to the distress and anxiety which lies behind their words. They are worried that you find them incompetent.

It is easy to get hooked in, especially if their fight response involves a counter attack, as it generally does. However if you also adopt the fight response and respond in an emotionally charged way the situation will get even worse. You do not want to have an argument. If he says you are in the wrong, or points out an inconsistency, give a firm, succinct and measured response, e.g. “No. I knew what the time commitment was – but I did expect to be using my time differently”.

This is not easy to do.

We all have aggressive tendencies which can come to the surface very readily. For me it is when I am on hold with horrible musak – call centre intransigence can drive me nuts and I find myself saying rude things to disempowered junior employees, which is “out of character” for me. I am ashamed at how angry and aggressive I feel in these circumstances. Equally when my husband shouts obscenities at other drivers I find it pathetic, but I know it comes from the same place – a sense of frustration and irritation that soon spills over into fighting. Recognising these feelings of anger and a readiness to fight can motivate us to make positive changes, or win competitions. But when our competence is questioned or we are faced with critique all of us have the ability to lose control and show our teeth.leo-animal-savannah-lioness-55814.jpeg


Denying there is a problem, crying or not making any changes are the other side of the coin. These are flight tactics, and in the animal kingdom this would be the animal that runs away or takes flight to avoid danger. While I do fight sometimes I admit I prefer to fly – instinctively I would rather run and hide, or resign from a job I disliked than confront my tormentor.

In many ways I find the flight response is harder to deal with. Flight people may fill a meeting with irrelevant chit chat rather than deal with the difficult issue at hand. They find endless reasons to avoid doing the work required. When confronted they urgently want to get the hell out of there, and mutter “beam me up Scotty” rather than discuss something that will be difficult.

If you are having a difficult conversation with someone who will not really engage with you it is important not to let them off the hook – which would of course be a relief for you as well as them. Certainly I can tell you that the problem will very rarely right itself or go away. In fact if you need to have the conversation I suggest that you persist. Again explain patiently that we need to do something about this problem and keep going until you have some agreed outcomes that must be delivered. You then need to follow through. By the way, if anyone becomes really distressed it would be a good idea to allow them to compose themselves and to reschedule the meeting, or to ask them if they want to be accompanied.pexels-photo-357159.jpeg

Getting through

Clearly if people are angry or scared they are probably not going to listen well. The key thing is to stay very calm and measured while they express their range of emotions. You have to make the conversation feel safe for them and acknowledge their feelings without colluding with them. It is your job to get your message across.

Here are a few hints I have found useful – but I really would like to hear any advice you may have from your experience.

  • Think through what you want to achieve and what you want to say in advance.
  • It may be helpful to produce a note to help focus your thoughts and to help you write up a file or supervision note later.
  • Don’t label the person, but focus on the behaviour that is causing trouble
  • Explain how their behaviour impacts on you
  • Explain how it impacts on the organisation
  • Explain the benefits of them approaching the issue differently on something they believe in – e.g. improving customer service, making the organisation more successful etc.
  • Tell them what you value about them and how they have made positive changes in the past.
  • Share your reaction to their behaviour e.g.” You seem to be very angry about this” – they can then own their emotions (or deny them)
  • If and when they admit there is an issue you could ask them how they would approach resolving it
  • Try to find common ground – e.g. we both think that pupil attendance is very important so how can we focus on driving it up?

What experience of difficult conversations at work do you have? What advice would you give?


Mission Impossible?

My husband has a phrase:

If a job is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well.

I find this expression very helpful as a counter position to the idea that doing the job well is essential if that job is worth doing.

I have had the experience myself of being given a job that can’t actually be done. Or maybe it can be done but not properly. Or not in the time frame. Sometimes auditor recommendations come into this group – to make something completely safe they suggest a control that slows the work down too much, or requires loads of extra work. And let’s face it: many a senior leader dreams up something they want to see – say 90 per cent customer satisfaction – and insists that people on the ground deliver it without providing them with the tools, resources or opportunities to do the job well.

kid with cardboard wings
I want to fly!

Years ago I was given a job that involved a complex negotiation with another team. My team would not allow me sufficient autonomy or authority to do the negotiation. They spent forever discussing and drawing up the parameters and rules for the negotiation. Once I was allowed to go off and have the discussion I had very little time to listen and work with the other team. I more or less had to announce my negotiation framework. The other team correctly challenged the position which they felt was one sided. The discussion fell apart soon afterwards. I had been given an impossible task – to get a very advantageous settlement – and not allowed enough time or flexibility to engage in some collaborative and lateral thinking with the other team.

