My journey into emotion-led change leadership

'I don’t want to be a leader who hasn’t done their work.'  That feels to me like an important statement of ambition.  But what does it really mean for me?

The essence of my career has been leading change: creating the conditions for change; shaping a new direction; delivering reform.  Like many people I'm motivated by the opportunity to make a real difference and improve things.  I don’t want to just ‘mind the shop’.  Some of the work I’ve done to support myself along the way has been theoretical learning: e.g. different leadership models.  Some of the work has involved more practical and technical learning: project and programme management; risk management; negotiations skills etc.  Some of the work has been more of the peer-learning variety: learning from colleagues, mentors, action learning sets.  And of course I’ve done the work of actually doing my job – leading change in the real world – for 25 years.  So, taken together, is all of that the ‘work’ that I was supposed to do to be a good leader?  

I don't think so.  At least not wholly.  It is necessary but not sufficient.  Because I've increasingly noticed that the essence of change leadership work lies in the emotional domain.  Specifically, when I lead change I am almost always creating an emotional disturbance in the status quo for others and for myself.  And that often becomes the critical success factor: how effectively can I lead in an emotionally charged, and sometimes emotionally-led, environment?  How well can I hold that environment, engaging with both challenge and compassion, and keep going until the job is done?  Can I maintain that 'productive zone of distress'?  Will I baulk in the face of a strong emotional reaction from others, or can I use that energy to create new possibilities and to support reform?  Can I sustain myself and not become exhausted?

And so I have come to realise that the personal development work I most need to do - the other necessary piece of the jigsaw - concerns my competence in leading through the emotional, relational dimensions of change leadership.  

I recently participated in a programme focussing on precisely that - helping me to develop a practice that will sustain me in this change leadership work.  We focussed on doing the work internally (within ourselves) in order to lead externally (with others).  We practiced mindfulness.  We were encouraged to become intimate with our emotions, fears and anxieties, in order to see the possibilities lying beyond them and expand the areas in which we believe we can influence.  Above all we were encouraged to develop a heightened awareness of our physical and emotional responses to any given situation, as a basis for beginning our engagement with others - particularly in situations which can create anxiety, like leading change.

And that felt like the profoundly important personal development work to be doing.  It was challenging, hard work.  At times it was uncomfortable.   It was also stimulating and rejuvenating.  I left with a greater sense of wellbeing than I can remember, and with a new-found lightness in my professional leadership practice even in 'heavy' situations.

I know I won’t be a good leader if I haven’t done my work.  If I want to lead others I need to be skilled at the stuff that really makes the difference in successfully leading change: the ability to engage wholeheartedly with people in the emotional dimensions of change.  And to do that I need to start with myself.  That's the work I want to do.

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