I was recently invited to join a Whatsapp group of coaches for the SheLeadsChange women's leadership programme.
When the other women introduced themselves, I was overwhelmed and deeply impressed by the calibre, experience and passion of the group.
And yet, as someone who had been invited to support and provide opportunities for development and supervision to the group, it also, unexpectedly, triggered a huge impostor response.
It took a couple of days to figure out what the feeling was, but then I sat down quietly and faced, explored and challenged it in much the same way I would with a client: using deep listening, compassion, questioning enquiry and postive reframing. I've mapped below my thoughts, responses and mental and emotional process as an illustration of how coaching works, in this case internally, to shift aspects of ourselves.
How do I respond to all the amazing introductions in a group like this?
Do you hear how everyone sounds like you, but in a good light, perhaps on a good day, maybe on one of your best ever days?
Do you assume the others must have been in bright, shiny groups for so long they’ve forgotten how not to be confident, polished, gifted and self-aware?
Do you, like me, find your mind comparing their skills and experiences to yours (and finding yourself lacking)?
Do you wonder if you are in competition, that we may be playing at collaboration ('cos when the buck stops, whose interests are gonna come first)?
Blinded by the bright, shiny light of the multiple lenses of leadership champions, change consultants, directors of social enterprises, published academics, executive coaches and positive champions of everything important and meaningful (that you would have championed if you had only thought of it first), do you feel your own bright, shiny light dimming?
Does it make the doubting, introverted part of you escape into its swirly shell or put on its performer’s cloak? (Neither of which really help you be truly authentic, which further reinforces the self-critique)
Or, when you look more closely, do you see in yourself only the distorted reflections, the warts, the bulges and the scars of your less salubrious and traumatised angles? Because when we look deeply enough the whole world reveals this (Climate Crisis? Refugees? False news?)
When I am supposed to be there to support, guide and inspire you all, and am intimidated by the phenomenal weight of that task?
So… I decide I need to shift the lense, to acknowledge but guide this old voice that has surprised me again, as its perspective is too weighty, too ancient and hung low in the rusty habit patterns of my mind.
I ask myself to draw on my inner wisdom, act as a coach to myself, recalibrate as I help others to.
The questions flow…
What unmet need may be colouring my response from a quite unrelated part of my being? (These beautiful, sunshine-filled mornings have filtered through the bedroom blinds at 5am and disturbed my final hours of deep sleep. And yes, I’ve been a bit too busy and with a house full of visitors and crave some quiet time. And, if I pause and listen further, there’s a shiver of residual trauma from a few years back, almost healed but sometimes its ghosts re-emerge where there's a lack of safety suspected…).
What beliefs or assumptions are you making that may not be valid here? (That I’m not sufficiently experienced or qualified – an old but deeply engrained habit, and I know this immediately to be untrue).
What does this part of me need right now? (to be acknowledged, soothed, and calmed. I invite compassion to flow towards the voice, softening the edges of the physical sensations, offering kindness and a space to feel).
The final question - what might be possible if I were to step beyond this old way of thinking? - is no longer required. Because once acknowledged and calmed, an insight naturally arises that it is amazing that all these brilliant, shiny women are able to sustain themselves in our imperfect world – whether this is emotionally, financially or both. And that means that the world is recognising that what we offer has value.
I can now appreciate how wonderful it is to see that others hold a similar faith. I can now believe that we can begin to harmonise and balance the dark underworlds we may have traversed or know deep in our ancestral bones (and which often feed those unhelpful inner voices). To do this requires many of us to meet, and expand, our desire for good into its rightful place as a foundational pillar of the way we live.
We certainly can’t do that alone. The world is held up by all of our shoulders.
So… isn’t it amazing that we can come together to celebrate what we have already done, share what we are doing, and support each other in what is to come?
For not all corners of this world have the right pillars, and many spaces are still dark. It will take a whole band of bright, shiny women to light those places up.
Guiding the old impostor voice in this direction helps me see all your resplendence, and reveals its shimmer within me, too. I can now honour your difference, and welcome you - on your best days and equally on your worst (because I know what that’s like, too). Now I am ready to co-create a space with you all and help us reach further than the doubting voices within would ever consider possible.
