Musings on Leadership: Desire Real Impact? Ensure that People Flourish

Leadership reflection tools with Nick Chatrath
Photo by Altaf Shah from Pexels

The Right Questions Podcast, Episode 3: Leadership Reflections with Nick Chatrath

Nick Chatrath is an entrepreneur, Managing Director and Master Executive Coach. He has worked for McKinsey and Company, been a business founder and a CEO. Nick has a DPhil from Oxford University and has co-authored a best-selling leadership book. He has coached MBA students, politicians, special forces soldiers and CEOs. In other words, he knows what he is talking about!

Apart from being a serial over-achiever, he is also my coach and friend! Here are some key lessons that I have learned from my discussions and coaching with Nick.

Leaders need to take time to reflect

When you speak to Nick you realise that being is at least as important as doing. In other words, thinking, working out your values, and your approach to life (not just work) are as important – if not more important – than your goals or your achievements.

Being this self-aware requires time. Time to reflect upon who we are and why we do things. Coaching plays a large part in creating time for reflection for leaders, and that creative process is one of the things that motivates Nick as a coach. I have seen first-hand the importance of this for myself and the leaders I coach.

One fascinating tool that Nick employs to encourage this sort of contemplation is ‘The Labyrinth’.

The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth is a reflective tool that takes clients on a journey to explore spiritual intelligence. The idea is based upon the labyrinths designed into old cathedrals, such as Chartres Cathedral in France. The labyrinth is a physical path or a track you follow, with stop-off points to allow reflection. The inspiration at each station could be a piece of text, an object, some music, or anything else that engages the senses and triggers the imagination. In this process, people can start to connect their ‘being’ to their ‘doing’ and deeply consider vital themes and ideas. 

The Labyrinth effectively creates a mindful walk, which is something I have found one can replicate (if only in part) by being more mindful on a walk, no matter where you are. If you are anything like me, then generally you like to stride out and make progress when you walk. Taking time to pause can be almost physically painful! Therefore, it has become a discipline to stop, and use my senses on these types of walk.

If you want to try and do the same, you can try this. Go for a wander, it does not matter where, as long as you can avoid interruptions and choose some good places to stop and think. For example, to help you could:

  • Pick up or touch a small object such as a pebble or leaf. How does it feel? How was it made, or how did it get there? What role does it play in the larger environment? Answer the same questions for yourself.
  • Smell a blossom or fresh-cut grass. What memory does it invoke? What were you like then? How have you changed?
  • Listen to the wind or some flowing water. How does that make you feel? Do you feel better or worse? How do you want to feel?

There are of course many other questions you could ask; these are just examples. You can be very specific if you want and use objects to think about an issue that is on your mind. On the other hand, sometimes the best results come from just meditating on the object and letting the thoughts come on their own. 

Find a leadership model that works for you

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

George E P Box

No model or approach is perfect, but they can be instructive. Therefore, find a leadership model that works for you – relevant to your experience – and then apply it.

One leadership approach that Nick favours is ‘Healthy Leadership’. Healthy leadership is a model based on work by Keller and Price (of McKinsey and Company, and authors of Beyond Performance) to maximise organisational performance and health. 

Healthy leadership looks to keep a balance between the performance needs of the company and supporting the needs of the individual within the organisation. By contrast, an unhealthy organisation has these things out of balance and will start to fail.

Leaders help others to flourish

When things are in balance, organisations succeed, and people flourish. So, good leaders maintain the balance and help people flourish. This approach to leadership – one that promotes human flourishing – is motivated by wanting to help others. 

Leadership is not just about executing a vision; it’s about fostering an environment where others can do their finest thinking and finest work. A coaching, less directive approach to leadership, gives the opportunity to help people flourish and have an impact, as a leader, through the success of others. You don’t have to be a professional coach to take this sort of approach. You just need to care about the people you lead and truly want them to succeed in life and work.

One simple way to start is by asking more questions. The next time you see a colleague or employee don’t make a statement, ask a question instead. And I don’t mean a pointed question such as ‘where is the work I asked for?’ or ‘why didn’t you do what I asked?’ I mean questions that build empathy and understanding such as ‘what are you working on?’ or ‘what challenges are you facing today?’ 

Acts of leadership are more important than leadership roles

Here is a challenging thought: Perhaps there are no leaders, just acts of leadership. 

We often think about leadership as a role, but this misses out on large aspects of what leadership really is. 

Thinking about leadership as what we do and how we do it (rather than just the role we fulfil) is a releasing concept, as it empowers us all. We can all be leaders in this sense, no matter how many people are following us when we look over our shoulder. 

Don’t worry about the official number of people that you directly manage, or at least don’t make that your primary measure. If you are a pioneer, you may not have any people follow you immediately. Equally, in your situation, you may just be leading yourself. That is not a problem as leading yourself effectively is foundational to leading others well.

What matters is what you do and how you do it. Whatever your measure of influence, use it well. Take responsibility for your actions and make a positive impact. 

