Why not showing up can be the best form of leadership

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A couple of years after taking on her first Chief Executive role, a friend said something I found surprising “You know Katherine, you gave me the best advice when started the job”

I had completely forgotten that we had even had a conversation, so I was delighted, a little bit flattered and obviously wanted to find out more. “Really! what did I say?”

“You told me that the most important thing I could do as a Chief Executive was to show up every day. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve carried on being there, being present in the organisation.”

Her response made me laugh out loud. From her account, she had not only taken the advice but read a deeper meaning into it which I am not sure I myself had seen at the time.

She had understood that turning up every day really matters. And more deeply, she recognised that being present, aware of what colleagues are going through, observing where your staff are flourishing and where they are struggling, standing back when it is right and offering a listening ear and active support where required are powerful acts of leadership.

Thinking about this deeper meaning, I look back at my time as a leader and recognise that while I have often been fully present, there have also been times that I have turned up when I really shouldn’t have. Times when I have been physically in the room but with such limited emotional bandwidth that I wasn’t able to be truly there.

And, if I am honest about it, this has got in the way of others doing their job. Dealing with a colleague who is going through very tough times is difficult in an office environment and often makes people awkward and fearful. But when that person is the boss, knowing what to say and how to react can tie people up in knots.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently. Over the past year I have worked with organisations whose leaders have had major challenges in their personal lives: trauma, bereavement, serious illness. And this has led me to reflect on when the best form of leadership is making the decision not to show up.

With a remarkable degree of self-awareness, one leader shared with me recently the fact that he was simply unable to make the decisions needed in his organisation. There was too much going on in his personal life for him to get the perspective needed. And while it was counter-intuitive to him, not turning up, being honest with his team about what he could and could not do and delegating these decisions was the very best form of leadership he could give at that moment.

I was reminded of this when ACEVO this week published its considered and thoughtful list of leadership competencies . In at number six is “Self Aware, Self Care” (I might have been tempted to put it at the very top of the chart).

Leaders in the social sector can find this mantra particularly difficult.

A passion for cause is a prerequisite for those working on today’s big social challenges and it is our great strength. But it is also a point of weakness. A passion for issues can mean never saying no, riding over your feelings and needs to the point that you face burn out.

If I were to go back in time and meet my friend again as she took on this exciting new challenge I would share this. Being present every day is the most important thing you can do as a leader. But sometimes not showing up is the very best form of leadership.

BlogKatherine Rake