A friend of mine is a sales manager for a house builder, and his basic job is to ensure buyers are happy with their home. But the construction process is flawed and many of the homes have significant defects. He is powerless to change the process or culture on the building site, and he has little authority to order remedial work. So his job is impossible. He cannot do what he is paid to do – which is to make the customer happy. He is carrying considerable stress as a result of this and feels like, as he says, “the meat in the sandwich” – blamed by the home buyer and resented by the construction team. Another example would be a doctor who has been told her job is to save lives when this is not always possible or desirable – she may as a result feel like a failure every time someone dies.

What should you do if you have an impossible task or an impossible job?

Firstly “call it out”. Recognise why the job or task is impossible and tell your boss. It would be helpful if you could elaborate why the job cannot be done, but also have some suggestions on what it would take to achieve it – different processes, new technology or additional staff. This could be a difficult conversation as some managers just “want the job done, and now!” rather than receive a problem. Do what you can to help solve it. But always bear in mind that your own sense of self, your own competence and your own well-being are more important than pleasing your manager. Consider changing your job if you cannot change the terms.

But there are occasions when the task is, as my husband warned, just not worth doing. I was on a remuneration committee once where inordinate time was spent on the finer details of a very complex bonus system. Unfortunately many of the criteria were not open to management action (e.g. the performance of the investments) and the scheme was so granular, working on percentages of a percentage, that the scheme was useless at motivating and incentivising the required behaviour.

We all hate our time being wasted. Doing something that isn’t actually wanted or needed, or can never be effective, can be demoralising. Senior managers need to treat the time of their staff as a precious resource, to be deployed effectively. The best way to avoid these issues is to keep communicating: creating a culture where questioning and challenge is expected and welcome, and for the people at the top to continually seek feedback on how it is going on the front line.

Have you ever had an impossible task? Did you just get on with it, or did you try to change things? Are you guilty for setting impossible tasks for your people?


I have been thinking about trust a lot recently, especially in a corporate context.

In public and corporate life we cannot lead without the consent of those we lead. But if you want to be an effective leader, you need more than consent – trust is the factor that makes all the difference.

Trust is one of the very first things we learn as a tiny baby. The helpless, defenceless human infant is initially entirely dependent on his or her Mum and if she (or her substitute) is missing the child will howl uncontrollably and won’t be able to cope without her. His panic is very real. But gradually as Mum generally answers his cry and responds to his need for food, warmth, sleep, etc he begins to believe that he can rely on his call for help. As Mum keeps reappearing to help him, he begins to tolerate being separated from her, knowing that she can be relied on to return.


Trust, therefore, is a basic sentiment. It runs deeply and the experiences we all had as babies will affect our nature. Some of us are more trusting than others.

I go through life in a fairly open and trusting way as I have had mainly good experiences in my life. I assume, based on this experience, that most people are decent, honest and helpful. And although some are not benign, the vast majority are. So I tend to trust people. Many, shaped by their own experience, are less trusting. They expect others to have an ulterior motive, or they suspect they will be exploited, ripped off, discriminated against or hurt. I have a few friends who would say they don’t trust anyone.

So how does trust get created and grow?

I think if you are honest and reliable – telling the truth and doing what you said you would – trust will grow over time. As you share more about yourself – opening up about your feelings and vulnerability – others open up too. This is the basis of all close relationships – between partners or parents and children, and close friends.

I believe that in an organisation honesty and reliability are very important principles that almost supplant all other values and priorities. If an organisation is honest, and more or less does what it says, trust will grow.

How do I know this?

As ever, I learnt the hard way.

Once, my senior team and I decided to take away a number of employee “perks” which we thought got in the way of delivering services. We sat in our meeting room and agreed to do it. We announced it soon afterwards and got our middle managers to deal with the consultation and procedures. As you might expect, we got a strong, negative reaction. Everything about this decision was wrong.

  • We didn’t properly analyse the problem or ask for advice from our staff on how to resolve it
  • I believe there was a strong sentiment of “punishing” the staff for having it “too easy”
  • We didn’t really take responsibility for the decision but expected those who reported to us to front it up and implement it
  • We expected a negative reaction and just thought we would have to put up with it (like ripping off a sticking plaster quickly in the hope that it would not hurt as much)
  • Once our decision blew up in our faces, we just shrugged our shoulders and became more recalcitrant
  • The dispute led to a strike and a meeting with ACAS where we started to think seriously about our faults and failures.
  • This experience led me and my team to rethink fundamentally how we worked.

