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S2 E3: Leadership, Management & Projects with Susie Palmer-Trew

Analogies are really powerful ways for us to explain complicated ideas without the need to labour some of the finer and more intricate points. They serve as a way to engage the listener to curiously delve deeper into the topic without immediately getting tangled up in its no doubt intricate web of nuances and rabbit holes.

In the latest Episode of The Change Chair, Joe and I were joined by Susie Palmer-Trew who works as an interim CEO/COO and transformation director and we quickly fixated on an analogy of leadership that seemed to resonate with us all. That is to think of leadership as a shadow that we cast over the people that we are tasked to lead.

It is not the first time I had heard this but as we talked about leadership in change, and specifically in a crisis reflecting on Susie’s time leading Northampton University Students Union, the idea of the shadow we cast upon others really caught our imagination.

Like a shadow, leadership has no, or perhaps shouldn’t have any, direct, forceful, control over other people. In fact we should recognise it is simply something that we can all cast over others and which can impact the way people react and behave as a result. Leadership as, Susie eloquently put it, is about giving teams confidence to act in highly uncertain times, giving them support to explore multitudes of possible paths and more importantly having their back and encouraging them to keep going in the face of the results of their actions - positive or less so.

This type of leadership requires an individual to shun function and process in favour of dialogue and free thought. But this is exactly what is missing from most projects and change initiatives. As we all discussed, our experience has most of the project teams standing at attention, writing status reports, providing bland and uninspiring risk mitigation and generally all lacking some umph and energy to really motivate those around them to make change happen.

The challenge for most project leaders is that, with the volume of change initiatives simultaneously in flight and their own mounting pressures from above to ensure each one is a success, they too have been lured by the false sense of predictability and certainty these reports hope to portray. They find themselves in a hamster wheel, tirelessly spinning the wheel but actually making no progress on projects or getting close to successful outcomes where people deliver and change is sustained.

In order to truly lead in this kind of environment it takes a level of self awareness of to be able to own your own fears (like what will my boss / seniors think) and instead put that to one side and focus entirely on what the team need to succeed and what role you can play in helping them smooth their own path to success. Which incidentally leads you to the success you want, albeit with more work to manage those above you. With this self awareness activated, a more enabling side of leadership comes out - a more dialogue focused and space to think type of leadership. But it has to be activated and you as the leader are the only one that can activate this.

Susie makes a wonderful point towards the end of the episode where she reflects that the past 18 months have changed us all. Most of us are fundamentally different people because we have all had to experience and deal with change persistently on a personal level. From our experience, the door has been opened to people understanding the role of empathy, not because it is the fad or flavour of the month to do so but because we have all needed at time for others to show us empathy and we have experienced first hand the strength and courage it brings to deal with uncertainty in positive and proactive ways. But it isn't a given that this will stay, as we speak the old world of how we worked and supported one another is creeping back into our work lives. We begin to see new challenges emerge as the pendulum of at home or in the office swings back and forth over hybrid working.

If you want to have any role as a leader in whatever future emerges, our guess is that you are best to hold tightly to that self awareness and impact you discovered. To value that empathy you were shown and explore how you make it part of your leadership style as we are certain this kind of leader has followers that want to be in your shadow, as opposed to simply having to cower in it.

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