Hard choices … Higher visibility can mean greater vulnerability

2005 Royal Visit: Queen Elizabeth II
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

When it comes to leading and managing your career over time, it’s worth contemplating some aspects of conspicuous success too often learnt the hard way, observes Dr Marianne Broadbent.

Different cultures hold up and admire leaders in different ways. Increasing though, it is becoming ever more challenging to get good people to take on difficult roles that put their private lives into the public domain.  Even our pre-social media private lives are heavily questioned.

Who would want to be a politician in a democracy with an open and free press today? Who would want to the head of public sector agency out of favour with the policy of an opposition or alternate party? Who would want to be a CEO in a public listed company, or a non-executive Board Director of a controversial business?

Sometimes we wish for things, and it is a case of ‘be careful what you wish for . . .’. If your role means you have a ‘public face’ you might have the visibility and status you have craved. But you are also at your most vulnerable.

I am a devotee of biographies and autobiographies of many different types, but particularly those of political, historical or public figures (as well as musicians, artists and performers just so you don’t get too restricted an idea of my tastes).  Reading Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices the month it came out, it became clear that she would be a Presidential candidate, but perhaps she has been ‘inured’: that is, there is nothing more to which she can be subjected that hasn’t already happened. (Devotees of The Good Wife will know what ‘inured’ means).

Having lived through Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership the same thing is true. A few weeks ago one of our comedy/ satirical shows played a quiz game putting up a series of foul quotes. The quiz question was ‘were these lines from a radio shock jock or from the lines of television show about a women’s prison?’ Most of them were the former.

No matter what view you had of the politics and performance of a particular individual, no leader should have been subjected to that, especially not a Prime Minister. Visitors and observers from other countries just could not believe what they were seeing and hearing.

So when you see those high profile males and females and you might think it would be great to have their lifestyles.  Think again, as things are not necessarily what they seem. The sad fact today is the extent to which others are dissuaded from any form of public life because of the way we treat our public figures.  But we do so much need good people to put themselves forward.

Look after your physical and spiritual self, it does matter.
If you want lead an energetic life, it is important to have some energy – and good leaders need good energy levels. Different things sustain each of us, but most of work better when we are more physically fit. It does not mean we are slim or need to emulate the ‘beautiful people’ set – just that we have a good level of stamina when there is no reason not to have that.

Some time ago I had a conversation on a bar stool with a Gartner colleague as a pre-conference gathering. He was clearly exhausted from a lot of travel, had put on weight and was not enjoying it. He told me he did not have time to exercise to which I replied along the lines: my travel schedule was equally onerous and it was just a matter of developing some good habits. His kids were older, he had no real health issues and there was no good reason he could not develop some different habits. He just had to commit to it. I thought afterwards that I had gone too far and he most likely would never confide in me again.

About a year later, at the next year’s event, this person came up to me and I did not recognise him – until he started speaking. He told me he had taken up walking early most mornings and he felt so, so much better. He realised I had not even recognised him and just laughed, and said yes, my unsympathetic reaction a year earlier had started him thinking.

On the spiritual side again we each need to find what works for us. Most of us have a fundamental need to do some ‘sense making’ of the world around us.  I have atheist and agnostic friends who have a view of the world with which they are comfortable and they have given it some good thought. I have Jewish and Buddhist friends and acquaintances who have strong commitment to their beliefs and value systems. I was raised a Catholic, but not the traditional Irish-Australian kind.  Only one grandparent was originally a Catholic and that was on my French maternal grandmother. It was a looser form of French influenced Catholicism which exhibited a more casual adherence and an often questioning approach to rituals. I did get into some interesting discussions as a teenager at a Catholic girl’s school…

When asked about my own formative experiences of leadership, I often refer to the time spent as part of the ‘adult support team’ for a youth group. It was a community that enabled young people to share their own stories in a supportive atmosphere. Our role was just to be there, and to help those in their teens and early twenties to ‘workshop’ their talks for their peers.  Many of those young people were inspiring as they struggled to make sense of the world around them. They shared their journey and allowed others to understand more about them.  They energised us more than we energised them.

In the leadership and development work I am part of today, we always stress the real understanding, the foundation of trust, comes from an appreciation of someone else’s world.  It’s about getting to know your colleagues, bosses, your team members as people, who have ‘whole’ lives, not just a work existence as part of your team.
Assume good intent on the part of others, don’t sweat the small stuff.
We each have our own personal and particular ways of processing how others have acted, or how we perceive they have acted. I adhere to the saying that if something has occurred and there is choice between viewing it as a ‘stuff up’ or conspiracy, assume ‘stuff up’ every time. This translates to how you think about those who have said or done something that is potential hurtful or harmful. Assume good intent and then probe, with them, where the misunderstanding came in.

For example, my brain is wired for rational and logical thinking and, over time, it has had to contend a lot of inputs that are neither. Years ago if someone did something that seemed not so logical I might have thought there was an underlying reason for that – perhaps something quite negative. Now I will (mostly) assume some form of misunderstanding, crossed wires, or a time zone or sleep deprivation matter. Addressing the situation in the context of assuming good intent saves a lot on the heartburn and angst.

Of course one does need a level of cultural sensitivity here. I have spent a lot of time in different countries, including those in parts of Asia where, at first encounter, people’s views might seem more opaque. You have to take your cues from others, and adapt, exercise listening skills a lot more, and be prepared to put real time in building relationships.

In working so much in the US I learnt too about speaking in euphemisms. Most Americans are unfailingly polite – to a fault. My natural style was once described by an Australian client as ‘careful bluntness’. Working in this US I learnt early to temper a natural directness. However, I am proud of the fact that over time, there were many colleagues who found it much easier to be more direct and sort out any misunderstandings quickly, rather than letting them linger or fester.
Spend your energy on what really matters.
Regarding ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’, I have become much better at that over the years. There are so many bigger things for us to be concerned about. If something is not really materiel, then just let it go. It is about choosing which battles to fight and realising there is only so much ‘air time’ available. We each need to use it well and on things that really matter.

Dr Marianne Broadbent is Managing Partner, with the Leadership Consultancy, NGS Global
info.australia@ngs-global.com, www.ngs-global.com

This story first appeared in Government News magazine June/July 2015. 


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