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Courageous Team Leadership

May 13, 2011 by Jonathan Gilburg

I look for the highest leverage, simplest act we can take to change a situation, an environment, a relationship, a dynamic... By simple, I do not mean easy to do, but something we can envision doing, it is within our reach, it is measurable and tangible.  I think these acts are usually not "easy" because they call for a degree of courage.  And calling forth courage is never easy, or it wouldn't be called courageous...

I have worked with many teams that have demonstrated a high degree of courage and in so doing, changed a dynamic that was occurring in their organization.  I want to tell a "true story" about one of these events.  None of the characters or events are directly representational of any one person or place, but the experiences I depict are true to life.  I have seen people do these things over and over.  What continues to inspire me is their willingness, as organizational leaders, to share their humility, vulnerability and humanity in front of their colleagues and direct reports.  The results are astonishing.

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We were all in one room together.  All the staff for this organization.  An all-hands workshop whose primary objective was to reset and reconnect the staff and leadership in the aftermath of several years of turbulence, transition, and uncertainty.  The all-hands workshop came on the heels of a two day retreat with the seven members of the Leadership Team.  The Team was prepared to share an abridged story about their retreat, what they learned and what outcomes they had arrived at.

The seven of them had a "script".  Like so many scripts, it was not easy to write.  It took two solid days of mutual exploration into the nature of their relationships with one another.  Asking and answering questions like:

  • What do we care about?
  • What do we want to be like together as a team?
  • What do our stakeholders, staff, etc. need from us?  
  • What do we need from each other to be effective in our work?
  • What is holding us back?
  • What can we do about it?

(As you read this, if you are beginning to feel sweat develop in uncomfortable places as you imagine asking and answering these questions with your colleagues, do not fret... this is normal.  As I've stated all along, these are simple questions, but not necessarily easy to answer with others.)

So with scripts in hand, they each spoke their lines in turn.  But let's back up.  Prior to the writing of the script, there was some concern.  The basic nature of it goes like this: "We (seven organizational leaders) have had a very positive experience the last 2 days, and our staff has not.  They are probably pretty frustrated by the culture of our workplace and will need to vent it out.  How do we do that with them and make this upcoming, all-hands workshop productive and positive?"  

(If this staff dynamic sounds familiar to you, you are not alone...] 

There was some hand holding, some professional rationale given, and ultimately a leap of faith was taken by all seven that they would do what we were asking them to do.  

So, there we were in a big room with all the staff for this organization present for a workshop.  Some of the staff claimed a positive attitude about the whole thing.  My hunch is that many believed they were facing a short but painful prison sentence that would forever be marked on a calendar with an indelible black X.  Despite and because of this hunch, we soldiered on and asked people to talk to each other about some important questions.  Questions like:

  • What do we care about?
  • What do we want to be like as an organization?
  • What do our stakeholders need from us?  
  • What do we need from each other to be effective in our work?
  • What is holding us back?
  • What can we do about it?

Our intrepid seven were intermingled among the staff at small round tables conversing right along with folks.  At some point, we paused.  We invited the organization's leaders to share their abridged story about the two days they spent together.  Here is where the script was both important and irrelevant.  Its importance was in providing them with a foot hold for their courage to get some purchase.  It became irrelevant as they each moved "off-script" and started sharing basic human truths about the nature of relationships, how they go awry and what simple acts can be taken to repair them.  They answered the important questions, publicly, in front of their staffs.  Their humility and humanity were palpable.  Their accountability to each other as leaders and to their staffs was clear and sincere.  

The layers of impact that can be traced to this simple act of courage are truly hard to measure... I wish we could measure it.  What I observed were people laughing, engaging with each other, increased energy, decreased reticence.  People were feeling better about their work environment and each other. Maybe there is no place for feelings in the workplace, but if experiences like this help people not only get out of bed, but also bring more of themselves and their passions to work, I would claim that as worthy and valuable.  

Time and experience will be the ultimate judge of this act of courage, but my conclusion is that we were witnessing a marked change in how that organization and its people would be moving forward together.  A change that would ripple well beyond that X on the calendar.  The metrics are "soft" to be sure, but I have a pretty strong hunch that change happened in the course of a few hours.  And it happened because of an intentional and thoughtful courageous act on the part of the leaders of that organization.

What acts of courage have you taken or witnessed?  What are the high leverage things we can do to change a culture, a relationship, a dynamic, a story...