I have delivered a few workshops on Belbin Team Roles recently, a system of exploring individual and team strengths that I rate highly and have used many times over the past decade. What I love about it is that it enables people working together to have constructive conversations about difference, and how understanding our preferences helps to improve productivity while managing stress levels.
After one of these sessions I was stacking the dishwasher at home and realised that even how we approach a simple task like this can provide insight into our preferred behaviours, ways of behaving and interacting with others.
Which of these most reflects the role you take in your household?
A Monitor Evaluator will be able to effectively critique everyone's stacking technique
A Plant will experiment with different ways of stacking (with mixed results)
A Specialist will have done the research and bought the dishwasher with the most efficient stacking arrangement in the first place
A Shaper sees it as something that needs to be done as quickly as possible
An Implementer will use their tried and tested approach of grouping items together so it’s easier to unpack later
A Completer Finisher will rinse everything first and double check the washing surface is exposed on all items before starting the wash cycle
A Coordinator will identify who in the house will gain the most from doing this task and encourage them to take it on
A Resource Investigator will probably get distracted by their phone when they’re doing it
A Teamworker will do it to be helpful when they realise nobody else really likes doing it.
If this has piqued your interest, do get in touch to discuss how Belbin might help you and your team.
I recently participated in a meeting of coaches for the peer learning programme She Leads Change. It was a vibrant and rich meeting of a group of impressive women. One of the questions asked was: why do we coach?
As with any good question, it made me think, and then the answers came and revealed some perspectives I hadn't seen before. So, with gratitude for the opportunity to reflect upon my practice in this way, here’s my list:
Because it transformed my life, and I see it transforming other lives
Because the skilled and dedicated attention of another is empowering
... and when we empower others, we are uplifted too
... and the best leaders empower those around them
Because telling someone else you’ll do something means you’re far more likely to get it done
... and celebrating each action you've taken builds confidence and momentum
Because it’s fascinating to hear about other people’s lives and work
... and an honour and privilege to help others navigate them effectively
Because there are some stories that need to be told to someone outside the story
... and when stories have been told they can then be rewritten
Because our wisdom becomes greater when it is cultivated by another
... and our vulnerability becomes our strength when it is honoured by another
Because it is great to have good and inspiring company on our life’s journey
I’ve experienced first-hand the tremendous rate of unsettling change in the NHS. Within one six month period two reorganisations affected my team. The first one, which happened only six weeks after two of them were appointed, led to both their job descriptions changing and one being moved to another department. Then, just five months later, a formal consultation began for a restructure of the wider team which affected our remit and the reporting structure we worked within.
In terms of Tuckman’s theory of team formation (1), it makes it very hard, if not impossible, for a team to move into a stage of high performance with so much in flux.
Given how unpopular constant restructuring is (2), the struggle to retain and recruit staff, and high sickness rates due to stress and anxiety, why does this continue?
As a curious organisational development (OD) practitioner I did some research and came across a blog (3) indicating Penny Camplings’s research proposing that the constant need for change is a way of managing organisational anxiety that comes from holding patient wellbeing – and often lives – in its hands. That makes sense, because when we’re anxious it’s really hard to sit still and do nothing, but often the activity is a way to displace the nervous energy of the emotion, rather than a productive way of dealing with its cause. To sit with the huge pressures the NHS is under, including the constant public scrutiny and increasing funding and staffing pressures, to acknowledge the discomfort and perhaps listen to what it is telling us might be a more productive, if much harder, strategy.
However I think there’s something else afoot, too. Following the King’s Fund report (4) earlier this year, revealing that many Board-level roles last as little as a couple of years, coupled with an established culture of interim appointments and secondments, there is also the pressure to show very quickly in a new role that you can perform as an effective ‘leader’.
