Leadership emerges from the interactions between people and good leadership is exemplified by exchanges that leave all parties feeling that they have been understood and their interests accounted for.
Good leadership is therefore relational not transactional.
And at the heart of this kind of leadership is perspective taking capacity – the ability to understand the interests of others and truly see the situation from their point of view.
The story below is an account of an epic leadership failure on my part, written a few years ago when we were living in Sydney and my daughters were much younger.
It shows how easy it is to close your mind to the interests of others, especially when you’re feeling under pressure yourself.
Saturday mornings are hectic in our house.
The children are awake early, we have a quick breakfast and then we Skype my family on the other side of the world.
After that there’s the kitchen clean up, beds to be made, washing to go in the machine.
We then have to get two girls ready to go to ballet class and drive the 20 minutes or so to the class.
This Saturday was worse than ever because before the class we needed to drive 20 minutes in the opposite direction to go to a specialist shop to buy new ballet shoes.
Time was therefore tight and I had worked the schedule out in my mind down to the last minute – allowing for breakfast, Skype, chores, showers, dressing, driving and parking time.
It was time to set off for the shop, so I called Amelia, my 6 year old. “Time to go.”
“Why are we going so early?” She said, as she came out of her room dressed in her ballet gear.
“Because, we’ve got to go to the shop to get you some new ballet shoes. I told you about it before”.
“Oh yes. I forgot”, she said, turning to head back into her room.
“Where are you going?”
“To get changed”
“But you are changed”. My chest was tightening as I felt the familiar swell of my stress response rising up within me.
“But I can’t go to the ballet shop in my ballet gear. It’s embarrassing.”
“But it’s a ballet shop!” I was losing it now.
“They sell ballet gear. Why would you need to take your ballet gear off to go to a ballet shop that sells the very things you are wearing. There’s no time to change now.”
“Well I am changing”. She said, and her leotard was already off.
“Then, in that case,” I said, ‘it’ having been thoroughly lost by now, “we’re not going.”
“But I need the new shoes!”
Amelia burst into tears, dived onto her bed and buried her face in her pillow.
I, pathetically, stomped off in the other direction.
To cut a long story short, my wife made the peace and we changed our plans slightly, so that we made it to the ballet shop and still got to the ballet class on time.
And I was left feeling like a terrible, heartless fool.
Later, after I had apologised, I explained to Amelia that from my perspective (time-poor, middle-aged man), her interests seemed clear – she needed new ballet shoes and she needed to get to ballet class on time.
I’d therefore constructed the plan in my mind to make this happen. My interest was then in the execution of that plan.
Amelia, of course, is not a time-poor, middle aged man. She’s a 6 year old girl.
When I asked her what had been important to her about going out to the ballet shop, she said that she cared about feeling being comfortable and not being embarrassed by wearing her ballet gear outside ballet class – especially in a ballet shop where she’d see other girls who would think she was weird.
Notice that driving, parking and generally getting everything done on time, were not on her radar at all.
I had made the fundamental mistake of completely failing to consider Amelia’s interests in the situation – from her point of view.
A core principle of perspective taking, and one that applies to the management of any relationship, is the need to try to understand what the other person’s real interests are.
Not what we think they are. But what they really are – from their point of view.
Yet I failed to do it.
Had I consciously interrupted my thinking when I got the warning that I was becoming stressed and responded carefully, rather than allowing matters to escalate out of all proportion, the whole situation could have been handled easily and with no tears.
Had I asked myself – and asked Amelia – why it mattered to her that she should change her clothes, I could have understood and been more sympathetic to her concerns.
On this occasion I failed to do it and the result was not pretty at all. Unlike my daughter, who thankfully forgave me and gracefully moved on.
Of course, there is other learning here, like being mindful as we interact with others, being flexible and ready to change plans.
But I’ll leave those for another day, perhaps for when Luisa, aged 20 months, gives me another lesson in how I should be leading and behaving.
I'm Martin Cole. I am a UK qualified lawyer, a leader within the financial services regulatory and compliance sector and an organisational and executive coach. I have an Master of Science (M.Sc). in coaching psychology and am certified as a coach by the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership. I also have a Bachelor of Laws (LLB (Hons.)) and was admitted as a barrister by the Inner Temple (now non-practising). I have lived and worked in London and Sydney and now live near Edinburgh in Scotland with my wife and two daughters. I support Crystal Palace FC, have wide ranging musical tastes (especially Jazz, Blues and Soul) and oppose mediocrity, selfishness and organisations that fail to value their people.
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