That one decision led to a sharp dip in trust between the staff group and the executive. Even the middle managers who were loyal to the leadership, hard working and uncomplaining, felt we had messed up. However, it was a “good” negative experience in that it led to us changing how we worked with our staff. We knew that rebuilding trust would be tough as we had managed to get just about everything wrong, but we decided we needed to work differently and our healthy, engaged, trusting culture came about through conscious management action.

So how do you create and strengthen trust in an organisation?

  • Be truthful
  • Communicate effectively so that you keep everyone in the picture
  • If you get it wrong, admit it, explain and put it right. Everyone is human, mistakes do happen. Own up, apologise, fix it and move on. Most people are reasonable and will accept this so long as it is not continual failure.
  • Be reliable – do what you say you will do
  • Don’t say things or make promises that you can’t deliver
  • Don’t reassure in a cavalier way
  • Trust first! If you don’t like something (e.g. colleague is late) ask what has happened that made them late.
  • Care about your work, your staff or team and your customers
  • Treat people as you like to be treated
  • Be accountable

Trust is the magic ingredient that builds truly great organisations. We trust our board and they trust us. We don’t spend time “managing” each other. We reject spin and hyperbole. We delegate authority as far as we can and trust our colleagues to use this authority wisely. We trust our tenants if they say a contractor didn’t arrive or the door handle just fell off. And they trust us when we say we will be there by 3pm this afternoon. We trust our contractors to do what they are paid to do and to tell us if there is a problem. And they trust us to pay them on time and recommend them to others. This basic trust in our organisation means that we can do our work more effectively. We save money and time. People are happier and we do what we say we will do. Our colleagues and customers start to rely on us and so the trust grows. Of course if someone breaches this trust by fraudulent or unethical behaviour we act swiftly to exclude, evict or discipline them. Those that trust need to know that transgressors will be dealt with firmly and fairly.

If the senior team do these simple but important things consistently I guarantee trust will grow. Truth, over time, delivers trust.

What do you think?

Do you talk too much?

I know I do. I constantly have to stop myself hogging a conversation. It is a terrible affliction and I have to guard against verbal diarrhoea all the time!

A friend once contrasted a trade union leader or a political campaigner, with a university lecturer. While the lecturer has a captive audience, the politician will be heckled and challenged; if the audience don’t like what he or she is saying, they will argue or walk away.

At work we often have a captive audience so it is easy to drone on about what we think is important and to leave a meeting with a feeling that it has “gone well” (for you, assuming no one challenged you). Many managers and directors do “staff comms” like this – some even use videos or formats where the listeners cannot answer back! Yet, to my mind, this kind of “communication” is misnamed. There are of course times when you need to get information to people – newsletters, posters and the intranet have their place. And there are times when the actual opinion of the leader is exactly what is required.

But communication is, at heart, dialogue. That means it takes two, babe. And the listen and talk stuff should be more or less equal, even if you are the blooming expert.

Naturally in a classroom the teacher is trying to get her students to learn about electronics or the solar system, and she shows diagrams and data, or demonstrates using apparatus. But in the end unless there is a dialogue the learning will be haphazard and dependant on the motivation of the listener.

At work we are rarely trying to teach someone something. Usually dialogue and communication is where two or more people try to reach some kind of joint understanding, even when agreement is not possible. When I talk with you I want to know how you see the world, what you think, how it is for you. I don’t expect you to come to the conversation with the same set of assumptions or experiences as me, even when we have chosen a topic we both know and care about. However in a conversation we often identify things that we have in common – “hey, we both come from Lancashire, or enjoy knitting, or love Netflix and Aldi.” But difference of view, of experience, of approach, of feeling is inevitable. Exploring where we differ is the whole point of discussion and conversation.fullsizeoutput_14

So why should all of us listen more? Not just because we have two ears and one mouth!

The main reason why leaders need to listen is: if you don’t, your people will stop telling you things you need to know.

A book I found helpful when my kids were young was called “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk”.

