Leadership isolation: it’s lonely up here!

Leadership can be a lonely job

Many senior leaders in higher education experience isolation when they reach higher positions in their universities. In this blog, Martin McCracken shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme (TMP), linked to the issue of isolation.

Although knowledge, skill, drive and ambition are clearly vital to achieve the ambition of reaching a leadership position, we must also recognise that in modern organisations, regardless of sector or industry, establishing and cultivating a network of close trusted colleagues with whom we can work collaboratively will be critical. Therefore, we need to invest time and energy in nurturing the right kind of relationships which will support us at different stages of our career.

However, if and when we are in the most senior roles we may find ourselves in a new quandary: we would still like to tap into our internal networks, but realise that our new role and associated responsibilities compromise these established relationships with our most trusted friends and professional confidants. At the base level, we may now hold line management responsibility for some in this group, which may erode some of the old relationship certainties that were taken for granted.

Also, we will increasingly move in different circles due to our new leadership role, which can result in a scenario where we find ourselves missing out on valuable information originating from the network where we once were core members. In addition, given the changes in the relationship and power dimensions, certain colleagues may become more suspicious of our intentions and more distant, while others may try to better insulate themselves politically from perceived disruptive change and begin to display what might be termed as uncritical ‘cheerleading’ of our actions.

All of this can impact upon our effectiveness as leaders and ultimately there is a real threat that we begin to experience what has been termed as ‘executive isolation’ (Ashkenas, 2017), which is characterised by the erosion of our most trusted networks. Meanwhile as our workload and responsibilities increase, we may find ourselves continually surrounded or ‘crowded’ by people, as we get caught up in a seemingly endless round of meetings and events.

The end result is a feeling of frustration where increasing demands on a leader’s time leave little space to reflect, recharge or plan for the future. So, what can leaders who find themselves in such a precarious position do to address the negative effects of isolation? How can they reinvigorate their networks and who do they now turn to for advice and guidance on the manifold issues linked to organisational vision, strategy and mission setting on which, as senior leaders, they are now supposed to be expert?

From our research into the Top Management Programme it is clear that a progamme of this nature is invaluable in offering senior leaders an opportunity to come together and reflect upon the salient issues of the day for their universities and the higher education sector as a whole. What emerged most strongly when we spoke to TMP alumni was the power of the programme to erode some of the worst effects of executive isolation.

The vast majority of TMP alumni (over 50 participated in in-depth interviews, and a further 95 completed a survey linked to their experience of the programme) described how interacting with like-minded colleagues offered them a route towards replenishing their social capital networks and building awareness or, as one explained, “turbo charging your knowledge of the sector”. Also, clearly linked to the concept of leadership isolation was the fact that the TMP impact groups offered what one alumni referred to as a “safe space”.

Impact groups are the participant-driven element of TMP, participants meet regularly to discuss issues they face – particularly difficulties – and then test in action the ideas arising from that discussion. Finding this safe and secure place is vitally important for leaders in the higher education sector who often work in politically-charged environments. It was clear from comments made by alumni that having the opportunity to interact with like-minded leaders in the sector or “test stuff out with peers” as well as “step back and look at what happens in other universities in another environment” was considered essential.

Perhaps the best illustration of the value attached to the impact groups and networks they created was borne out by the fact that many groups continued to meet long after the formal TMP proceedings had been wrapped up. It was not uncommon to hear of alumni groups still keeping in contact for many years, meeting maybe as often as two or three times a year. As we listened to the testimonies of those we interviewed, we realised that such meetings were viewed as vitally important and many looked forward to these ‘get-togethers’ as offering a cathartic experience and a real opportunity to get away from  busy roles and reflect deeply with like-minded people.

Ultimately the last word on this is illustrated by the words of one alumni who remarked: “I guess sometimes you feel a bit isolated in a leadership role in your own institution and actually realising that everybody else has similar problems and you are not alone can be energising, but also then seeing different contexts and slightly different solutions that you can adapt back to your own institution.”

So, to conclude, we can clearly appreciate that leadership isolation can be a problem, but undertaking a programme like the TMP can be an effective way of addressing this as it can allow leaders to develop more effective networks as well as offering them some much needed structured time out to reflect and take stock of their aspirations.

Martin McCracken is a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at Ulster University and also leads the research study evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. Find out more about his research into management development, leadership and change.

Nominations are open for TMP 43, the deadline is Friday July 6. Find out more about the TMP Alumni group.

Mindfulness: right here, right now – the leader’s dilemma

In advance of the Leadership Foundation’s events on the Art of Being Brilliant at Work, and Mindfulness in Higher Education, programme director, Doug Parkin shares his thoughts on mindfulness as the leader’s dilemma. 

