Be a Leader AND a Friend

Every September in Australia we have R U OK? Day. The mission of R U OK? is to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with the people around them and start a conversation with anyone who may be struggling with life.

R U OK? Day does a fabulous job raising awareness around mental health and helping people understand that you don’t need to be an expert to reach out to someone – just a good friend and a great listener.

I love this definition of what it means to be a friend from this article.

“A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.”

Over my 20-year corporate career I have found that when we are at work it can sometimes be really hard to be a good friend and a great listener.

Why is that?

We Feel Overwhelmed

A big part of what can make it hard to be a friend and listener at work is the reality of the day-to-day struggle we are facing.

In the world of business today, we are experiencing unprecedented amounts of change, challenge and volatility. It is abundantly clear that the skills and mindsets that ‘got us here’ as leaders will not ‘get us there’. This can be extremely unsettling.

We must sense and learn our way through complex, adaptive challenges. We must work as part of agile, connected, diverse teams. We must have the courage to genuinely care about our colleagues. We must trust others and be open to continual learning from many sources. We must keep up to speed with rapid changes in technology. We must bring our whole selves to work and harness the wisdom in our head, heart and gut.

In the midst of these external changes, our internal world is also incredibly challenged. The human brain is not designed for today’s fast-paced, always-on business environment. Only a few short decades ago we were able to leave our typewriters and desk phones in the office, today many us take them to bed with us.

Our brains register looming deadlines or unread emails as serious ‘threats’ triggering our fight-or-flight mode, a biological response to imminent danger. Even when we are at home or on holidays, our mind is tricked into believing we are actually at work every time we check our device. 

There is no doubt that the combination of the immense challenges we face and the dissolving of work/life boundaries is taking an enormous toll on our wellbeing and our capacity to care.

Poor Workplace Design

There is also the small matter of poor workplace and work practice design.

We design human nature by designing the organisations in which humans work. There is a enormous amount of redundancy in some of the underlying assumptions we have made about work and about human nature.

“What people come to seek in work largely depends on what their work makes available. The conditions of human labour created by the industrial revolution have systematically deprived people of fulfillment from their work. (…) we have to start building our way out of the deep hole that almost three centuries of misconception about human motivation and human nature have put us in, and help foster workplaces in which challenge, engagement, meaning and satisfaction are possible.”

Barry Schwartz “Why We Work”:

Many workplaces today are still heavily burdened with antiquated systems, processes, policies and mindsets that essentially treat humans like robots. The central intent that lingers on in many legacy workplace design elements is not to care, empower and enable, but rather to control, to mitigate risk and attempt to crudely ‘incentivise’ desired outcomes through (usually ineffective) systems of sticks and carrots. 

Sometimes we become so “conditioned” by the status-quo that we forget to be challenge underlying assumptions behind our work practices. There is much to be un-done to design and sustain organisations where people and performance can thrive.

Our approach to leadership must also adapt and evolve. The small percentage of truly inspiring leaders create strong connections with those they lead and work with. Most people want leaders that they can relate to. They want to feel a connection with us that is grounded in our shared humanness our shared imperfections. They don’t expect us to “fix their problems”, to “be perfect” or “have all the answers”. What they do expect is that we will listen. That we will be open. That we are curious. That we really see them. That we will have the ability to show empathy. That we will find the courage to care enough to put our own ego and fears aside and open our hearts.

A big part of great leadership is being aware of the things you don’t want to hear and the things you don’t want to talk about – and finding the courage to lean into the most difficult and most challenging conversations.

I believe that part of the reason why only a mere 13% of the global workforce is engaged today is because many of leaders have avoided the challenging, honest conversations. 

Finding The Courage To Care

As we become open to new ways of leading and connecting at work, we discover that there are loads of great tools available to support us. 

Dr Brene Brown’s Dare To Lead hub is packed with fantastic free resources.

“Connection – the spirit that flows between us and every other human in the world – is not something that can be broken; however, our belief in the connection is constantly tested and repeatedly severed. When our belief that there’s something greater than us, something rooted in love and compassion, breaks, we are more likely to retreat to our bunkers, to hate from afar, to tolerate bullshit, to dehumanize others. It’s counterintuitive, but our belief in inextricable human connection is one of our most renewable sources of courage. I can stand up for what I believe is right when I know that regardless of the pushback and criticism, I’m connected to myself and others in a way that can’t be severed” 

Dr Barbara Fredrickson’s book “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become” is also a great resources. Barbara’s research powerfully redefines love providing a new definition which makes love not only relevant but essential to leadership.

“Love is that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being. Love draws you out of your cocoon of self-absorption to attune to others. Love allows you to really see another person, holistically, with care, concern, and compassion.”

Dr Barbara Fredrickson

The mental health continuum (below) is another great tool. It may help you to put your own oxygen mask on first and embed the well-being non-negotiables you need to stay in the Green Zone. This tool may also help you find the courage to start a conversation with someone who may have slipped down into the Orange or Red Zone.

Allan Sparkes taught me that sometimes people in the Red Zone find it tremendously difficult to put their feelings into words. By simply expressing your care and concern for them, showing them this model and asking them to point to where they feel they are, you can save their life.

The business world desperately needs more leaders who are able and willing to take off the mask and dig deep to find within themselves the courage to care, connect to listen and (if needed) to simply be a friend.

Who will you be a friend to today?

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