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Punks in Suits – Busting the Myths of Leadership and Change


There are around 100,000 paperback books on Amazon on the subject of Leadership. You’ve got the rules of leadership and the irrefutable laws and the proven steps. They’re all telling you something different.

It’s not surprising that the whole concept of Leadership has become so complex. In fact, the expectations are inhuman. Be a role model. Have fun. Have a sense of humour but don’t offend anyone. Be strategic but know when to deep dive. Be visionary but be on top of the detail too. Delegate and empower, take risks (but don’t fail). Be a team player, take cabinet responsibility but speak your own mind. Demonstrate our company’s leadership behaviours, and its values, and know your own values but be able to change.

And even if you do it all, no one seems to be following! You’re doing your best leadership on people but they still won’t embrace the future. It’s frustrating at the very least, soul-destroying at worst.

I’ve been a coach and “agent provocateur” for leaders and their teams for nearly 20 years. But the sheer pace of change, the packed daily schedule of meetings, the overstuffed email inbox, all the tech that was meant to make life easier but has actually doubled or tripled the workload, the reduced workforce, the squeezed profit margins, the threat that some disruptive company is going to change your industry overnight and make what you do (and how you do it) irrelevant just wasn’t as prevalent when I started.

And we’ve become much more sceptical about change. Time was when you would launch a new set of company values or a new mission statement or announce a re-org and people would be excited that something was finally going to change. Now they shrug as if to say “I’ve seen it all before”.

So, in this jaded environment where levels of trust in authority figures are at an all time low how do you bring about change?

Because change is needed. More than ever. Our companies were built upon 19th and 20th Century notions of what made people tick. But we’re not in the Industrial Age any more.

If you’re serious about change you have to unpick not only the structures, processes and outdated beliefs that are baked in to your organisation, but your own personal structures, processes and beliefs. Change is going to begin with you. It isn’t something you’re going to do to others.

Management and Leadership are not the same

Firstly, let’s get clear on the distinction between management and leadership. Because to bring about change you need to be a leader, not a manager.

Managers make the best of what they’ve got. They operate within the constraints they’ve been given. Their job is to get a set of people to achieve pre-determined targets. They keep the show on the road. In most companies this means they have a team and are responsible for the results of that team. Historically organisations were designed to run like machines and assigning each team with a manager worked well. Despite all the changes in business over the last two decades, most companies still operate this cog and wheel system with layers of management determining and supervising the activity of teams below them, passing information and decisions up and down the chain.

But this isn’t leadership.

Leaders look at what is, and what could be, and then they disrupt the status quo to bring about change.

It makes sense doesn’t it?

A true Leader need not be senior. Or have a team of their own. Or have a particular job title. A Leader is simply an individual who takes the initiative to lead. How effectively they lead is down to who they are as people. It’s a way of being.

And why do we need leaders rather than just managers? Because change is painful. And people will not go through the pain of change, no matter how glorious the destination, unless they choose to go through that pain. It’s an emotional investment not a logical one. Managers deal in logic. Leadership is about emotion.

Busting some myths

You are inevitably going to fail to meet the standards of a leader if you make those standards too complex. Articles abound about “The 38 qualities you need to lead”. And I really don’t think it has to be that complicated.

A leader is a human being, with all the flaws of other human beings. And a leader isn’t always a leader. Sometimes that leader is a follower, or a partner, or a coach, or an irrelevant by-stander.

Which brings me to the first myth we need to bust if you actually want to have an impact and bring about change.

Leadership is a job title

Nope! You do not have the authority to lead because of your job title. Your job title may give you the authority to manage. But people decide whether you’re going to successfully lead an initiative. And they will only partner or collaborate with you, join you in your mission, be persuaded to back you if they trust you.

And here we have a problem. Because levels of trust in authority figures are at an all time low. So your first job if you want to lead any change is to develop trust.

This means being someone who knows what they stand for and then stands for it. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll always get your way or win the argument, but if you aren’t even willing to put your thoughts and ideas on the table because you’re afraid of the reaction you can’t be surprised if people don’t trust you to stand for what you believe.

It also means building intimacy with people. In other words, creating authentic human connections. In order for people to connect with you they need you to reveal who you are. And this is a very different kind of leadership to the polished, cardboard cut-out leaders we approved of 20 years ago or the weirdos who’ve mastered all “38 personal qualities you need to lead”.

