Becoming a Trusted Advisor without losing your head

Watching Wolf Hall* on TV this week, I find myself wondering what would have happened if Cromwell had been less of a ‘fixer’ and better able to coach Henry.

This month I ran the inaugural Master Class –‘Coaching leaders to communicate effectively’ for the Institute of Internal Communications.
The delegates found it challenging, a bit scary and in some cases a breakthrough experience – just like a healthy coaching session in fact. What they found challenging though wasn’t the material or the practice; it was the concept of ‘letting go’, of being seen as the expert advisor.

The challenge was fuelled by two underlying fears. The first – that others won’t see our value if we don’t lay it out in front of them. The second – if leaders can do it as well as we can, what’s left here for us? When we’ve worked long and hard to gain the respect that comes from our knowledge and experience of communication, clearly we’re not going to give up the expert tag in a hurry.

And we shouldn’t. As consultants in or out of house, our hard won expertise is our currency. But being a trusted advisor is so much more than being the one with all the answers. Sometimes we’re so eager to tell our leaders what we know – to spell it out – we forget to listen, deeply. Trust comes from mutual respect and valuing each other so, showing your leader the respect of drawing out and hearing their answers before imposing yours makes sense- doesn’t it?

Of course we have to know when it’s right to adopt a coaching style and then be able to flex our style according to the context and individual leader need. We also need the ‘license’ to coach which usually comes from a proven track record of getting the basics right and offering relevant and useful insights. The next step is being brave enough to take a risk and let go of needing to be the expert all the time. This is when we’ll be fully experienced as a trusted advisor and appropriate business partner.

Perhaps if Cromwell had taken this risk Henry might have stopped at two wives and fewer people may have lost their heads….

* For the uninitiated

Lincoln: a communication masterclass

Daniel Day Lewis recently won an Oscar and a BAFTA for his superlative portrayal of Lincoln in the film of the same name. Placed in a testing context, balancing ethical and personal dilemmas in order to create significant change, Lincoln is faced with the choice between bringing a vicious civil war to a swift end thus saving lives and the conflicting need to prolong the war in order to ensure his promise to abolish slavery is enshrined in law. Further personal pressure is added by his wife’s anguish over their remaining son’s desire to enlist in the war.

In this situation of complexity and ambiguity we see an example of authentic leadership being played out. Day Lewis portrays Lincoln as a man of vision and ethical principles and in the service of this vision he is a wonderful communicator. While recognising the need to be politically astute in picking out key people to influence, he doesn’t engage in rhetorical grand-standing, but rather diffuses tensions and wins agreement by picking key people out and having meaningful conversations with them. He tells personal stories, listens, reflects, empathises and is assertive when appropriate, adapting his approach to each encounter without compromising his values or his vision. In Day Lewis’s Lincoln, the sheer humanity of the man along with his courageous choices inspired me. I left the cinema longing for leaders we want to follow – ones who can take our Institutions through the change they so badly need today.

So where are the Lincolns today? Yet, inherent in that question could be the root of the problem. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for more Lincolns, we should rather be looking for more individuals to take up leadership roles who are prepared to know and trust their own humanity, and willing to rely on their followers to take up the challenges of a complex world. To this end we could argue that current leadership development programmes are missing the point by concentrating too much on standardised behavioural competences and not spending enough time encouraging aspiring leaders to be authentic and relational. To be an authentic leader requires a discipline of rigorous self – challenge, reflection and learning how to understand and connect with others.

So, can we learn from the legendary effort Daniel Day Lewis put into becoming Lincoln? To convince an audience of a character’s validity the method actor will dive into his own lived experience to find experiences that link him convincingly him to the character. Similarly the aspiring leader needs to know why leadership calls him or her and really get what they stand for before they can be convincing leading others. Lincoln showed that someone with this self-awareness and capacity for reflection, has the resilience to tackle complex and constantly changing situations and deal with ambiguity from a clear ethical perspective.

Trust, belief and goodwill still exist in our organisations which, while badly dented, are desperately needed to make change happen –now. If we could start supporting leaders to know and show their humanity in appropriate communication behaviours and if we could show them how to stand in others’ shoes and hold meaningful conversations that motivate and engage, maybe then we would develop the people and the leaders we need and want to follow.