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She was a year into her first global CEO position with we caught up for lunch. I had known Jennifer when she led a regional based leadership team in Asia Pacific for a different healthcare company and had always enjoyed her company. Visiting from New York where she was now based we had taken the opportunity to meet up again.

“What have you noticed in your first year as CEO that surprised you”, I asked Jennifer.

“I think I was prepared for lots of CEO issues or concerns. I understood the loneliness of being the ultimate leader and the sense of being constantly on the job. No one takes on a global role and expects to work 8-6 hours. I was also comfortable working into the Board, as the Chair and I struck a solid relationship up early in my tenure and he is very experienced working with market analysts and investor groups. That has been helpful”, she replied.

“But you know what has struck me really forcefully and kind of knew this from my Asia Pacific experience…two things”.

My interest was piqued to say the least.

“Firstly, as I get more senior in my career, now at CEO level, more and more people laugh at my jokes, and the jokes have not changed one bit! Secondly, and most importantly, my extraverted thinking patterns have become someone else’s orders, without me realising or meaning that. But at my level this has potential massive ramifications”.

What Jennifer was experiencing was the impact of her leadership shadow across the organisation. The more senior a leader is, often their words and utterances are taken as gospel, whether the leader has actually meant anything to be taken as literally as they sounded or not. I had known Jennifer earlier in her career and she was very talented at getting stuff done. A high achiever and task driven leader if ever I saw one.

Under stress she could revert to high controlling behaviours and listen to her core fear, in her case a fear of failure. Our coaching relationship back then was centred on helping her overcome high controlling behaviours and move to a heightened sense of creative leadership. She had successfully transformed many of her controlling styles of leadership, which led to her promotion into a global role followed by this CEO position.

One of the mis understood leadership gifts associated with Controlling mindsets, is the will to achieve, sometimes at any cost. These leaders are born to lead in many regards., They understand what a sense of urgency accelerates in a team, the drive to achieve and the energy to accomplish a range of in surmountable tasks that most other leaders baulk at.

But the cost of overly using a controlling mindset or leadership style lies in person exhaustion, high rates of staff turn over and diminished interest in innovation or free thinking. Jennifer had experienced all of these in her Asia Pacific role. I had no doubt Jennifer’s reputation had preceded her and the current organisation knew she was a leader with a reputation for winning and triumphing.

We discussed the tension for any senior leader in this position. People would listen to what she said, didn’t say and take that as a signal for a specific action to occur. At the same time Jennifer was very focussed on empowering the organisation and was working hard to develop a mindset of agile leadership across the organisation.

Before desert arrived, we talked about three levels of messaging from a senior leader when in discussions with a team member – whether this is a direct or indirect relationship. The three levels of messaging are really critical to abide by for any leader who is seen to be decisive, strong willed, successful and maybe even formidable. It gives a sense of direction and most importantly allows the team member to take accountability for their decisions without passing the buck up to the senior leader.

1. This is my opinion on the matter we are discussing.

It is no better or worse than anyone else’s opinion and you should not treat it with any more importance than anyone else’s opinion. You are the decision maker in this matter. I am only offering a perspective, not the answer.

2. This is my strong opinion on the matter we are discussion.

I have experience in this area and my learnings suggest to me that a specific course of action is at least worth considering. However, you are the leader here and this is your decision, not mine. This is an informed perspective and worth listening to, the same as any other informed perspectives.

3. This is a mandate!

I know this area really well, am exposed to thinking and have insights to other related issues that you are not exposed to. With that in mind I need to mandate a particular course of action because the one you are suggesting, whilst it is not incorrect, will lead to sub optimal outcomes for a range of other reasons.

About six months later I had a call from Jennifer. After some pleasantries she said, “I was in a meeting today with members of the global marketing team who are launching a new product into the North American market. I gave them some ideas and opinions.

One of the brand marketeers, whom I have only met briefly once before, said to me. Can I check Jennifer is than an opinion or a mandate because if it is a mandate we will need to change our thinking on the brand strategy”!

Jennifer laughed as she recounted the story. Giving clarity to her thinking had spread across the organisation. More importantly it was helping empower leaders of all levels to think and take accountability.

Padraig (Pod) O’Sullivan is the Founding Partner of The Leadership Context, a leadership advisory firm specialising in top team development and accelerating leadership transitions. He is the author of the award winning ‘Foreigner In Charge’ book series.

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