With an increase in remote working and a divergence of personal circumstances, it’s harder than ever to get a temperature-check of your leadership team alignment, but CEOs can protect their business and mitigate risk to their bottom line starting at the exec-team table…
In Aesop’s fable ‘The Lion and the Three Bulls’, he tells the story of three bulls who for a long time pastured together. A lion lay in ambush in the hope of making them his prey but was afraid to attack them while they kept together. Having at last succeeded in separating them, he attacked them without feat as they fed alone, feasting on them one by one at his own leisure. In this story Aesop is drawing our attention to the proverbial understanding that in strength is union; or the more common inverse ‘Divide and conquer’. At first glance this concept seems like an obvious platitude. But in today’s Covid-influenced world, where leaders are striving to maintain performance and their competitive edge, they would do well to keep such wisdom at the forefront of their minds.
Covid divisions - the hidden threat
Today’s business environment features fresh pressures that make keeping all your leaders pointing in the same direction and bought into the same vision very challenging. Your in-person contact with them is most likely lower than it was before, making getting an accurate temperature check of how they are feeling much harder. Just like every other human navigating the impact of Covid on their lives, they are no doubt managing multiple challenges (whether they relate to financial concerns, juggling childcare, or simply a sense of isolation or claustrophobia).
Where last year the impact of Covid was to some degree universal, as time as progressed increasingly nuanced circumstances have resulted in different experiences of the pandemic, which in turn have created divisions not just at a geographical but also at an individual level. Such perceived inequity makes us humans even less likely to be forthcoming about how we are feeling. And the same goes for the teams your leaders are leading, which is yet another challenge as they manage the impact in their day jobs.
The power of our default hardwiring
Leadership teams function best when they have shared goals and a shared sense of collective responsibility. This is partly because everyone knows what good looks like, but it’s also because a purpose that sits above any individual agenda can help cut through the ego-driven behaviours that get in the way of each member remaining present and performing at their best. It is part of the human condition to retreat to a place of fear, defensiveness and self-protection when threatened. In order to ensure our survival this primal default hardwiring significantly influences our behaviour. What we see, hear and consequently think are coloured by this reflex (think of Steven Peter’s ‘inner chimp’ from the Chimp Paradox, an analogy for the impact of our limbic system, evolved over thousands to years to leave us hard-wired to react in nano-seconds to feelings and emotions that are so strong they can override rational thought without us even noticing). Although this condition is part and parcel of our human condition, it also precludes us from functioning at our best when it comes to leading other human beings to successful outcomes.
Performing from a place of power
In contrast, existing outside of this state, (in other words when we are calm, open and creative), elevates our performance so we contribute at a different level – using the same collaboration skills that have helped our species create language, effect industrial revolutions and develop technology to allow us to keep various economic plates spinning until we successfully vaccinate ourselves as a population.
When we’re not fearful and operating from a place dominated by ego, we are present, and in a position of power over our minds and faculties that allows us to create and build new neural pathways which can lead to better solutions and ideas.
Signs you are at risk of a Lion’s attack
If there are ego-centric chimp-like tendencies at play in your team right now and they aren’t sufficiently contained, there will be signs. People may agree to things in the room, then walk away and neglect to follow them through. Decision-making may take longer, and commercial opportunities might pass you by as, with no common goal or assessment criteria, you struggle to gain consensus. You may experience widespread cultural resistance to new initiatives, wasting precious time and energy.
The ROI on various projects may either fail to materialise or be significantly lower than desired. Each leader may cascade messages from the leadership team table slightly differently, (or fail to cascade them at all), and a fragmented approach to communication in both style and content may have begun to weaken your culture and employer brand. You might start to experience retention issues and/or a talent deficit, and the buy-back rate to rectify this might go up given the associated reputation issues, increasing your cost-base. Even in semi-virtual working environments, a lack of visibility of what your people are doing accompanied by diverging priorities will create stress points in your organisation’s management practices. You might receive feedback from your customers alluding to a fragmented customer journey and poor customer experience, where misalignment between departments and teams is impacting satisfaction levels. Ultimately you may start losing share as your customers start to look elsewhere…
Your role in keeping your herd together
As a leader and someone who is accountable for business performance, it is your most important role to keep everyone around the table sufficiently present and focused to fend off the lions. The best leaders do this by creating space for their team members to be vulnerable so that they can build genuine trust. A lack of trust has long been linked to a fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results - and poor results are the first sign of impending failure to survive.
Trust allows team members to be honest and direct, surfacing vital insight, enabling impartial and creative
problem-solving and fostering faster decision-making. Survival of the fittest relies on a level of self-awareness, including that of one’s inter-dependency with others. The three bulls in the field will never keep the lions at bay if they don’t understand they are stronger as a group. As a leader, your job is to remind your team, consistently, supportively, and especially in tough times, that they must work together to survive.
The best leaders draw their teams away from a place of ego and fear,
via an acceptance of human vulnerability, towards a sense of trust and genuine collaboration. This is the power-house from which they create and foster a shared sense of purpose and ownership, protecting the organisations they lead and fending off attack from roaming predators.
So if you have any suspicions that members of your herd are too focused on the latest bit of grass that takes their fancy, now is the time to encourage them to lift their heads and see the bigger opportunity to protect the right to continue chewing in the field. Trust me - they will thank you for it.
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