I use the quotes intentionally, for I believe that this term is often misunderstood. When you google leadership and management, this kind of summary commonly comes up:
Management is today often conveyed as being conformist, old-fashioned and static. Now that the field of management development is rapidly being renamed leadership development, if we understand leadership only as it is conveyed above (which contradicts the emerging discourses around compassionate, mindful and distributed leadership), it is imperative for short-term appointees, or those in substantive roles who understand they may only last a few years, to make an impact early on, to challenge existing practice and be seen to transform and change things. So sitting with and listening to the underlying anxiety of staff and teams without doing anything about it is quite likely to be seen as a weakness instead of a strength.
And we all endorse this in many ways. When was the last time you asked someone in a job interview: ‘When did you lead a challenging new project or initiative?’ and not: ‘When did you decide to keep things the same?’. If you don’t expect to stay long in a role, you’re going to want to instigate change as quickly as you can, so you can talk about the impact you created in your next job interview – because, for sure, that’s what you’ll be asked about.
In both the examples from my own story, the change was instigated by individuals appointed on six-month contracts who were acting, or advising, at Director level. Asking around staff who have been working in the NHS system for decades, this is not uncommon.
So here is a plea, and a personal commitment, to speak well of the continuing need for good management, and be clear that leadership can mean leading change but also protecting the status quo if and when required. Because only in this way will enough NHS staff maintain the psychological safety to keep themselves well and deliver the patient care we will all, sooner or later, require of them.
If any merit is gained through this practice, may it be dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings
Lying in my hospital bed last year after 8 hours of surgery, drugged up on morphine and unable to sleep, I remember chanting some mantras. Not wanting to indulge the self-pity or flickers of blame in my mind, unable to drift off into unconsciousness, wanting something to do but without the energy to do anything, mantra filled the gap.
And so I chanted. My throat was too dry to chant out loud, so I simply repeated the sound in my mind. Again and again. Om mani padme hung.
I started doing this practice for me. I started it for the distress I was feeling, to help me find some constructive way of placing my attention at a difficult time. To stop me feeding old patterns that, in my weakened state, were nudging at me to indulge them. It would have been so easy to succumb, except that I know where that leads, having been so many, many times down that old dead end.
So, in the darkness of that long night, the space around the mantra enabled me to tune into the madhouse energy of the hospital, to feel the suffering of those around me, those who were not conscious, perhaps fighting to survive. I realised that, if you took away the anaesthetics and sedatives and painkillers, almost every patient in there would be fighting, screaming or hallucinating. I felt the urgency of the medics and the deep compassion of the night staff tending to discomfort, thirst, blood, pus, bowels and bladders. Although the corner of my ward was relatively quiet, the regular calls for assistance from my 90 year old neighbour, who was unable to move herself in bed unassisted, or go to the toilet, or take a sip of water, showed me her distress was at least as strong as my own. As I chanted the mantra it swirled out of me and into this world of destruction and healing, and my own distress became just a tiny point at the centre of an enormous spiral.
It is so easy to believe that we practice only for ourselves. Meditation is sold to us as a solution for our anxiety, restlessness, poor focus, lethargy… and of course that’s why I started meditating, too - for myself, to alleviate my own distress. And yet the true power of it is when our practice shows us just how tiny our distress and suffering are in the great expanse of all life. When it expands us beyond our perceived limits, when it spontaneously lights up the compassionate connection with others. This is why, in the Buddhist tradition, there is a moral context within which meditation is taught. It is not to tell us what to do and what not to do, not to bring in even more rules for our minds to get tangled up in, even more obligations to take pride in fulfilling or fail at achieving. It is to point towards that interconnectivity with all conscious life, to point towards the seeing that we are all in this together.
At moments of crisis such as the one I had last year, acute distress can itself, if we allow it, cut through our habitual patterns. I am grateful for the teaching.
But it is so easy to forget! I was getting caught up in my old, insular ways of seeing and thinking again last month, and my meditation teacher Lama Lena asked me: Do you dedicate your practice to all beings? I realised that I don’t, consistently, and in her wisdom she was pointing me back to that moment of insight, that through that dedication we are actually doing the greatest thing to alleviate our own suffering, by lifting the ‘me’ label away and allowing our own distress to swirl away into the pooling cycles of life in all its heart-breaking beauty.
If any merit has been gained through this practice, may it be dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings
This blog shows the range of interests and activities that Kate delights in - and shares her news