Right here, right now is in a very real sense the only moment that really matters.  If we can’t be happy in this moment, then what reason have we to expect that we might be happy in any other?  The past is gone and the future is yet to happen.  The past is a complex web of interactions and events, always open to interpretation that we may cherish, value or regret.  The future is nothing more than a tableau of personal, social and cultural expectations, some fixed firmly through either certainty or routine, others more loosely cast as speculation, anxious uncertainty or, perhaps, the stuff of dreams. The present, though, is now.  It is the breath we breathe in this moment and no other.

So, what has this to do with leadership?  Well, everything.  It could almost be described as the leader’s dilemma, in fact.  The word leadership, in its Anglo-Saxon origins is about ‘the road or path ahead’.  Transformational leadership is about vision, direction and the challenge of aligning the energies of a diverse range of more or less connected people behind an attractive goal. Driven by what, though? Well, a combination of events that have occurred in the past, near or far, and our best guess about what may happen in the environment around us in a range of future scenarios. We are both pushed by the past and pulled by the future, and leaders find themselves bouncing between the two as they react to one and try to be proactive about the other.  That’s the dilemma!

Now, we are often told that ‘if we fail to plan we plan to fail’. A neat statement that it is very easy to nod your head at and which contains one kind of truth. Within most organisational endeavours it is certainly helpful to plan and prepare, and in terms of shaping the future and having a vision another leadership maxim tells us that ‘if we don’t know where we’re going, then any path will do’. And all of this leads us towards the ‘doing’ trap – the busy business of doing – and we neglect the fundamental importance of ‘being’.  Taking that vitally important reflective breath and being present.  After all, this is the moment that everything before it, quite literally, was building towards. And if we go on postponing it, waiting for another better moment that our wonderful planning and change management may yield, then we become like a child chasing a reflection.

To some extent we are programmed to regard the future as a brighter place than today.  “Sniffing a wonderful carroty horizon,” as Andy Cope puts it, propels us to struggle, survive and evolve.  Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, suggests that these positive illusion, as psychologists call them, make us as “part-time residents of tomorrow”.  However, this forward looking energy, whether driven by fear or optimism, can rob us of our ability to appreciate the here and now.  And the tragedy of this is that it is only in the ‘here and now’ that happiness can be found, and then only if we stop and look for it.  Linked to this, in organisations there is definitely something concerning about the current vogue for futurism and future gazing that, as well as being almost doomed by the same uncertainty on which it thrives, draws us increasingly away from truly valuing our engagement with the present.  After all, engaging with the present is the most profound engagement there is.

So, is it possible for a leader to model ‘being’ as well as ‘doing’?  To value the wonders of the current moment, who we are, where we are and how we are, as much as the agenda we are trying to progress?  If so, such an approach could be seen as embodying values that directly and positively impact the lived experience of colleagues and their wellbeing.  The mindful present, when brought into focus, is refreshing, restorative and relaxing for busy minds.

There is undeniably a strong link between organisational leadership and wellbeing.  Studies by Daniel Goleman and others show that, for example, unrelenting, pacesetting leadership can result in colleagues feeling overwhelmed by the demands, disempowered, micromanaged and mentally fatigued.  Okay, perhaps, with another pacesetter with a similarly single-minded drive to succeed and exceed expectations on every front, but for the overall work climate a potentially destructive approach if it is not combined with a wide range of more collaborative and affiliative leadership styles.  And yet, some may argue, isn’t that the nature of the modern workplace?  Isn’t it more driven, more competitive, and more focussed on targets, outcomes and impact than ever before?  This may be true, although it seems the prerogative of every work generation to claim that it is living through an age of ‘unprecedented change’.  And even if is true that ‘in the modern workplace’ we need to set the pace and work smarter with less, would that not make it even more important for leaders to support the health and wellbeing of colleagues by modelling and encouraging mindfulness.  What a turnaround it would be if, for example, being in a meeting could literally include consciously ‘being’ in the meeting, even if for just a few short enlightened moments.

Mindfulness is a relatively modern term for an ancient insight: we replenish ourselves and find fresh energy and insight when we discipline ourselves to be in the current moment and to notice only the things that are happening now (sounds, images and sensations).  Meditation, contemplation and prayer have been the heartbeat of spiritual life in cultures around the world for as long we know, and in more recent times ideas to do with emotional intelligence, reflective-practice and mindful self-awareness have gained currency as ways for leaders and others to be present, to suspend judgement, to show empathy and to redirect disruptive emotions and make better choices.

The final chapter of my book, Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses, published last year, is focussed on leading yourself.  Self-leadership is a strand that runs throughout the book linked to a set of core leadership qualities, and in this short chapter I bring together as a summary some key ideas relating to what I have termed ‘attuned leadership’ and having compassion for yourself:

“In this attuned leadership the leader looks to achieve a level of deep influence that is as much about ‘being’ as it is ‘doing’ (we are, after all, human beings, not ‘human doings’). The emotional and interpersonal environment will figure highly in the leader’s focus and priorities, and the emphasis will be on the climate of the group and liberating potential rather than giving strong direction.”