Its premise is that you find out a lot more by listening and observing than you do by speaking. A lot of energy goes into speaking, especially if you’re trying to feel how what you are saying is being received. You have to interpret body language and perceive the feelings in the room at the same time you are saying stuff. And that is pretty hard. If you develop your listening and observation skills, and work on picking up feelings in a meeting or a room without talking, you will get good at it which make it easier to read the room when you are actually talking.

What are the benefits of listening?

Listening actively is a good skill in itself. More information is gathered this way to help with decision making. Active listening involves using all your senses including your emotions.
If you listen actively to people and let them know that you are focused on them and what they say it makes them feel valued and important. This builds trust in your leadership.
People with different viewpoints or from different places in the organisation will see things differently, and will see things that you cannot see. Many is the time that the leader makes the wrong decision because important information is not offered, or heard.
The “mood of the meeting” can affect the decision. It can seem that we are all agreed on something, e.g. Brexit, but without a discussion we are not clear what exactly is being proposed. Sometimes people can use the same word to describe diametrically opposite things.
If people have a say, and are actually listened to, it is more likely they will accept the eventual decision, even if they disagree with it.
Even when someone says something that is wrong, or even stupid, don’t immediately point it out (I struggle with this one!). Ask the others what they think. See if someone else gives a contrary view. If you respond, do so with the utmost kindness. If you jump on them they will probably never raise a point again – and you will be blindsided.
My best tip about talking is always to ask, as a leader, can someone else answer this question? Use your directors or managers, or subject experts. Practice a little modesty! Or, if you feel the questioner has a strong opinion, ask them what they think. Often they can answer their own question.

Be curious about what others think. Try to “work them out”. Often the person who speaks in a large group is effectively a spokesperson and will be saying something lots of people think or believe but maybe couldn’t express.

Change – love it or hate it?

As a young manager I fancied myself as a moderniser who would throw out all the fusty furniture, the habits of a life time and the “dinosaurs” – the old timers who dislike change. I was the one who embraced new technology, diversity, new management approaches, shaking things up, challenging tradition, the “way we have always done it”. I was deeply suspicious of the older generation who said things like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “we tried that before and it didn’t work”. In fact I found myself getting really frustrated at the scale and pace of change.

Years later I have much more understanding of the people who don’t like change!

A few years ago, Notting Hill Housing bought new offices in Kings Cross. I was involved in the decision and it made complete sense financially and operationally to move from Hammersmith. Yet for at least two weeks after we had moved, I had an acute sense of loss. Everything I liked in Hammersmith had been left behind – my gym, my friends in the gym, my local shops, my bus route, the people I was familiar with in the sandwich shop. I had to work out a new route, new timings, adapt to a new gym – different classes, different people, different changing room arrangements, where to get lunch, where the post office was, etc. It all sounds rather petty when I write it down. But all these changes all of a sudden made me feel a bit lost and sad. The sense of loss (a type of bereavement) accompanies all change and while we might be compensated in some way – a better environment, nicer shops, a quicker journey – we still have to give up things we are fond of, or at least used to, in any change situation.IMG_0022

In ordinary life we rely on most things not changing very much – we seem able to cope with small and incremental changes as long as there are not too many of them. But when something really big changes – like we lose our partner, or move cities, or are made redundant – it can be very stressful, even leading to mental anguish and breakdown.

So when those of us at the top think about changing things we need to pause and reflect. How would you feel if your partner sat in your chair when you got home tonight? Or if your car was changed for another brand?

Of course change is important and inevitable. But our job is to help our staff to change well, and without too much stress. Avoid unnecessary change (e.g. reorganisations, and new initiatives) and only do what the business needs you to do. Take your time, involving the staff teams at the earliest possible stage. Explain the issue you are facing and ask them to think about how they might solve it. Give clear parameters e.g. we need to save 20% to stay in business – how could you achieve it? Their proposals will usually be better than yours as they are closer to the issue.

I also like to think about continuity as the obverse of change. Very often we need to reassure and support our staff teams when change is introduced.

  • The office is going to relocate but we will reimburse your costs for a year, and we will consult you on the design of the new workspace.
  • This service will be externalised but we will do our utmost to protect your jobs and livelihoods.
  • Your landlord will change but your rents and security of tenure are guaranteed.

Of course statements like these cannot be “just words”. We need to work with our staff or groups of customers to explain why the change is needed, what it means, how they can influence it, how they can be protected, how they can get support and how we, as managers, care about them. Coming to terms with change can take quite a long time and managers must be patient until nearly everyone has come to terms with the reality of the change. Make time to help people adapt intellectually and emotionally to the changes that are necessary.

