The Leader’s Role as an Ecologist!

The Leader’s Role: Developing Relationships; Delivering Results

As an Organisational Ecologist, I am fascinated by the relevance of our work-roles to our private lives, and vice versa.  In the pursuit of the famous “work-life balance,” I wonder if we miss the point that “work” is one of the most important aspects of “life”?  We even talk about our “working lives”.  Our time at work is a vital part of the delicate eco-system that is a life-to-the-full, and it impacts other scenes and dramas in the way that the total eco-system behaves.  Perhaps leaders have a role as Ecologists?

For example, many people take their frustrations with work home (e.g., the classic response to, “How was your day, Darling?), and it is fully natural to experience any frustrations at home being carried over into an impact on performance at work (“I had a rough night last night!”).  “Unhappy at home?” – just observe the impact on your performance at work!

The continuity between our working and private lives can, however, be an enormously positive and productive eco-system.  I have branded into my memory the account of a coach who was interviewing a bank employee, famous for her consistent performance over many years.  The coach was keen to discover her ‘secret’ – how did she maintain motivation and performance through the eleven years she’d been with the bank?  Over more than a decade, the bank had weathered the storms of several recessionary periods, yet this lady had steered a straight course.

The coach asked, “What’s your secret to staying motivated?”  Without hesitation, the lady replied, “That’s an easy question to answer…” as she turned around the picture that was sitting on her desk.  The picture was of her family, including two children.  “I took this role to put my two children through University.   This means that the ups-and-downs of banking life and the economy have always been seen in the context of me doing this for them.  When the job gets tedious or tough, I look at the picture!”

Not everyone has an exciting job.  All of us, even with exciting jobs, have aspects of our roles that we’d prefer not to spend time on.  Having a work-life eco-system means that the motivation to do the job does not always have to come from the work itself.  The way our career impacts on our private lives can be enough of a motivator to keep us going when the going gets proverbially tough!

Developing Relationships; Delivering Results

Some organisations are at pains to separate employees’ private and working lives.  We may even be encouraged to leave our domestic ‘issues’ at home – or to leave work at the office.  Of course, I understand the wisdom of this – it’s just that this is not the way human social eco-systems work.  Few people have the emotional detachment to be able to really make a distinction between how they feel at home and at work – and it’s an unnatural and unrealistic distinction anyway.

So where does this leave the leader?  Surely a leader’s role is about delivering results?  This is part of a leader’s role – but only a part.  Leaders deliver results through people – and people are both social and emotional beings.  One of the strengths of a great leader is to engage with their team on a social and emotional level as well.  When an employee can see that a leader’s heart is good and intent on their benefit, emotional commitment can follow – and there is little sustainable motivation to drive performance without an emotional commitment to the leader (who, to many employees,  is the organisation).

This means that leaders need to take an appropriate interest in their people, and truly great leaders expand this interest to take in all of their people’s eco-system: work and private lives.  Clearly this is dangerous territory!  It takes great skill to navigate through this area in order to be understood appropriately – but it’s a risk that must be taken.  To get to the other promising lands beyond, we must navigate the dangerous waters of the Cape!

I believe safe passage can be gained by being inquisitive without launching an inquisition. Just listening is often enough to pick up the signs of the relevance of people’s private lives to their working lives.  The pictures on their desk, the conversations around the water cooler, the lunchtime chat, the casual remark – all clues to the treasure of a more satisfying working life.  If leaders first look, listen, and learn – then they can lead from a position of being informed.  And one of the great safety aspects of this is that people can spot a phoney.  If you suddenly take an interest in others with a view to getting more of what you want – I can guarantee that you will fail.  If you take an interest in others because you genuinely want to create a better working life for all of us, you’ll succeed – eventually!  (Once your credibility is established, of course!)

I suggest that one way of defining a leader’s role is: “developing relationships; delivering results.”  If this is true, no conversation or topic is irrelevant.  The performance of one of your team’s children in the school sports day is as relevant to the team member’s performance as the report they’ve just submitted.  Take an interest (genuinely) then, proactively, lend a hand!

Leaders are very often in the best position to be ‘Connectors’ – they know people and often have a wider network than many of their staff.  It’s part of the power of the position.  Listening out for what is important to people in their private lives may well be a key to motivation at work.  People who are bored with their jobs and tired all day can often find amazing resources to go out that very same night and engage passionately in their ‘outside interests’.  Everyone is motivated by something!  A Servant Leader recognises this and pays attention!  Overhearing that one of their staff supports a local football team can often lead to the gift of tickets to a game, or access to a private box – a perk that is often offered to companies and equally often goes to waste.

So what can leaders listen out for?  Four important matters: what their people want to have, to be, to do, or to help.  Want to have an extension to their home to accommodate their growing family?  = The leader is on the look-out for the best deals in town, or to connect them with a builder they trust.  Want to be a better parent outside work?  = The leader hears of a parenting class that others have been raving about, or comes across a CD that could well help.  Want to go to their favourite teams’ away match (do)?  = The leader is on the look-out for tickets.  Want to help with a local social housing project?  = The leader sits on the board with the chairman, and can make an introduction.

When a leader takes an interest in a staff members’ whole person, and their whole life – we can get an ecologically balanced approach to work within the full context of their lives.  Work then makes more sense and has richer significance.  It’s no longer ‘just-a-job’ but a vital component of a living eco-system.  This can really help with team motivation, even when the job gets tough or boring.  They say that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers… well, we may equally say, people don’t stay in roles, they stay with their manager or leader.  Many even follow great leaders to new pastures!

And everyone can lead because everyone can take an interest in and genuinely serve others…

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