Why so much pain?

It’s July 2011 and my breath is coming in huge rasping gasps.  It’s my first ride with a club and we’ve been cycling close to 20mph for what seems like forever. I am exhausted. My legs are burning. My back is aching. My lungs are ready to burst. It’s been like this for over an hour.

Around me are a dozen or so other riders. They seem to be doing much better than me. There are a couple of conspicuous clues to why this might be. The first is that they are all skeletal in comparison to my more portly form. This is made more obvious by the fact that they are all sleekly attired in lycra. I am in a tee shirt, shorts and an ancient helmet. To their amusement, I’m riding in trainers instead of proper shoes clipped into the pedals.

I really want to stop – but I can’t bring myself to say so. There don’t seem to be many alternatives. If I take a rest, I’ll surely get left behind and that would be even worse. I can’t quite understand why it’s so bad. I’ve done a fair bit of riding before this. Apparently, what I did was either not enough or not the right kind.

What’s that got to do with leadership?

What struck me (some time after I’d finished that ride and recovered!) was how many parallels there are with leadership. Most leaders I come across share a number of characteristics:-

  1. The role they are now in is requiring more from them than anyone has prepared them for. The levels of complexity and ambiguity are an order of magnitude different to the role they had before reached this level. The people challenges, in particular, are huge – starting with those immediately around them.
  2. They are being driven along by other factors for far more of the time than they would want. Endless budgeting and reporting timetables produce continuous deadlines. Relentless meeting schedules fill their calendars. Their focus seems always to be on addressing the latest issues arising from both inside and outside the organisation. There’s little time for real thinking and planning.
  3. They are making some progress, but the work is tough and often unrewarding. Results, and their personal performance are improving – but only slowly. Sometimes these improvements are so slow as to be almost imperceptible.
  4. The issues that are slowing progress are clear. It’s just that its incredibly hard to properly address them while pedalling at full speed.

In short they are, in cycling parlance, ‘doing their training in the race’.

Fit enough to ride

I’m now 5 stone leaner, much fitter and have the right equipment. As a result, I’m able not only to keep up but also to drive the pace of the group. I love my time pushing us all on from the front.

I’m also fit enough to circle round to the back to collect, help and encourage others who are struggling. By supporting them the whole group gets to move faster.

It’s still hard for me (and for everyone else) but it’s supposed to be! It feels quite different, though, to be working that hard and be driving and contributing than it did when I was working even harder but being dragged along.

I spoke to a former client yesterday. He told me about the continuing transformation in his team after the work we did together. The team is now widely regarded as the best in the global portfolio of its owners. Business performance is so strong that they have just secured a multi-million pound investment from their parent – even though cash is a significant issue for the global group.

I asked him why he thought things were going so well. His answer was immediate. The work we did together had helped the team begin a journey. They had learned to create regular time out of the hurly burly of the ‘day job’ of managing the operation to look at and address the underlying problems facing them. By doing so they were getting more and more onto the front foot. They now feel that 80% of the time they are driving the agenda and 20% responding to emerging issues rather than the other way round.

It was about more that taking ‘time out’, however. He listed a number of new approaches that the team had learned in the time since we’d worked together. He described a hunger for understanding and transformational change in his team that sometimes left him breathless. The breathlessness, however, was now more about excitement than exhaustion. This was a team that had really become invested in getting fit for the race – with spectacular results.

I had mixed feelings when I finally put down the phone. There was a part of me that was sad that they clearly no longer had a need for me. There was, though, a massive satisfaction and pride in seeing them travel on. I felt like I was watching a group of lycra clad backs, laughing and chatting as they pedal off at some speed into the far distance…

Making a change in your team

If it’s time for you to get to grips with the real issues facing you and your business, the first step is simple.  The easiest place to start is to take a short time out of ‘the race’ to look at the underlying challenges facing your organisation – and where your team needs to improve its fitness to address them.

Our Strategy Session will give you the chance to take stock. I guarantee that it will give you new insights about where you are and the way forward. It will also give you clarity about where you could most productively focus to develop your team and improve the performance of your organisation.

There’s little to lose – and everything to gain. Do give me a call.

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session

Chris Henderson