Lead as the catalyst for creativity, not the commander-in-chief

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A co-active approach to leadership can significantly enhance staff development and free up your time and energy

One of the easiest traps to fall into as a leader or manager is the belief that you have to step in and solve every problem that the people you lead may be struggling with. This is the all too familiar danger of micro-management.

Another closely related trap – and sometimes a knee-jerk reaction to try and get away from micro-management – is the old-fashioned command-and-control mode. This is where you make a series of rigid prescriptions for how things must be done without consulting others, or first fully understanding the reality of the situation.

Both of these pitfalls can quickly use up your reserves of patience and goodwill towards others. They will also sap the energy and mental space you need to make good leadership decisions.

Not only that, both are likely to stunt the growth and development of the people you lead as they don’t get to activate their own creative and problem-solving skills. It may also result in them feeling that you don’t value them or believe in their capabilities – inhibiting their motivation and productivity.

There is a simple way out of these traps: the ‘co-active’ model of communication and leadership. It’s based on the fundamental psychological truth that every human has the resources they need to solve their own problems or to move towards their goals.

Yet sometimes certain beliefs and experiences prevent access to these resources. People may have got bogged down in complexity and over-thinking, may not have had sufficient experience in certain tasks or may lack confidence or self-trust.

The co-active model sets out a simple and learnable set of skills for leaders to help other people access their own creative and problem-solving resources. When taken as a whole, the model can dramatically change your whole leadership style and approach. But you can also put it into action into particular meetings, appraisals, and other interactions with individuals or teams that you lead or manage. This is also the best way to get used to this new leadership approach.

So as you read through the co-active model below, reflect on how you could adopt it in your leadership and management relationships, and what the impact might be. Not all of it may be directly applicable. But see if you get the essence of the approach and consider how you might adapt it in different situations.

Step 1 – Setting the foundation

  • Creating the right conditions: choosing the best time and place for the meeting/interaction
  • Clarity on your role: as leader/manager, you are there to help them think things through and not fix things for them
  • Confidentiality (if possible): to enable the other person to relax and open up
  • Co-creating the relationship: find out what they most need from you (information, direction, etc.)

Step 2 – Getting clear: focus and outcome

  • Focus on the issue: what exactly are you looking at, and what can be done in the time you have?
  • Outcome: get clear on where a good place to get to would be

Step 3 – Delving deeper

  • Active listening: being fully present, and listening deeply to what the other person is really seeking
  • Intuition: trusting your gut instinct about the direction to take the conversation in
  • Questioning/curiosity: asking open-ended questions that reveal understanding
  • Feedback/challenge: providing rigorous support to reality test

Step 4 – Facilitating actions and learning

  • Getting practical: drawing out practical actions to achieve desired change
  • Be specific: ensuring actions are specific and capturing these next steps
  • Review: identifying progress made and acknowledging any major changes and milestones

This co-active model may take a bit of getting used to as it can challenge some old habitual ways of leading or managing others. But as with any new skillset, regular practice can lead to quick and highly effective results.

It can also help you make a gradual shift towards a radically different approach to leadership, where you become the catalyst for creativity and strategic solutions rather than being burdened with the role of fixer or commander-in-chief.

Tim Segaller is a leadership and executive coach and mindfulness trainer

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