Are you someone who likes change, or have you had enough? What works well to help people deal with necessary change?

Recruiting from within

IMG_2479Why we always try to recruit from within.

For years, “good practice guides” discouraged recruiting “the internal candidate”. Instead, the value of “fresh blood” was emphasised, added to which some Equal Opportunity policies had rigid requirements to advertise externally and treat everyone “the same”.

I am more and more convinced that putting every job out to advert is misguided. If you want a committed, enthusiastic workforce I suggest you step away from this strategy right now. At Notting Hill Housing over 70 per cent of those we recruit to management level posts come from within the organisation.

Over the years I have noticed that people who perform well in interviews do not always do so well in the job. And conversely some of my best appointments have frankly not shone in the interview. I have had to push quite hard for the appointment of someone I know is fantastic and the best person for the job because they didn’t do marvellously in the interview.

We don’t want overconfident or conceited types who know how to impress – we want people who care about the customer and enjoy working in a team.

At Notting Hill Housing we have a preference for people who can do the job: who deliver every day, who are reliable, honest and kind. We don’t need lots of speeches or presentations and if we do, anyone can learn how to do it. We don’t want overconfident or conceited types who know how to impress – we want people who care about the customer and enjoy working in a team. So why would we recruit by interview alone?

How do you know how someone performs at work? Usually by watching them work, seeing how they interact with other team members, listening to what they say about customers and other departments! This is what matters in your ability to do the job, I would say, rather than your ability to talk up your achievements in a 45 minute slot.

So when someone moves on from a senior role, we always look first at the person or people just below. Can one of them act up? Can they stretch themselves? If we expect them to do well, will they? And usually the answer is yes! If your manager believes in you, encourages and supports you, you will normally rise to the challenge and try your very best to reward their confidence. When the time comes to advertise the job externally (as is good practice) the internal candidate has six months’ experience up their sleeve. If they have done well they will have confidence, insider knowledge and the support of their manager. If they haven’t done the job well, they decide the job isn’t the right fit or opportunity, or it is too much for them, we will have discussed this with him or her and they may go back to their old role or another challenge. But the ones who have done well will often impress against quite stiff competition from the market place. They have lots of advantages; knowing the job, the culture, the team, issues, etc. In my experience they almost always come out on top in the interview and other assessments too.

Now does this approach hinder or help developing a diverse, well balanced leadership? Undoubtedly I would say it helps. Over the years I have found that diversity is strengthened by appointing from within. While we have lots of women, older and younger people, BAME people, LGBT+ people and disabled people at the front line, the numbers become less balanced as we go up the tree. By continually encouraging the second in command, the person who does the work, who delivers every day, we are finding our managers and leaders are more diverse than ever before. 50% of those on our Emerging Leaders programme last year were BAME and over 50% this year. The very interview skills that we have traditionally rated are often more common in stereotypical picture of a public-school educated, middle class person. Looking rather for people who perform well and work for the good of the company and its customers means we are not giving too much credit for being good at public speaking and social skills.

It doesn’t always work out. Despite a manager believing in someone, occasionally the recruit fails to take up the authority required in the role or finds they lack the needed skills. Then, following fair and appropriate feedback they may go back to their old job, with relief, or they might try something different. But my point is that invariably it works out brilliantly. Here at Notting Hill Housing the failure rate is less than when bringing in an unknown quantity from outside.

As well as bringing more balance into our management roles the reliance on “growing our own” really helps to cement our culture:

  • We prove that we trust and believe in our staff
  • We recognise talent, and support those who want to develop their skills at work
  • We recruit from within which provides good promotion routes for those who want to progress at work
  • We understand that people are under pressure to earn more as the cost of housing, transport and child care are very high in the capital. By providing a route to more responsibility and higher pay we reward their efforts.
  • We know our staff are inspired by, like, identify with and care about our work and culture.
  • We don’t need to spend so much time inducting or supervising staff who take a step up – we can focus on developing them
  • Celebrating internal promotions gives encouragement to others who are planning their own careers
  • We encourage people to stay with the organisation using their experience, knowledge and expertise to benefit our customers
  • We know that experience gained at the front line or in more junior roles will help our staff do a better job when they get to the top
  • Conversely when organisations show again and again they would rather have an untried, untested (except for those psychometric tests!) person who looks and sounds good than rely on the very people they are growing and cultivating, what does that say to the staff team? You are not good enough. We wouldn’t consider you for a job like this! We need someone with more experience of the world/other industries/other countries – you only know about our company. Boards and chief executives need to think again about the message they give out to their loyal staff when they advertise jobs in their company.

