Bringing heart to leadership in difficult times

I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news.  On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably:  Marshall Rosenberg.  Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication:  A Language of Life.

New concert hall boost for London
New concert hall boost for London

Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle.  Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.)  Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO.  It seems the politicians have been listening:  in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.

There has been wider news.  There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech.  Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety.  British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism.  There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe.  In the UK, election fever is starting to build.

In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down.  Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago.  The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.

Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?

Businesses continue to struggle:  yours, too, may be struggling.  It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.

As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.

The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities.  This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.

What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished.  At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.

How do you weather such difficult times?

Turning the screw on under-performance

It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.

This was the approach that Sheldon took.

Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish.  Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets.  The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.

Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too.  One team member was new and struggling.  This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy.  What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.

Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find.  Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash.  If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.

The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.

With love, not fear

One of the articles I recommend most often to leaders and aspiring leaders is Daniel Goleman’s article Leadership That Gets Results.

In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led.  This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees.  It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.

There’s more.

Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.

There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either.  Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.

Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform.  They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.

Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation.  Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.

Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond.  What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once.  He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.

Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.

So was Sheldon.

So, too, were members of the senior management team.

About Marshall Rosenberg

On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body.  I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.

Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together.  Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days.  A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.

Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit.  He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills.  During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.

It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills.  He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.

At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others.  The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.

I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed.  I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.

Leadership with heart

This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.

At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.

Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.

As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.

The experience of his staff was also changed by this.

So, too, was their performance.

Marshall Rosenberg, 1934 – 2015.

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