When all hell breaks loose. It’s then you know. Business as usual has arrived on the scene.
Be it a sudden scarcity in the availability of raw materials. A hostile takeover. Or an acute drop in market share or share price. You name it. Leadership has been there. And goes there frequently.
And the key ingredient needed en route in the land of leadership? Oxygen. Oxygen. Oxygen.
I worked with a client who was a high performer. Clarity of purpose was their trademark. Delivering on targets: a piece of cake. A focused achiever in their element. Or so it seemed.
Until their promotion changed the game. Bringing with it seven direct reports. People leadership had arrived. And my client was clearly out of their depth.
A shift in mindset was called for. And I was brought in to support the process. We quickly identified that my client was totally unprepared for the various personalities they now had to lead.
So, where to begin? I asked my client to complete a strengths profile. And sure enough, there was not a relating talent in sight. Striving and thinking talents abounded: focus, achiever, intellection, belief and command.
Then I asked my client to consider their new direct reports. “Where could their talents lie?“ A wrinkled brow. Confusion. I had hit a brick wall.
“I’m really not interested in how people tick.“ The irritation in my client’s voice was tangible. Almost grating.
“And what are you interested in?“ I asked.
“The primary task in any successful organization is managing the achievement of the organization’s goals. So goals are my focus. Full stop.“ The irritation had taken on a note of impatience.
“And the implication for your direct reports?“ I ventured to ask.
“In my new position, I give the directions. I give the deadlines. I deliver on goals. End of story.“
“So, why am I here?“ I asked.
“Because the team is unhappy. And have been rather candid about it. Apparently, it’s my manner of speaking. My tone.“
“And do you have a distinct tone?“
“Harsh and heartless, I believe.“ A pause. And a smile appeared. “When I think about it, I guess they could have a point.“ Another pause. And the smile disappears. “But this is how I get things done.“
“And are you getting things done in this new environment?“
A slight hesitation. A deep contemplative breath. The thinker had arrived. A gentle “No“ surfaced slowly into the conversation. “No, I guess not.“
And now I knew my client had it in them to shift their mindset. The irritation and impatience in their voice had dissipated. They were now breathing from their stomach. Not from their chest. The response had come from their gut. This was not a reaction from their head.
And then we slipped into the clarification phase. “If I’ve understood you correctly,“ I said, “from your perspective, the primary task of any successful organization is managing the achievement of the organization’s goals. Is that so?“ “Yes,“ came their response. With a slight note of curiousity in their voice.
“So, what from your perspective, is the organization’s secondary task?“ “A secondary task? No idea!“ came the response. This time with an echo of confusion. “But I’m sure you’re going to tell me.“ Now the ball was in my court. And attention focused.
“Well, the organization’s secondary task,“ I responded slowly. Carefully holding the attention. “It’s secondary task is to take care of the emotional life of the people in the organization.“
“And why?“ they countered. With a hint of disbelief trailing.
“In order to survive.“ My pace had slowed considerably. “You see, organizations – like people – need emotional health.“
“So, so.“ A hint of indifference was creeping into our exchange.
“Because,“ I said. Holding the space for my message to hit home, “it’s the emotional health of the organization that determines its ability to recognize, adapt and dance with new realities.“
Pennies were now dropping. One by one. My client was breathing slowly. And deeply. Insight was dawning.
And then all of a sudden, the focused achiever was back in force. “Let me reflect on the team and their strengths.“ And we arranged for our next appointment.
If excessive attention is paid to the primary task – at the expense of the secondary task – the emotional health of teams, functions, entire organizations suffer. Badly. With repercussions for performance. And – at the end of the day – for the bottom line.
In fact, it’s the emotional health of organizations that determines their capacity to be responsive. Creative. Innovative.
Now, how are you scoring on the emotional health front? Have you checked your tone recently for its oxygen content? Breathing deeply is not a nice to have. It’s a must.
So, when is your next flight?
And where will you be placing those virtual oxygen masks? Over that chair of your’s in the boardroom? In the conference room? In the office?
Oxygen can be accessed anywhere. It’s up to you.
photograph: © italita / Fotolia.