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I attended a leadership think tank recently organised by the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce.  There were many trainers and coaches around the table all pushing their own definition of leadership.  While there was some variety of emphasis, one striking theme did develop quite early on – successful leadership is a conversation.

Leadership is not about command and control, instead it is an ongoing, two-way conversation between the leader and the led.  This conversation allows the team to get to know the leader – and to see that the leader’s words and actions align.

As Leadership expert John Maxwell says:  People have to buy into the leader before they will buy into the vision.

If you are a product of the leadership thinking that was prevalent in the second half of the twentieth century, you will probably have been taught that a leader needs to keep some distance from their team. In other words, it’s lonely at the top.

Today we see loneliness in leadership as a personality flaw in the leader and not part of the job description.  If it’s lonely at the top you are doing somethings wrong.

Today we see loneliness in leadership as a personality flaw in the leader and not part of the job description.  If it’s lonely at the top you are doing somethings wrong. And one of those things is almost certainly failing to engage in the leadership conversation with your team.

Courage is one of the essential attitudes of leadership covered in the HIGH FLYERS leadership development programme from Cool Waters. Courage is required to set a bold vision, to take risks and to step into the inevitable cross-hairs of criticism. And courage is also required in the leadership conversation. 

Courage is required at many points in the leadership conversation

  • When recruiting someone to the team– recruit for potential and attitude not only on past performance
  • When setting the vision– the bigger the leader, the bigger the vision
  • When delegating responsibility– only secure leaders give power away
  • When communicating disappointing news– it’s the leaders responsibility to define reality, and to do it with integrity and clarity because trust is the foundation of leadership
  • When addressing under-performance– poor feedback from the leader produces poor performance from the team

How to hold courageous conversations

For many leaders, and certainly for me, the hardest of all of these is the last on in the list – addressing under-performance – and this is the situation when courageous conversations are most needed.  There are five hallmarks of a courageous conversation:

Courageous conversations:

  1. Happen early
  2. Are a two-way dialogue – not a one-way rant
  3. Seek to understand the root cause rather than addressing the symptoms
  4. Acknowledge that how people feel is as important as how they act
  5. Are designed to change behaviours not apportion blame

But the most important thing about courageous conversations is that they happen - even when you don't feel up to it.  The is the price and responsibility of the calling to leadership, and as an old friend and mentor of mine used to say – somedays you just need to pull on your big-boy pants and get on with it.

The rest of this article and a practical courageous conversation planning tool is available in the HIGH FLYERS course - session 6 - Courageous Conversations.  Learn more>