I once asked a leader, whose approach I admired, what had inspired him and was surprised at the answer he gave. David told me that he was struck by something he had seen in the BBC programme “Child of Our Time” some years before. This series follows the lives of twenty-five children, all born in 2000. What David noticed was that the quality of relationship one mother had with her child was different. Although she had fewer advantages than others, her son’s love for her was unconditional and unquestioning. The odd thing was this mother was far from perfect. In particular, she had a drink problem. David worked out what made the difference: this mother was clear with her son; she knew she was flawed and she made sure her son realised that she knew this. Crucially, David saw a contrast with other parents in the programme who were trying to be perfect. What David realised was that these parents were far more accomplished but weren’t leaving any space for their children to grow into. This mother was clear: she didn’t know everything and couldn’t provide everything. As a result, her son knew there was space for him to grow into, perhaps partially to compensate. Her son flowered in the gap she left for him and loved her all the more for being allowed this space to grow. Reflecting on this, David realised that he didn’t want to be a leader who sought to be perfect and crowded the space for others, instead he would be a leader who left room for others to grow into – this would require him to frequently stand back. Sometimes he’d also need to be up front and honest about the limits of his own ability.
The mother David watched in “Child of Our Time” illustrates this point from a situation of weakness yet the point also applies just as strongly and perhaps even more potently when we are strong. As a strong parent what happens if we don’t allow enough space for our child to grow into? The grass under the continual downdraft of helicopter’s fan blades tends to suffer. How many of us have been in situations where someone with deep skills or perhaps just the belief that they have deep skills takes all the available space and prevents anyone else from contributing? If you are a Marketing Director with deep copyrighting skills and keep coming up with all the answers in your team meetings then who is going to have the confidence to themselves put forward and develop those skills? This is not about marching immediately to the front to give the answer but rather having the confidence to stand back and to see what emerges. It is great that we play to our strengths but sometimes we can overuse them to the detriment of others. It could be said to be a boundary question; knowing when to stop so that we allow plenty of room for others to grow into. Our responsibility as leaders is not to dominate but to encourage growth. If our strength stops us from inviting and allowing others to grow then it can become our greatest weakness. We will never truly lead if we are just an expert.
This question is not just a leadership lesson for business it is also a wider political lesson. There is a danger on the wider stage that the leading world economies are so strong that they do not allow space for others to succeed. After this weekend’s events, expressions of strength are very easy reactions for the powerful to make but they tend to suppress the negative rather than encourage the positive. More encouraging was a report I read this morning that Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, was arguing that we need to help countries like Syria to be successful. This approach weakens if it is not genuine or is used as an excuse for failing to help today’s migrants and refugees but at least it shows some interest in focussing on the positive. As leaders we do have to focus on what we can do to help other people to have successful lives on their own terms. Just because we can dominate with strength should we? Allowing others to succeed is what ultimately brings us success. If a country like Russia cannot succeed economically, there a danger that it will assert its dominance in another way that it knows of old; militarily. We shouldn’t then be surprised when the bombing starts. In the current crisis, if a person or a family can’t find success in a country they will naturally migrate in a direction where they can. My Mother did this as did my Father’s parents. If we make sure others have space to grow in their own natural direction they will take that opportunity. If we don’t, that energy will simply find an alternative way out.
So the thing I am reflecting on this week is this question of strength and making sure it is used positively to make space for others to grow. If you have any stories I’d love to hear them.
If you need any further encouragement of the joy of allowing the emergent to evolve, David cites Leonard Cohen’s lyrics in ‘Anthem’ as a poetic way to summarise this finding:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”