Engagement Programs

leaders are only human – but isn’t that an amazing thing to be?

Carla March

The responsibilities of senior leaders have certainly been in the spotlight of late.

With the news full of stories of abuse of power, sexual misconduct, corruption and fatal neglect – from Trump to Weinstein to Grenfell – it has never been more important for senior leaders to demonstrate total transparency and integrity in everything they do. 

And that’s a very good thing.

It’s also good that these values are protected by regulation in the UK. For example, the Financial Conduct Authority’s Senior Manager Regime requires leaders to demonstrate they’re taking reasonable steps to ‘do the right thing’.  Each senior manager needs to be personally accountable, confident with their personal views and values and the decisions they make. Every leader should be able to clearly answer four questions:

  • What are your responsibilities?
  • How do you discharge them?
  • How can you be confident in your judgements?
  • How do you trust people to do the things that are done in your name and flow through to your area of responsibility?

But of course, humans make mistakes.

Poor decisions can be made with the best intentions, language can prove to be slippery, busy managers can miss a line of crucial information in a deluge of emails. And not all mistakes lead to deaths or nuclear threat.

We have high expectations of public figures to be perfect, to conduct themselves impeccably and with high integrity.  And then we pounce on them when they show human frailty or make mistakes; as quick to tear them down as we were to elevate them. The same happens, on a smaller scale, with business leaders of all kinds.

For some, the drive for perfection can be motivating, inspiring, exhilarating.  For many the result of trying to be perfect can be paralysing, meaning that decisions are delayed or creativity is stifled.  For a few, it can cause anxiety, fear and damaging self-criticism. Which only leads to more mistakes.

Rag’n’Bone Man’s massive hit, ‘Human’, centres on the lyrics:

“I’m only human; I make mistakes

I’m only human, that’s all it takes

To put the blame on me”

Well, here’s the thing – yes, humans will make mistakes.  But ‘ONLY’ human – isn’t that selling us a bit short?

If Einstein had thought that way, we would never have known the Theory of General Relativity. As he said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”. Similarly, if Newton had worried about making mistakes, we’d still be wondering why apples fell on our heads.  

Humans may get things wrong but they also get things gloriously right.  Consider our driving thirst for knowledge, and unquenchable curiosity, that has fuelled scientific progress.  Our compassion and love, that has founded countless charities, supporting the young, the elderly, the displaced and the sick.  Our boundless creativity, that provides arts, theatre, literature and music to feed our souls.  Our entrepreneurial willingness to ‘fail better’: the new mantra of the tech startup world.

Today we expect leaders to both ‘do the right thing’ and come up with disruptive new ideas – but the two things aren’t always compatible. So how do we balance these two impulses and expectations? How do we know if we’re doing the right thing?  Where do we find the courage to try something new?  When does an aim or an end justify a mistake – and when is it just plain wrong? 

Back to Rag’n’Bone Man:

“Cause I’m no prophet or Messiah

You should go looking somewhere higher”

Most of the time, to find the balance between perfection and risk, all we need to do is to ask our questions out loud and be listened to without judgement – which is where an executive coach can play a major role.

Coaches don’t have all the answers or all the knowledge, for sure. A coach can be a non-judgemental ear, a blank canvas for you to paint your ideas on, a safe place to experiment.  Their key skills (amongst many others) are deep listening and laser-like questioning to support you in finding your own way. That means helping you to be perfect in your imperfection and be the best you can be, without becoming crippled by unrealistic ideals. 

So maybe one of the first ‘right things’ you could do this year is to find an executive coach to work with.  We can’t necessarily turn you into a Newton, but I promise – we won’t let you end up as a Trump.