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Time to ditch the Superhero routine - be a new kind of leader

Time to ditch the Superhero routine - be a new kind of leader

Nicola Hopes

29 July 2020

I was surprised but happy to hear an Exec Committee member say last week:

“As soon as I was made chair of the COVID-19 working group, I told the group I didn’t have all the answers.

I really needed their commitment and their help to find a way through”.

She explained that she wanted to tell the truth, but at the same time was concerned about the working group's confidence in a chair who didn’t know it all. She needn’t have worried. Her team found it inspiring and reassuring - and it represents a changing dynamic in leadership.

So why is leadership changing right now?

Many leaders of today have been schooled in an outdated version of leadership, described as the ‘hero leader’. This is the leader who’s always in front of their team, has all the answers and the confidence and experience to carry out their vision.

But this method of leadership just won’t work for today for 3 big reasons:

  1. You can’t possibly have seen this all before – the last global pandemic was 102 years ago, so unless you’re still working well into your 100’s – in which case I’d love to interview you – calling on similar experiences just can’t get you through this.
  2. The future is harder to predict than ever – so mobilising a team around a fixed vision may be met with cynicism. The industries in which we work, the way we meet and collaborate with customers and colleagues is all up in the air.  Even the experts disagree on where it will land.
  3. The trappings of leadership have changed – you don’t have the glass-walled office anymore or the status desk. Now you have a cramped spare room or a kitchen table on which to run your empire… with some, let’s face it, questionable art as the backdrop to your ‘inspiring’ team meetings. (I’m seeing lots of strategic use of ‘blur background’ on collaboration tools!). The fashion forward tailoring that helped you stride confidently into meetings has been replaced by washable fabrics.

So how do you build a more credible, less heroic leadership style now?
(apart from not wearing your pants on the outside of your leisurewear…)

1. Show vulnerability – as the chair of the COVID-19 working group demonstrated, senior leaders can show vulnerability and be respected.

We tend to think of vulnerability as Kryptonite, when in fact it’s a superpower.

  • Tell them you don’t have all the answers and that’s ok.
  • Let them know when you have off days.
  • Set up meeting topics for ‘discussion’ not ‘decision’ so it’s clear you want ideas and input and you’re not just presenting a done deal. Allow time for ideas to form – they’re not all golden out of the gate!
  • Explicitly tell those who work for you that they don’t have to pretend with their teams either. They won’t be judged for not having it all worked out every time.

2. Be knowledge hungry – one of the best leaders I worked for proactively sought techniques and quotes from his peers, both inside and outside the organisation. He found things they were good at and asked them how they did it. Their learning and experience became his for the price of a large cappuccino or lunch.

3. Try a coaching approach – help those around you solve their own problems. Resist the ego trip of directing with your sage advice. Have a standard set of questions ready to help them explore who they have asked for opinion, what solutions they have considered and the benefits of those solutions. Then listen while they find clarity and decide their own actions. The win they’ll get from finding their own answer is huge. Trust me, I’m a coach!

4. Ask your team what they really need – it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you should just know. Specifically ask those who report to you what they might need to be more productive or more efficient or to create a better team spirit. And if you can do it for them, then do it.

This is an opportunity to redefine your leadership style and how your team see you.
Take it.

And when you do, tell me how freeing it feels to ditch the superhero routine and become a more vulnerable, inspiring leader.  You might just save the day.

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