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As I’m kicking back watching the Commonwealth Games, I quickly identify with my favourite athletes and instinctively turn away from those with the big egos or unsportsmanlike approaches to competition. My favourites may not...

Once a year in November, we all wag work a Tuesday afternoon to watch 24 horses gallop at full speed for roughly 3 minutes. The race that quite literally stops a nation. We’re talking about the Melbourne Cup! Whether it’s the thundering pace of the 3200m race itself, or the rate at which the emptying of champagne bottles contributes to the inevitable loss of our poise and decorum, or our frantically pounding hearts as we cheer our hot tip on for the win, the whole day is frenetic with the energy of speed. There’s something about operating at speed that makes us feel ALIVE. Am I right? In the modern world, with social media and work demands driving our schedules, working at speed has

It’s 5.30am on a Tuesday morning and I’m rather red-faced, having a quiet, semi-composed cry in the gym. And it wasn’t because I’d pumped out too many squats. I was completely blown away by being on the receiving end of what I call a ‘caring conversation’, delivered so eloquently at this most unexpected hour of the day. Specifically, my trainer had taken a moment to notice how I was doing energetically and offered some kind, heartfelt advice about looking after myself. Now, as a leadership expert I like to believe I have self-awareness and self-care sorted (who am I kidding, nobody is completely sorted, right?!), so his comments took me by surprise. I was most touched by his courage to have a caring conversation with me. The kind where he unhurriedly asked questions without presuming any answers, simply being present while I responded and then being brave enough to gently but clearly shine a light on some behavioural patterns that are not serving me. All of which hit me right between the eyes and made me rethink my self-care mojo from that moment forward. And it also got me thinking about the value of caring conversations in leadership…

WHAT IS A CARING CONVERSATION?

If you’ve ever been promoted from within your team, you’ll know that this life 'gift' can bring some tricky challenges. Interestingly though, the biggest battles are the ones you have with yourself, inside your own mind. Let’s chat about how to establish yourself in your new leadership role… So, congratulations you’ve been promoted! This means more pay (yay!), more responsibility (you’re ready, right?) and quite possibly more hours (OK, you knew that already). What you didn’t bargain for are the internal, mental struggles you’re now experiencing about how to lead a team that you were having Friday beers with last week. It can be a challenging time transitioning from being ‘one of the team’ to ‘leader’ of the team. They say it’s lonely at the top, and they weren’t kidding. Suddenly you’ve got to set standards, translate strategy and plans into work deployment for your team, build and maintain a constructive culture and address people’s behavioural slip-ups that you formerly might have laughed off. And by the way, your team now expect you to have all the answers, make fair and quick decisions and make sure you have their back when things go wrong.

Feeling your heart rate go through the roof? We get it.

This week, my horse Big Red has reminded me about what it takes to be a leader, not a rescuer… Let me explain.   Right now I’m working towards a very challenging but worthy goal with Big Red – to learn a particularly important horsemanship skill which will help us to achieve our goal of becoming safer on our trail rides together. Anyone who’s ridden a horse through challenging terrain will know that having a steady horse can, quite literally and without exaggeration, be a matter of life and death. So, it’s rather important that we get this right. Just like when we’re guiding our teams through rough, uncharted waters towards an important business goal, on Day 3 of Big Red’s learning journey, we’re experiencing some expected challenges. And let’s face it, as is so often the case with teams, it’s not the component skills I need to teach, as he already understands all the “bits” he needs to pull it together. Rather, as a leader I need to create the conditions for his own breakthrough insights to occur, so that he can integrate everything he’s learned to execute this unfamiliar and challenging move.

Now, I must admit that there have been various points in the process where it’s been tempting to rescue Big Red from the struggle and discomfort of learning.

As with leadership and teams, and even when raising kids, when the going gets tough it can be tempting to want to stop the discomfort and just create a quick fix – which we know won’t produce sustainable results in the long term. It’s at this moment we must ask ourselves: “Am I a leader or a rescuer, today?”

Lately, I’ve been worried. As I work with clients and stand back to notice the overall trends in workload, expectations and engagement, I notice that we seem to be losing some of the care and concern for people. I worry that we might be losing our humanity in leadership. The part where we remember that our people are collaborating for a common goal, where we leave our families daily to serve others and make something bigger and better than what we could achieve alone. And that we bring our whole selves to work - our spirit, minds, hands and hearts. Where kindness counts, and where we can and should expect to achieve a sense of growth and contribution through service.

I worry that the daily pressure leaders experience to deliver unprecedented results for their organisations can lead to the temptation to make decisions which, in big increments or small, continually prioritise profits over people.

I worry that this manifests in unsustainable workloads, cutting back on investments in people, less face-time with our teams in favour of other demands, and investing in system and structural solutions rather than the creativity of our people. The overall effect is employee perceptions that leaders don’t care about them as people, and that they aren’t valued for the unique gifts they bring.

In its latest survey of 32,000 employees in 26 countries including Australia, international professional services company Towers Watson found that only 44 per cent of Australian employees surveyed said their leaders were effective.

Let’s assume that we ourselves are not immune from those statistics – that means more than half of our team is likely to believe that our leadership could improve. Look around at your team - more than half. Sobering, right?