Leadership is impact

Why are leadership acts more important than leadership roles? Because leadership is impact. It is the difference you make in people and in the world.

This impact is manifest in various spheres for example:

  • Self or an individual
  • A team, or community
  • In a larger organisation, network, or society

We all have some level of influence in these different spheres. What you do with that influence is more important than how much power you think you have.

Leaders are servants (but not slaves)

Serving others can be counter-cultural. Western culture can be very individualist and self-absorbed. Leadership in this setting can be expressed as a cult, centred on an individual. We all know of famous sports coaches hired to magically turn a team around, or celebrity CEOs, parachuted in to boost the share price. Leaders trying to emulate this type of model can wrongly try to be the hero or the saviour in their situation. 

This misses the point that leadership is service. Good leaders value the people they lead. It is about valuing the whole person – which in turn comes back to the idea of leaders ensuring that people flourish.

“Serve to Lead”

Motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

The paradox of servant leadership is that good servant leaders nurture themselves as well as others. They are not slaves to other’s needs or whims. It’s also not selfish to lead yourself well. You need to lead yourself effectively if you are going to lead others. 

For example, if you put in long hours, just because you think you should, you will miss out on rest, exercise, and proper food. That will soon reduce your energy levels and emotional resilience. This in turn will reduce your ability to make decisions and reduce your effectiveness as a leader. Serving others may be about sacrifice at times but it is not about being a pointless martyr. 

Leaders create the right environment 

Leaders create an environment where people thrive. Research has shown that this is a place of emotional safety. A place where people feel secure and supported.

The Thinking Environment is a way to create this sort of environment. The approach was pioneered by Nancy Kline (author of Time to Think) and is based on the premise that the quality of our decisions and our actions is driven by the quality of our thinking.

Leaders can negatively affect thinking and they often do. For example, they can interrupt. How many times have you been interrupted by a manager or senior in a meeting? How many times have you been that person, cutting in on someone you lead?

Don’t Interrupt

Research has shown that interruptions increase adrenaline and a fight or flight response. If we are reacting to a threat, we do not have the space to do our best thinking.

Creativity and innovation come from creating an environment where people can think and share, without fear of being shot down. We should all be fascinated by what others have to say (rather than just trying to put our points across). This is even more important as leaders.

This is counter-cultural though and therefore it takes courage for leaders to create this sort of environment. 

One classic example is in meetings, as mentioned earlier. People make the mistake of interrupting because they want to get things done but ironically, letting people speak can save time as people are understood and heard without needing to repeat themselves. If being succinct is also agreed as a ground-rule, then you can transform the productivity of meetings.

Leaders often think they need to be the hero in the situation and save people with their insight or contribution. It takes humility to realise this is not the most effective way to operate. People are also much more motivated when they own the idea or the way to execute a task. Every coach knows this.

Real leadership stories are as important as theoretical leadership models

Stories are key to learning. We share experiences with each other (exactly as I am doing now) so we can gain from other peoples’ know-how and insights, even their mistakes. This practice is especially important for leaders and can often be forgotten when people are chasing after the next great leadership approach or theory. Leadership models are useful, but mostly because they help us investigate and understand the actions of ourselves and others. 

The models themselves are generally born out of experience and practice, and this can be seen in the book Musings on Leadership. Nick is co-author of this best-selling book with Tor Mesoy. It is an anthology of short stories and anecdotes, real-life experiences and lessons from different domains of life and leadership. I can attest to the fact that it is a very enjoyable and accessible book; the sort of thing you can easily dip into and read a chapter on a commute. 

Leaders are good at prioritisation and time management

One lesson that Nick shares in Musing on Leadership about how to prioritise and manage your time well. These skills are key to any leader and come back to the point that we need to manage ourselves well before we manage others. Nick shares some simple process and tactics for setting priorities and managing time.

Managing your to-do list

For example, if you are creating a to-do list then follow these steps:

  • Make your long list of tasks 
    • Then make a shortlist of what you are going to achieve the next day and 
    • Next, assign time windows to each task
    • Then put it in your diary

It is important that you follow all these steps because unless you set aside the time, you are likely to never get things done. Or, you could miss the most important things, which brings us on to the next productivity hack.

The secret of prioritisation

The secret of prioritisation is simple: do the most important thing first

That means don’t check your email or your phone until you have achieved that task! If you set your priorities in this way, it means you are much less likely to be distracted and however the rest of the day goes, you will have done the most important thing.

This concept is sometimes called ‘Be More Steve’ after Steve Jobs who advised that you should always focus on the one thing you can do, on any given day, that takes you closer to success. That task may not always be something you want to do. Hence the phrase ‘Eat that Frog’ coined by leadership guru Brian Tracy.

If you would like the interview I recorded with Nick then check out this podcast episode from The Right Questions Podcast.

If you would like access to some bonus content and get updates then please do sign up to my email list.

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