Often, leaders come to coaching sessions with conflicted energy. I can see it in their faces. There is the energy of creativity, imagination and future focus. An eye to the horizon of how things can be better. There is also a feeling of wrestling, of struggle against immovable forces, even of being trapped or stuck. Quite often in a coaching session, the leader will express frustrations with their day, week or month.
‘I have just come from yet another meeting where we are trying to agree the project parameters. This is the third time we have tried this. We just keep going around in circles. Everyone is so worried about their own little part of the world.’
‘Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get a simple system change done around here?’
‘I know I’m a leader and I’m supposed to be positive all the time but, seriously, there are some people in my team who are a total waste of space. It’s like I have to spoon feed them everything.’
Mess of the present
They talk about the mess of the present, of what’s in front of them and who and what they have to work with. This is their present reality. It’s like a living jigsaw puzzle where the pieces have minds and wills of their own and pull in all different directions at the same time. If the job was just to turn the cogs over on what already exists; it would be straight forward. It would have its moments but it would be clear what has to get done. That would be administration. Administration is an important function but it’s not leadership.
Leadership is about the future
Leadership is about making things better. It’s about improvement, growth, innovation, about creating a future that is better than this present reality. That takes imagination, creativity, energy and emotional engagement. The most challenging part is to find a way to get other people to open up to the new and the different. To let go of the known and work together to bring an idea to life. To pull this off a leader has to be an idealist. They have to carry in themselves some image, idea, strategy or gut passion that drives them forward. A focus that generates the energy to take action towards an unknown future. In a word they must have hope. Hope that a different future is possible.
Dreams and the real world
If all a leader had to do was to day-dream about a wonderful future, then it would be easy. Go lie on a hillside somewhere and gaze at the clouds. But the role of a leader is to do both. To dream the dreams for an optimal future while showing up every day in their present reality. Hope meets physical and social reality. Make the dream work in the real world.
In my coaching work, I see the range of responses that people have to this tension. One is a starry-eyed optimism. Total faith in the brilliance and importance of the vision and the strategy. Total belief that the ‘roll out’ will go smoothly and a bright new future will emerge. The naïve idealist. Every now and then someone like this comes along but mostly I work with leaders who are struggling with the opposite state.
When we are overwhelmed by the obstacles, complexity, confusion and the apathy or opposition of others, the future vision can seem like a naïve fantasy. Worn down by the meetings, emails, arguments, disinterest, lack of progress and simple tiredness we can slowly drift into cynicism and even despair. It’s like being stuck in the quick sand of the present reality. Cynicism, despair, fatigue, exhaustion and going through the motions of the days and weeks feeling hollow and empty.
Be an idealist realist
Here is the tension that is built into every leadership role. The leader must hold firm to the ideal future while showing up every day and working with the mess of current reality. In my coaching sessions with leaders, they are often really asking; ‘How can I get rid of this tension?’ ‘Coach, please tell me how to make this pain go away!’ An understandable, human response but I am not able to do that for people and neither should I try. It’s this tension that is at the very core of leadership. The task of working through others to bring the dream to life in the messiness of real work and life. But there is energy and hope in facing this reality. The tension is not a sign that something is wrong with you or that your organisation is somehow more difficult than anywhere else. This tension is the normal day to day experience of being a leader. To lead well be an idealistic realist.