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Leadership and the Invisible Contract

So you’ve ended up leading a team. You know how you got here, you were complicit, there was an offer and an agreement. This is your first leadership role – perhaps it’s paid or perhaps it’s not. I’ve had both kinds of leadership roles, both count. You did make this choice, so how come it is not quite as it seemed? Time has gone by and ‘stuff’ has started to creep in.

What has happened here?

Did someone hide the facts from you? Was there a second more-accurate version of the job description that never saw the light of day?

No, my friend. You are simply a leader now. It’s a lived experience and you’ve simply lived it long enough to begin to see the full shape of it emerge from the darkness and come into focus. You are starting to realise the full extent of leadership, the full commitment. There’s an invisible contract and you’ve signed it by taking on this role. You’ve signed on the line in an ink you did not choose, with a pen you did not hold. You have agreed to this, but you only got to read the first page of the terms and conditions.

It’s daunting to behold, the full shape of it. The scrutiny, the responsibility, the rawness, the power, the emptiness, the joy.

You were groomed for this perhaps, encouraged to apply, emboldened by support from other leaders. You thought, I can do this. And you can. But it’s taking you to new heights and new depths – all in one day. It’s not quite what you expected. There’s hope out there, there’s some training for you, some mentoring perhaps. But how do you know what to ask for when this journey has taken a massive detour into uncharted territory? How do you confess that you’re not actually enjoying it every day…and how do you lead your people during such a storm of uncertainty within?

Because they watch you, your team. You are beginning to realise that your actions are on camera, recorded and replayed by those who look to you for guidance and direction. So what you do really matters, because someone might copy your actions. So if you mess up and have to say no, don’t copy me, that was wrong, you’re also on camera. It’s very hard to be a human and a leader some days. People can be unforgiving. People can be hurtful and their behaviours will shock you. Every effort and every strategy you could possibly learn will not reach some people. Only your love will reach them – and even then, you may never realise it.

Some days you will nail the presentation, be lifted aloft when the deal is signed, be awarded a big smile from the shyest team member. Some days you will cry alone in the toilets at a cruel comment, receive three resignations in a row, fail to meet a deadline and lose all your budget spreadsheets to a computer virus. All of it is your job.

It’s OK to say, this is not what I thought it was. I am not up for this.
It’s not OK to try and change leadership to suit you, because the fundamentals are inarguable and people will suffer if those fundamentals scare you too much to deliver on them. You have to change to suit leadership – no other option.

The fundamentals are this: leadership is akin to parenting. You are raising people, hoping they will grow and develop to be more than you ever dreamed possible for them. You believe in their full potential and you believe in the family. You will provide education and discipline where it is needed. You will create and communicate safe, loving boundaries and hence there will be trust. The buck stops with you and you accept that.

Leadership is not reserved for those who are actual parents, indeed, some parents are not natural leaders. Leadership is fantastic preparation for parenting, but there is no requirement to ever follow through if you don’t want to! It’s a simple analogy – so simple that it really works.

Re-framing my leadership roles and viewing them through the lense of the parenting analogy was a leap-forward moment. It was also sobering. Would I really do anything for my team? Do I care enough? Are my discipline skills empowering or actually punitive? Do they trust me? How could I measure that? Do I trust them? How could they measure that? When was the last time I truly stopped the buck and shouldered all of the consequences? Am I accountable? Why am I doing this?

Ask yourself your own questions – define your leadership and decide whether this is the right contract for you.

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