Have you even recruited an external candidate who excelled in the interview but upon appointment failed to deliver? Do you favour recruiting from within? Is your organisation balanced and diverse? I would welcome your comments.


Leadership is such an interesting and tricky topic. We bandy the term around fairly loosely in the workplace, but it is absolutely central to understanding how to run a successful organisation.

The first, and most important, truth is that groups need leaders. A leaderless group soon ceases to be a group and everyone, smitten with their own uniqueness and independence, goes in their own direction. Nothing significant can be achieved this way. The collaborative effort of creating an organisation requires people who give up some of their independence and allow a leader to have additional authority in order to achieve the task.

But the concept of leadership is paradoxical as it is, at heart, a relationship rather than a set of skills. The effectiveness of a leader depends only partially on his or her skills and experience. The effectiveness of the leader depends on both those who hand down authority and those who consent to follow.Shadow-EB-group-2of2

Think about situations where nothing much happens. A group of friends agree to go out for a meal. They spend some time discussing where to go. Some want to go to a cheap place, others for a nice meal. Some want to eat curry, others dislike Indian food. Some are concerned about the location, the time the meal will take, the lack of vegetarian, halal or low calorie options. The discussion, at least internally, can become personal and emotional. She always wants her own way. He is always banging on about needing Halal. They just want a boozy night out and I have no interest in that. I notice that Carla and Simon appear to be backing each other up – maybe they are an item. I am sick of indecisiveness but when I try to make a decision they turn on me. Soon the group disintegrates and each goes his own way, sometimes with two or three followers.

The group creates and allows the leader to lead. But getting “elected” as a leader is hard without authorisation from above. An example here would be someone standing for election. If they are chosen first by an established political party they will have the authority to speak on behalf of say, the Conservatives. In a sense they will represent the taxpayer, the home owner, the employer through the stand taken by that party. Standing as an individual is normally impossible – there is insufficient support for an individual and unless she is standing on a clear, live, local issue (e.g. the closure of a valued local service) and has a personal reputation and following.

So in order to be an effective leader we need three things:

Authority from above

A chief executive needs to be authorised by the Board to do the job. You may be familiar with situations where a board appoints a CEO but doesn’t allow him to do the job without constant interference. On the other hand a board who clearly understand its role and what is delegated to the CEO, who broadly supports her and challenges effectively, is a precondition for effective leadership.

Authority from below

A leader needs followers, otherwise he is just wandering around on his own. Clearly a congregation or a political campaign is motivated to follow the priest or the objectives of the campaign. But if they don’t like the leader they will drift off. Even when people are employed to follow the leader they don’t do this unconditionally. They will judge the quality of leadership offered and will withdraw some of their energy and goodwill if the leader doesn’t deserve their support.

All of us can be told Do this, or Come this way. But we won’t make much effort unless we see the point. This is our motivation. We also need to be quite sure everyone else in the team is going to come along too. We need to trust the leader and that our colleagues share broadly the same purpose and enthusiasm. Our motivation and trust arises in ourselves, conditioned by our previous life experiences and personality.

Authority from within

In addition to authority and followers we, as leader, need to have confidence in ourselves and our ability to fulfil the role. I bet you can think of an ineffective teacher who had no ability to inspire or control his class. He comes into the class looking frightened and fails to quell the row. He hesitates and fails to create an opportunity for himself. Soon the students turn on him, and subtly or directly undermine him. He is a victim and not a leader because he has not effectively taken up the role of leader and he confirms that he is incompetent.

All of us who are in leadership roles experience some self doubt. This is an important factor in providing leadership. We may be scared. But eventually we find a way of taking up the role and doing it well. Others are dependent on us, and like a first time parent, we make mistakes and learn as we go along. But when we take on a leadership role others gift us some of their individuality and power. We have to use this wisely to ensure the group thrives and does well. This can be a big challenge for many of us.

Image: Rising from relative political obscurity just over a year ago, 39 year old Emmanuel Macron has been elected as France’s new president, the country’s youngest leader since Napoleon. I for one will be watching closely to see how he’s done it.

What has been your experience of good or bad leadership? Do you think effective leaders are inherently able to take charge and inspire or is it a skill picked up over time till the right moment?