I recently had the bizarre experience of flying into Switzerland, staying in France and working in Germany all in one trip. Such are the eccentricities of international business I covered the three countries three times each in a 48 hour period. I was there as part of a team delivering a programme of leadership behaviours for a group of internal consultants from a multinational firm. What we learnt from this group was to challenge the view of the traditional hierarchical nature of leadership.
My RADA in Business colleagues and I were working with the group of internal consultants to help them embody leadership attributes and resource for the very different audiences they need to communicate with from one internal meeting to the next.
The challenge the group threw back at us was, as internal consultants, they felt they have no agency – no mandated leadership authority. How could they adopt leadership behaviours when they didn’t feel they were in a position to lead? As a consultant myself I empathised with them on this point. They are charged with being the agents of change and yet their audiences do not report to or answer to them in any way. Furthermore, they believe they are often viewed as ‘imposters’ – as people who don’t really understand the challenges the workforce face.
At Some Point We All Have To Lead – Others Will Follow
Their question to us “how can we adopt appropriate leadership behaviours?” took on a different angle. What I think they were really asking was “what right do we have to be leaders?” This plays right into a key point that Harvard Business School Professor Bill George raises in True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. Leadership is not about position but about the character of the person leading. Sure, George wrote with an audience in mind who hankered after senior leadership positions; but it’s just as relevant for those who don’t hold those posts or even aspire to them. At some point we all have to lead.
What we explored with the group over the two days as we worked together was that leadership does not have to fit into the traditional hierarchical nature of management positions. The fact that the group didn’t have the mandate to ‘lead’ their internal clients didn’t matter, leadership for them became a way of communicating rather than a set of competencies marked out on a job description.
The power of employing good leadership behaviours, developing the resilience to resource yourself appropriately and the confidence to stand up and be seen, suddenly released the potential that others will follow you regardless of whether they are in your reporting line. This may not be a profound insight in and of itself, but for change agents struggling to define their relationship with their internal clients, it was extremely liberating.
Reflecting On The Nature Of Leadership
The aircraft I was due to fly back to London on had developed various malfunctions. As I waited for my flight I paid for my bottle of Orangina in Swiss Francs and my salami sandwich in Euros from vendors on either side of Basel airport. This delay gave me time to reflect on what awaited the wonderful group of people I had been working with on their return to their offices. From Hong Kong to North Carolina they would all still face the same challenges as before. However, my belief is their attitude towards to their leadership challenges, and the way in which they will respond to them, has shifted. From viewing themselves as passive partners charged with an impossible task, I hope they are now seeing themselves as dynamic, energetic and engaged leaders of change who have the skills, awareness and self-belief that is the starting point for their leadership role.
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