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· Leadership,Coaching

It’s funny how often a client comes to coaching with one problem, but, on closer investigation, their underlying issue actually turns out to be something quite different.

Take Peter. A national sales manager with a food company, he was working in a high pressure and extremely competitive business. He was in his mid 30s, with a young family, and came to see me struggling to find a work/life balance.

He told me he was extremely stressed, was having trouble ‘switching off’ at night and had little energy left at the end of the day to offer his family.

As we continued talking, however, and Peter gave more detail about his situation, he revealed another issue preying on his mind: the leadership style of his company’s senior management team — and in particular his boss, the CEO. Peter’s boss was autocratic, dictatorial and often abusive. In meetings, he favoured the table-thumping style of chairmanship. He was living proof the old-fashioned idea of a ‘good’ business leader — forceful, tough and intimidating — is alive and well.

Peter’s boss considered himself a role model and his leadership style something to be aspired to. To lead any other way, he implied, was to show weakness, and he began putting pressure on Peter to act in a similar way to get results from his team.

The trouble is, Peter’s actually a good bloke. He’s bright — a really smart guy — and a great negotiator, but he’s just not aggressive.

Although he instinctively felt his boss’s leadership style and attitude weren’t right, he began to question himself. After all, he thought, it was a tough business and perhaps he was finding things so difficult because he wasn’t tough enough. Maybe he needed to be more aggressive and put the same pressure on his people to get results that was being put on him. At times he even found himself trying to be more aggressive with his staff.

But it did not feel right to Peter. This is often one of the most difficult places for middle managers – finding their own leadership style in the shadow of leaders whose style feels wrong. Many assume that to be successful they need to be like their bosses, if it got them to where they are so it must be okay. Often this assumption is not a great one and needs to be challenged. So I asked Peter the question: are you really going to get good results by trying to be something you’re not; by acting in a way that inherently feels uncomfortable to you? In exploring further what Peter began to see for himself was that his leadership is something that comes very much from within him and that anything else would not be authentic and if it didn’t feel right then it was probably not right for Peter.

So Peter and I talked about what he considered good leadership, and how a good leader should act. We explored what his authentic leadership style would be; one which he could marry with own strengths and skills. Peter reflected that good leaders, when you get down to it, are people who have healthy relationships and a good rapport with people. If a leader is genuinely interested in their people, wants them to grow and develop, that’s what creates an environment in which people want to succeed. And he came to the conclusion it was unlikely aggressive and abusive behaviour was going to get the results he wanted in the long term.

In my experience as leaders we need to be very aware that the shadow we cast is huge, so if we complain, are in a bad mood or are’nt respectful, it gives permission for all those working below us to do the same. In this ill will cycle people around us experience frustration, insecurity and scant opportunities for progress and learning. Peter’s insight was that he could be a different leader, a leader that takes accountability for the way he shows up and the impact he has on others — and he didn’t need to be anyone else but himself. He understood that if he wanted to bring out the best in others, see his staff develop and perform he was the person that could break that cycle and provide a very different experience to the one he was getting from his own boss.

So how did things change for Peter following this insight?

Understandably, his confidence in his abilities grew and he was able to be more comfortable, compassionate and encouraging with his own team.

As for Peter’s boss, he continued his table-thumping ways. But rather than being drawn into the same aggressive and abusive behaviour, Peter had the confidence to largely ignore it, remain calm and stay focused. Over a period, Peter told me his new demeanour actually rubbed off and his boss became calmer when they met — well, slightly anyway. Once he moved out of his leader’s shadow he was able to begin casting his own.