Alice: Would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to
Alice in Wonderland
I’ve been thrilled to get back to work this month – coaching at the Sunday coaching clinic in Harley Street as well as a raft of feedback sessions for participants on a High Potential development programme and their managers. This is work I love – getting beyond symptoms to help people to identify and address core issues.
It happens that, in coaching, the most fundamental question often addresses clients’ core issues. The question? What do you want? The issue? Do people know what they really want? Of course, this question gets dressed up in many ways. It also applies in many areas. And still, it applies.
As a leader, the question of what you want can be extra tough. Not only do you need to find your own direction but also you need to find everyone else’s. Because, make no mistake, everyone is looking to you for direction.
The challenge of knowing what you want
In saying this, there’s something I want to make clear to you. If you find it difficult to know what you want, if you feel confused or anxious, frustrated, lost or even at a loss, you’re not alone.
Recently, for example, one client told me how angry he has been feeling for months on end. Angry. Out of sorts. And he didn’t know why. His situation is not uncommon and may even have some resonance for you. You find yourself feeling strong emotions which sometimes take you by surprise and yet you can’t connect them to anything you recognise. You know you’re experiencing strong emotions but you don’t know what you really want.
Why is it so difficult to know what you want?
Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are all sorts of reasons why people struggle to know what they really want. It’s not that they never know what they want (though it might be). Still, there are challenges we all face when we try to answer the question “What do you want?” I wonder if any of these apply to you?
You’re supposed to be the leader, and yet, somehow, you’re not in charge. Remember that “go for growth” agenda you were working towards? Just as your team members were really starting to make progress you hit a major barrier. In the old days, it was a new emphasis on quality or a failure by your colleagues in manufacturing to respond to demand. More recently it was a major world recession. Perhaps now, it’s a new CEO with a new agenda or, worse still, with no agenda, so that you find yourself in a holding pattern whilst you wait to hear about his or her conclusions from yet another major review. Any which way, just as you felt you were really making progress you found you were moving in the wrong direction.
Perhaps, though, the issue is not a change in direction from the top. No. In a world which emphasises selflessness, commitment to your employing organisation or some other form of looking after somebody else’s needs, you’re struggling to muster a kind of inner permission to attend to your own needs – openly, honestly and fully. You’re feeling out of sorts and you know things aren’t working for you but you don’t know what you really want. Your career direction is unclear. You’re struggling in your relationship with your boss, your spouse or even your children. And because you don’t know what you want, you can’t begin to make progress in the right direction.
Maybe, though, the thing you wanted turns out not to be the panacea you thought it was. You got the promotion you have been working towards for years and still, you’re not happy. Your partner agreed to the move you discussed for weeks and weeks on end but you find that what should have been an exciting adventure is at the cost of a frosty silence between you which leaves you feeling angry, anxious or dismayed. Your boss has responded to requests you made and has followed through to make things happen and still, somehow, you feel uncomfortable and you know your needs are not being met. The bottom line is this: you thought you knew what you wanted but you weren’t happy when you got it.
Sometimes, it’s hard to reach agreement with your colleagues about a way forward for your organisation. Equally, at times, it’s your own inner team which is not pulling in the same direction. Some part of you is pushing for action, progress, results… and yet, in practice, you are not taking some of the actions you know are key to success. You shout louder at the part of you that is saying no to those actions… and meet more and more resistance. You know what you want and feel frustrated and angry – with yourself.
As much as you want to know what you want, you also need compassion for the not knowing.
The world in your hands
At the turn of the millennium, I was heavily involved for a while in developing leadership in schools. As a member of a team of people accrediting trainers on a national leadership programme for serving headteachers, I sometimes felt I was meeting a whole generation of headteachers.
Many of them were weighed down by the number of directives from the government of the day. They felt that their autonomy was slowly being removed – they were increasingly responsible for results and yet they had less and less choice about how to achieve them.
Not every headteacher felt that way. I remember one who told me that, faced with a new government white paper he would take a look at what was coming his way. “We’re told we’re being consulted,” he said, “but you know that what’s in the paper will ultimately be implemented”. His response? To think about how he could use new developments in government policy and legislation to serve his own agenda.
It seems to me that whilst many of his colleagues carried the weight of the world on their shoulders, he carried the world in the palm of his hands.
What the headteacher knew
I’m not sure he even reflected on it, but this headteacher knew, by his experience, how much easier life can be when you know what you want. He knew his purpose as a headteacher was to serve a community of children. He wanted to help them to reach a level of educational attainment that would support them in finding employment and in leading meaningful lives. He wanted to build the sense of self-belief and the emotional intelligence they needed as a foundation for success.
Having this level of clarity about what he wanted in his role as a headteacher meant that Arthur (let’s call him Arthur) had a basis for making decisions. If he felt that serving on xyz committee would support him in supporting the children in his care he would say yes – but he could, equally, say no. If he spotted an opportunity to serve the children more effectively he would pursue it with vigour. Faced with a new government paper he would – rather than feeling crushed by the weight of yet more legislation – ask “how can I position this to serve the children?”
Arthur’s vision was simple, and at the same time, it made life easier for others in the school, too. Arthur constantly spoke about activities in the school in the light of this vision. How would a new project support the school in serving the children? What more could staff do to support the children? Over the years, the school’s ongoing policies and practices – which were often seen as highly innovative – were designed to support the children.
This kind of clarity attracted like-minded people to serve on the school’s staff whilst repelling others. It was hard to feel comfortable in the school if you didn’t share such a clear agenda. It was a source of energy and engagement. It was a source of ease. It’s not that people didn’t work hard – they did. But they had clarity, focus and direction.
On the path to knowing what you want
Arthur knew what he wanted and he’s not alone. In business, as in the world of education and elsewhere, some people seem to have a clear and unfailing idea of what they want.
Many do not.
To be more precise, for most people, knowing what you want is a path of learning and exploration. It requires skills. It requires attention. And because what we want in one moment may be different from what we want the next it requires presence.
This quality of presence helps us to understand both the big “what do I want?” and how our most fundamental vision can be manifest at particular moments in time.
As I draw to a close, I wonder, what do you want? More precisely, I wonder, to what extent do you know what you want? I invite you to take a moment to check in with yourself:
- What mark out of ten would you give yourself for the clarity of your vision in your role as a leader?
- What mark out of ten would you give yourself for your clarity of vision for your life as a whole?
- What mark out of ten would you give yourself for how clearly you know what you want right now?
Perhaps, like Arthur, you know what you want.
But if you don’t, I invite you to bring compassion to your unknowing and to everything that comes with it.
And in case you don’t, I want to say that to learn to connect with what you really want is also to release struggle and to move towards greater ease.