It nearly always starts with a short, almost inconsequential, text or private message on social media.
“Dear Paul, you don’t know me, I am sorry to write to you out of the blue, but I have followed your work for a while, and I wondered if we might be able to have a call. Some things are happening in my work and I would be very grateful for a few minutes of your time.”
It may be a short message, but I never underestimate the courage it has taken for someone to ask a complete stranger for help. To have reached this point has probably taken weeks of mulling and stirring about their situation. Then ages spent wondering if they should ask for help, and then pondering who to ask and how to start.
I reflect on this a lot because I know how easy it is for any of us, whatever our privilege, to feel separated from the course we hoped to follow and to feel a little lost. It has nothing to do with status, or position, or competency and skills. It has nothing to do with being strong or weak. Indeed, I know very well how quiet, strong, resilient people may endure dysfunction the longest, but it will still slowly erode them, and it will imperceptibly extract every ounce of coping until there is nothing left for them to give.
In my world I have noticed that those who can tell me what they need are already on their way to a better place; but stubborn, stoic, quiet coping often belies a sense of fading hope and a silent bewilderment of how to help ourselves.
The colleagues who never ask for help, or do not know how to ask, should be the people we look out for the most. I was one of those colleagues once upon a time; unable to put words to my feelings and wondering how I had allowed others to negatively dominate my days so that seemingly non-descript situations would undermine my confidence.
For the most part I have been blessed beyond my imagining in my work, but as I draw to the end of my career and from the perspective of standing on the small hill of my accumulated experience, I can see things that once troubled me terribly, are now just a few pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of my working life. I can also see that these few pieces are surrounded by many more showing the joys, friendships and pride in the picture of my career. Distance doesn’t mean we forget the darker days, but it helps us to see them in a different way.
When the new message arrives therefore, asking for my help, I can feel my tummy tumble with the muscle memory of those days when my inexperience infused with anxiety and laced with dread, left me feeling lost and adrift.
We must never, ever, think that someone asking for our help is a chore or an inconvenience. It is a privilege to be the one who is asked to hear what has not been heard and to see what has not been seen. It is the smallest act, to offer a few minutes of our time to someone else, because in that moment we may have offered the first step back into the light.
Leadership starts like this.
I want to make leadership small. Leadership is such an extraordinary word because it often unfurls into something almost mythical. For all of us the word will instantly conjure ideas and personalities well beyond our reality. Ask anyone to name a leader they admire and they might reach for Mandela, Gandhi, Ardern or Zelensky. The temptation is to personify leadership with heroic endeavour and with people who have done amazing things. However, leadership is very rarely about the grand, the powerful or the saintly. It is in the everyday; it is in our every day.
I wrote a blog a few years ago about a time when I visited a client. I wrote about the bombastic General Counsel, John, and the General Counsel’s personal assistant, Janet. It was Janet who met me in their office reception.
“Hi Paul, lovely to see you again; John will be with you in just a few minutes, he’s on a call, but I’ll show you to your meeting room.”
We walked along the corridor chatting about Janet’s son who was just starting at University and about my daughter’s new job. Then, from another meeting room, we heard John abruptly and loudly end his call. He then appeared fully pinstriped in our presence; I was immediately gripped by his overly firm handshake and felt the unspoken signal for no more small talk as I tried to keep up with his exaggeratedly quicker walking pace.
John spoke at me over his shoulder “Paul, I can only give you twenty minutes, I need to be back on another call.”
Just before the three of us arrived at our meeting room destination, I noticed a discarded tissue in the corridor. Janet saw it too, bent down and picked it up saying nothing at all. John saw it as well, huffed airily and muttered about the place “going to the dogs”.
On my way home that evening I wondered who had been the leader in my day. John had the status, the power and the overly firm handshake to go with his lofty indifference. Janet on the other hand had shown a caring interest in me, enquired and engaged with my needs; and of course she was the person who noticed that something needed to be done and did it.
John may have thought it was beneath him to pick up the tissue, but he was wrong. It was leadership that he failed to grasp, not just a discarded tissue.
Leaders are people who show an authentic thoughtfulness for the people around them, and make their contribution to creating a better place for everyone. When people talk to me about becoming a leader, I will offer this story and ask them if they are not a leader now.
This is how it starts.
If I may stand with you just for a moment. Here we are a little deeper into the exhibition. These pictures are just a few moments in time, like little sketches of events in my life. This is not the whole story, but just a few of the things that have shaped and guided my way. My hope is that you might also reflect on the moments that have become the memories of things that changed the direction of your life.
Please don’t keep them in a forgotten corner of your mind, tucked away from your reflection and cares. Bring them out and love the stories they tell you about your past, your today and your tomorrow. Lawrence’s Tesco bag once held my future life, and a discarded tissue revealed a lesson in leadership that I will never forget.
As I said at the beginning, we live in times and in places where everything rushes by, but if we always respond by trying to keep up with the giddying swirl, only exhaustion awaits us. If we allow ourselves to pause and to notice, then it is possible that we may see how everything speaks to us and how everything reacts with us. If we then share what has touched us, we give permission for others to pause and to share too.
I am certain that leadership does not start with a grand plan and a grander sense of self. Leadership starts when we notice the quiet ones and listen. It starts when we see what small differences we can make and then act on what we have seen. Leadership starts when there is no plan and little sense of self. It starts when we stand with people and care about the pictures they would like to bring out and share.
This is how it starts. Leadership, not as a management theory, but as a story of moments of reflection and change. Moments we notice and then hold close to our hearts to help us make sense of the paths we have taken; but also to help others tell their stories too.
Leadership is small, so even when we reach for the smallest pebble of kindness, and when it is cast with care, we will create ripples of hope that move far beyond our sight. This is how it starts.
To be continued…
Take care. Paul xx