This highlights another important aspect of mindfulness for leaders, the crucial need not to let passion for the task overcome compassion for people, and this includes having compassion for yourself.  A people rather than a performance culture will be essential for mindfulness principles and practices to flourish, where the individual and the community come first and the work we do and the things we achieve are significantly better for it. And having “compassion for yourself should not be an awkward concept because if you do not sustain yourself in your leadership then it will be impossible for you to sustain others” (Ibid.).  The chapter ends with ten questions based on self-reflection and mindfulness that encourage leaders to find peace and balance in an often frantic world.  This is actually a short mindfulness activity in itself intended to be illustrative of how these principles and practices can put you back in control of your life, as a leader at any level of seniority, and thereby help others to begin to do the same.

“Mindfulness is about observation without criticism: being compassionate with yourself… In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.”
(Williams and Penman, 2011)

Doug Parkin is the programme director for a range of Leadership Foundation development programmes, and in demand for consultancy projects within universities. You can find out more about his book ‘Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses’ by clicking here

Mindfulness in Higher Education takes place on Monday 19 June 2017 at Woburn House, London. To find out more and book, click here

Andy Cope will be facilitating our Leadership and the Art of Being Brilliant on Wednesday 28 June 2017 at the Royal College of Nursing, London. To find out more and book, click here

Leading People is Leading Diversity

‘Reality is diverse; therefore a true reflection of reality includes diversity.’  Nancy Kline

Shirley Wardell, programme director of our research leadership development programmes discusses the importance of encouraging diverse thinking and insight into the valuable skills every leader should prioritise.

I have come to think of the skills leaders need to understand the diversity issues as mainstream leadership skills.  To my mind managing people is managing diversity. Diversity goes beyond minority groups and the obvious power imbalances.  Diversity extends to the subtle depth of how we think, which has a direct impact on how well we perform in our jobs.

Diversity grows when people have the ability to hear, openly, what everybody thinks.  Having practised that skill, with people we believe are similar to us, we may be better prepared to listen to those we assume are more different to us.  The charming surprise is; that as Maya Angelou says, ‘We are more similar than we are different.’ Once we have accepted that we are more likely to be similar in a broad way, appreciating the specific differences seems to be the key.  So how can we be sure that we are able to allow, or even encourage, different ways of thinking?

I choose the Thinking Environment® to help me, and my clients, to create the conditions for diverse thinking to flourish. When you run an event in a Thinking Environment®; everyone has a turn. That means; you go round the group and ask everyone what they think.  Sometimes people tell me it takes too long, but they are really stumped when I ask them who they would leave out of the round.

In an event such as this no-one interrupts and participant say; ‘If I don’t interrupt, I might forget my idea?’ And again, they look a bit blank when I ask, ‘What if the person you interrupt forgets theirs?’ Giving turns, not interrupting, appreciating each other, asking how to make things better and a positive philosophy are a few of the ways to get everyone involved in a productive way.

The Thinking Environment® has ten components; however there are a few principles that sum it up for me:

  • The way we listen to someone has an impact on the quality of their thinking.  If we are able focus on them, stop judging and create a time and space for them; the quality of their thinking improves.  At a recent workshop I asked how it feels to be listened to really well and people said they felt valued, important, as if their ideas matter, that they have a contribution to make, happy, it improved their self esteem, relaxed and intelligent.  Well, if all those things can be achieved by, ‘just listening’ we should perhaps put listening at the top of the leadership skills list.
  • When you think on behalf of someone else you are disempowering them.  When you think your ideas are better, or you are simply too busy for them to find their own answer, you are stopping them from thinking and therefore stopping them from learning and growing.  Being able to develop staff has become one of the most valuable assets to Institutions and leaders who can do this will have the evidence of their success in their research output.
  • A positive philosophy is required to help people perform well.  Our expectations will have an impact on the outcomes.  Those expectations include what I expect from the person and what my prejudices are about that person. I need to be able to see there are numerous and unknown possibilities yet to be achieved for every individual.
  • We also need to examine our assumptions about the world.  What we expect to be possible in this office, this organisation, this market, this country and this world; will have an impact on our own and our team’s thinking.  Leadership training needs to explore the assumptions we make and the impact that has on performance; and then show how to, pragmatically, choose assumptions that will help us perform better.

Research Team Leadership and Leading Research Leaders are run in a Thinking Environment® and include many of the reliable principles and actions that help research leaders to think. They are then able to pass that favour on to their teams and collaborators.

The Thinking Environment® was developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think

Find out more about Shirley Wardell by visiting our website www.lfhe.ac.uk/resprog