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Leadership in the gaps

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This last week I’ve been sharing some statistics about women in leadership which have reminded me about my own career.  40 years ago young people didn’t have ‘gap years’ and I’ve been rather attracted to the idea.  The idea that is.  I’m not sure I could cope with the reality.

Decisive, by Chip & Dan Heath

Decisive, by Chip & Dan Heath

I don’t do travel well.  I get confused with timezones.  When they put the clocks back here in the UK it takes me a week to get over it.  When I fly, it takes me at least 24 hours to recover from that buzzing feeling.  (And you great travellers are probably asking “what buzzing feeling”?)    I think my body clock must have a spring loose or something.  So, much as I love the people I meet when I do travel, the idea of high-speed travelling itself holds no attractions.  

Last year, on a trip to Barcelona (by train), I spent the most delightful time with some young South Koreans in their gap ‘year’.  Just out of University and travelling around Europe before they go back to jobs in medicine and nursing.  I felt hugely proud.  My father was sent to the Korean war and so I feel like he helped them achieve their way of life.  And despite the political and conflict situation, that was a great experience for him.  In one sense, National Service was the 1950’s version of a ‘gap’.

Of course I get the chance to ask – what kind of ‘gap’ do I want?  Some writers and academics take a sabbatical. 3 or 4 months off, to focus on their pet projects.  As our organisation is having its busiest year ever, I’m reluctant to do that. Plus, what’s wrong with reinventing the notion of a ‘gap year’ anyway?

Our business has four key advantages for me.

  • I’m the co-owner – so I have huge freedom
  • I have someone organising my diary to be as customer-focused as possible
  • We’ve located our ‘global HQ’ close to home
  • Leadership development is 50% personal and 50% digital – combining tight timetables and time flexibility

So I’ve taken the choice of looking for the gaps and leaping into them.

Some people might call this ‘work/life’ balance.  But I love my work and see it as an integral part of my life.  The world of leadership development is intensely fulfilling for me and I also happen to love the people and business partners we work with.  So it’s not about seeing work as less than ‘life’ – for me, my work is a mirror of my personal and professional values.  I want to live my whole life with meaning.  Otherwise I could see why taking off for an extended break would seem attractive.

Today’s a good example of really optimising the gaps.  We had a very productive team meeting first thing and got our work priorities clear.  I have a gap before my next overseas conference call and so I’m going to use the gap to ‘work’ on a small personal project.  It’s a technical construction issue and I’ve broken it into 15 minute steps.  I’ve already reviewed the learning over my first cup of coffee early this morning.  Now I’m going to go away and do the drafting.  I’ll then finish the project later this evening after I’ve completed my ‘work’ priorities.

What works for me in this pattern are:

  • Clear boundaries and rewards – if I complete this, then I can reward myself with that
  • Taking breaks from the computer screen and telephone – which is where I spend most of my day
  • Doing something completely different refreshes my thinking
  • Physically moving away from the office and out into the fresh air works well too

I’m very conscious that not everyone has the flexibility available to me, or the same choices.  What I’d emphasis though, is that we all do have choices.  I’ve probably raved about the book ‘Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath before.  They talk about “avoiding the narrow frame”.  This doesn’t just mean avoiding ‘either/or’ decisions – which are not really choices at all – they’re encouraging us actively to expand our viewpoint.  When we get creative, we begin to see the much larger range of opportunities and the greater potential that’s really out there.  When we stay in the narrow frame, it’s often a much more negative place.  What we can’t do, and why.

Narrow thinking is great for the point at which we finally make a decision – having funnelled down from a greater number of options.  Most people are good at that step.  What I feel less practised at is consciously exploring and expanding my options first.  This takes:

  • Attitude – I have to want to get into an expansive mindset
  • Getting creative – accessing the creative part of my brain by changing the environment.  Clear spaces more easily generate innovative thinking
  • Putting decisions on hold – being prepared and willing to explore new ideas first

For me, the most challenging step is agreeing process with others.  It’s easy to read my own mind.  However, too often I assume that the purpose of meetings is to get to the point.  Other people may not have that intention at all.  They may believe that the purpose of a meeting is to share blue-sky thinking, to brainstorm or to get creative.  I do this regularly with overseas clients – because I know that their cultural meeting styles are different.  So I’m working on putting a pause into the rest of our meetings just to check common purpose.  So far, so good.

Pauses and gaps seem like valuable leadership tools to me.  Excuse me while I leap into a gap that’s just appeared…


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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