On being ‘Scary’

It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on the Leadership issues I started thinking and writing about on here, mainly because I’ve been so busy getting to grips with my new role and trying to put some of it into practice. However, I had a conversation a few days ago that kind of stuck in my mind and made me want to examine some of these questions again, particularly as it related to the way I am perceived. So the conversation was about authority and confidence, and how those things lead to perceptions of strength or weakness, evidenced by the extent to which people feel able to take advantage or undermine someone. The point was that for people for whom success had come relatively easily and who hadn’t really faced a lot of challenges, when they are challenged, they are unsure of how to deal with it and can be perceived as weak, which leads to feeling undermined. Whereas someone who has perhaps had to fight their corner a bit more will project a kind of confidence and authority which dissuades people from trying to push them around. The bottom line was that basically, people think I’m scary and they don’t mess with me. Whilst I agree that on a superficial level, that perception is correct, I have a number of issues with it and I think there are a lot of reasons why this is a) not true and b) not a good thing even if it were.

Firstly, I would not like to think that my Leadership style is based on fear or intimidation. I am aware that I can be intimidating because it’s true, I have certainly learnt how to be and have practised a lot over the years, because at times I did really have to protect myself. But I haven’t needed to for a long time and now consciously make an effort to minimise this impression, because it’s not a strength – a good leader empowers people, and nothing is less empowering than making someone feel afraid.

Being ‘scary’ doesn’t earn respect or loyalty, it just makes you look like you have a bad attitude or a chip on your shoulder, which in my case was kind of true. And yes, I used to think that I got what I wanted and got my own way by being inflexible and belligerent, but on reflection, I see that I was successful despite that, not because of it. People were willing to listen to me and work with me and put up with my grumpy nonsense because they liked me – I am still working on figuring out why. It was the same when I was a teacher; by and large I didn’t have too many problems with managing behaviour, not because they were afraid of me but because they liked me and wanted me to like them. They just put up with all my shouty outbursts, bless them, and let me think that I was tough and frightening, but that was obviously not the case since I used to get followed around at break times like the pied flipping piper. Again, can’t work that one out, I certainly did everything I could to discourage them, like telling them to go away and that I didn’t like them, which was generally met with the giggled response “You’re so funny Miss Fry”.

Secondly, I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful in situations where there are serious bullying or harassment issues to have had experience of fighting your corner. In fact it kind of works against you; you’re far less likely to want to see yourself as a victim or target, therefore you will go into denial and not deal with the situation rather than admit to yourself that this is happening. This is certainly what I found when it happened to me. I had trouble admitting it to myself, let alone seeking help, which is absolutely crucial in getting things resolved quickly and effectively. Furthermore, I was so confused and destabilised by the situation that none of my normal defences kicked in. I found that my usual rock-solid confidence was shaken, and I was unable to do my bolshy, blustery, in-your-face stand-off thing. I just wanted to retreat, and pretend it wasn’t happening. The thing is, when you’re confronted with micro negative acts, you can’t face them down the way you would a direct threat. If someone is trying to kill you slowly with papercuts and all you’ve got is a nuke, deploying it will lay waste to everything in site and take you down with it. The thing that saved me was actually the loyalty and respect of my colleagues throughout the organisation; it became clear that any negativity about me would not be tolerated and only served to isolate and alienate the perpetrators; the whole thing was far more damaging for them than for me in the end.

Finally, adopting a leadership style which is weak and brittle and based on fear is no use in terms of culture change or innovation; the approach is pretty old-fashioned and outdated and you certainly won’t be able to take people with you. Culture change is all about cultivating relationships, and if you burn those relationships, you’re on a hiding to nothing. I feel I have added value to change projects I have been involved in by winning trust and gaining the confidence of my colleagues by listening to them, supporting them and helping them to work through the perceived obstacles to change, not by trampling all over people and bullying them into accepting top-down diktats.
Another aspect to this is my perspective as a woman. Having grown up in the 1980s, one of the first strong female role models I was aware of was Margaret Thatcher, and most of the professional women I came into contact with in my early life – Headteachers, Doctors for example – seemed desperate to emulate her. I just remember thinking how much I hated her, and them, before I was even 10 years old; they seemed bossy and mean. I remember thinking even as a child that I would poke Margaret Thatcher in the eye if I ever met her because my Dad told me she had taken milk away from schoolchildren. That kind of authority is fragile and fuels its own resistances, creates rebellion and antipathy. Especially if you are a woman, the resentment is that much greater; where we might have expected some sort of solidarity, particularly with the cause of equality, some sort of paradigm shift in terms of leadership, we got the same old autocratic, paternalistic model, just repackaged in women’s clothes. I certainly have no desire to perpetuate that myself.

I’m acutely aware at the moment of my role not only as a manager but as a mentor to a graduate trainee who is just 22. It’s my job to help her develop her understanding of what Leadership is and what skills and strategies are needed. I can’t simply advise her to ‘be scary’, because she is just not and never will be, she’s a thoroughly nice person with no hard edges whatsoever. That doesn’t mean that one day she won’t be Chief Exec of an organisation; on the contrary, she will probably get there before I do, she’s way more together than I was at that age already. She is astute, knowledgeable, supremely capable and has excellent interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. I think that’s probably the entire toolkit, and anyone who works for her in the not too distant future when she’s no doubt going to be running the whole show will be extremely lucky to have such an inspirational leader. And of course I’ll pretend I taught her everything she knows.

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