This trust has to go beyond the people you like, or the people you manage. It requires real bravery to bring your whole self to work and not hide behind a suit and mask, or collude with a broken system, or play a little politics, or try to influence through manipulation and doing deals. Developing deep, human trust is a full time job. And without it, nothing will change.

The hierarchy is working for you

It isn’t. A new breed of businesses are emerging with flat structures. They don’t have managers. They don’t have reporting lines. That’s because the hierarchy gets in the way of ownership, speedy decision-making, collaboration and honest conversations. Information has to be passed up and down, filtered, simplified and signed off in a hierarchy. And all because those at the top believe that those at the bottom can’t handle the responsibility of making decisions for themselves.

To lead change, you need to get the hierarchy out of everyone’s way. This isn’t necessarily about removing layers. It’s a state of mind.

When you find yourself holding on to information because you don’t think people can handle it, or delegating but not letting go just in case they aren’t up to it, or making decisions on behalf of people because you think you know better than them, you’re reinforcing hierarchy. And when you make choices about your behaviour based on whether your manager is going to like it and look favourably on you when it comes to bonus time, you’re reinforcing hierarchy.

True leadership exists outside of the hierarchy. They are curious about how people all over the business see the world. They are open to changing their mind based on what they hear. They not only invest in being someone who is worthy of trust, but they learn to trust others fully. They are constantly growing and evolving. It takes a willingness to be wrong to do that. And a willingness to acknowledge that you don’t necessarily know what to do…but others might.

Competition is good

So we’ve always been told. But what if that’s a myth too? Being number one in your market is an obsession in some companies. It drives share price and brand positioning. But it’s rather irrelevant isn’t it? Especially today. While you’re monitoring and copying and trying to improve on what your competition is doing, some disrupter is coming up your blind side to change your industry for ever.

It’s not competition that motivates them, but a desire to serve the customer. They aren’t interested in what you’re doing. And often they’d be willing to partner with a “competitor”, refer customers to a competitor or even get out of the market if a competitor was doing the job of serving the customer better than them. They don’t see competition like you do.

This sense of competition exists within businesses too. Teams compete against teams for resources and recognition. This creates silos in the business that trap ideas and information and prevent the organisation from innovating.

Finding ways to dissipate competition requires you losing the ego that’s attached to winning. To truly lead change you need to spot when the ego is getting energised by situations. Did you get a buzz when you won the argument? Did you feel proud when your team got more budget and another team’s budget was slashed? Did you want the promotion because it would reward you for your years of sacrifice?

True leaders put the purpose of the business – service to the customer – at the heart of every decisions, even if that means turning down extra budget because it isn’t needed, backing someone else’s idea even if there’s personal cost in that or stepping down from a project because someone is better suited to taking the reins at this stage.

You’re the leader because you have the right answers

Well, there aren’t any right answers anymore. Just best guesses, no matter how much data you’ve gathered and how long you ponder.

We live in the world of the bug fix. Better to do something today with the information you have than wait until you have ALL the information by which time it’s probably too late.

So if being right or knowing more isn’t your job, what is? Creating space for others to do great work. How do you get as much debris out of their way so they can solve the problems, come up with the ideas, make the decisions and get stuff done?

When you let go of being right you can be endless curious and endlessly adaptable. You can grow, change and evolve. And when you do, your company has a chance of growing, changing and evolving too.

There’s not going to be a lot of glory in this kind of leadership. But it’s likely to be more meaningful, more enjoyable and more authentic.

This kind of leadership requires you bringing your whole self to work. And any leadership development you do is really personal development. It’s about how you are going to become more aligned as a person, more comfortable being yourself, less attached to ego and more interested in making a difference for others.

Back in the 1970s Punks were perceived as strange and threatening. But true Punks were really just trying to express who they were underneath. They wanted to be original, to be themselves, to call in to question old fashioned notions about what made something music or style or art.

In the business world we’ve become very stuck in our ideas about leadership. And that’s made it hard for any of us to really lead change. We want to make a difference, we want to leave a legacy, we want to bring about change for the good of our staff, our customers, our community and the world. But the Industrial Age model of leadership is not working any more.

I that’s why I believe it’s time to express who you are and what matters to you. It’s time to reveal more of the Punk underneath your suit.

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