Trust and Permission

A leadership lesson in vulnerability

I’m delighted to share this post by Pam Billinge, writer, leadership coach, and specialist in Embodied Horse-Led Leadership Development. I always encourage coaches to use supervision, and this is a powerful story of how much of a difference it can make to coaching practice. Thank you Pam – being your supervisor is a joy and a privilege!

Late in 2021 I was delivering a client programme when, out of the blue, I received some extremely difficult news. My blood froze when I saw the 12 missed calls throughout the day from two different numbers I didn’t recognise. What I learned in the subsequent minutes folded me in two and knocked me to the ground. There was no question of me entering the classroom again, I was in deep shock and grief.

Five months later Spring 2022 dawned and it was time for me to get back to doing the work I love, facilitating Equest’s horse-led leadership development programmes. We had 20 international leaders coming to the farm where we are based in Wiltshire for a two day programme. As it approached, still feeling raw and emotionally spent from the aftermath of my bereavement, I began to doubt whether I was up to leading our team of 10 humans and 8 horses and facilitating an intense process for a group of this size.

The nature of the leadership development we offer plumbs the depths of human emotion albeit gently. We’d be talking about being authentic, connecting with the essential self, about being vulnerable and creating emotional safety. And here I was, the programme leader, on track to be perhaps the most vulnerable person in the room. I knew my feelings of trauma could easily be triggered at the location where my nightmare had started and I began to question whether I should do the programme at all. I was terrified of spoiling the experience for the group, of being hijacked by my feelings, of looking stupid, of losing control, of not being able to provide a safe environment for others.

‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’ My supervisor said to me in our session a couple of  weeks before the programme.

‘That I break down and completely lose it,’ I said.

‘So? What would happen if you did?’ She continued.

‘I suppose one of my team would take over. I would trust them implicitly to carry on without me, to cover for me.’

‘And what would the impact on the participants be of you breaking down? What kind of example would it set?’

‘I guess it would be an example of authentic behaviour, and of being courageous enough to be vulnerable!’ I couldn’t help a wry giggle.

So on the morning of the programme I briefed my team that they needed to be ready and verbalised the trust I had in them. Together we devised a ‘Pam breakdown back-up plan.’

The classroom hummed with happy expectation as I stood to welcome the client group. I shared that I’d had some bad news the last time I stood there and that I was still fragile, which the tremor in my voice betrayed. But I breathed deeply, grounded my turbulent feelings down through my feet, looked outside to the tranquil herd, the beautiful landscape, the red kites hovering overhead. I felt calmer. I had done it. I had named my vulnerability and suddenly everything seemed possible.

My usual introduction didn’t seem appropriate. Instead I read to the group from my journal about why the leadership development work I do with horses is so important to me. I spoke of how our approach has evolved through the interconnection and courage and contribution of many, both human and equine. I held myself together, just about, and the emotional chord I struck continued to vibrate it’s beautiful harmonies throughout the following two days for everyone present. I hadn’t broken down as I had feared, but I hadn’t pretended either. I had let my emotions live and breathe within the group process. And the group’s learning experience was richer for it: safe, joyful and profound.

I had rested in Trust – of my colleagues, of the horses, of our clients, of the process. And I had given myself Permission – to be truly real, to shed the need to be brave, or infallible, or in charge. The heart-opening which I had no choice other than to embrace flowed through to the group – they trusted and they too gave themselves permission to be true to themselves.

This experience has changed the way that I lead forever.  Whilst the pain caused by my bereavement will lessen over time, I trust that the gifts it gave me – how to be openly vulnerable with grace, intention and fortitude and how to ask for help – will continue to grow and make me a better leader, practitioner and human being.

Pam is a writer, leadership coach, specialist in Embodied Horse-Led Leadership Development and Director of Equest Limited. Her books The Spell of the Horse, Stories of Healing and Personal Transformation with Nature’s Finest Teacher and The Spirit of the Horse, Finding Healing and Spiritual Connection with the Horse, are published by Blackbird Books and available from all good publishers.

Moving Beyond The ‘Blame Game’

I can’t believe we are heading towards the Autumn equinox and the marking of the transition between seasons. There’s definitely that back to school/ work feeling in the air. This week I’ll be driving my son back to Brighton for the start of his final year at the University of Sussex. 

This year it’s a transition that I have mixed feelings about, with news of a virus storm brewing on university campuses and knowing he will be returning to face more uncertainty, disruption and social distancing. Young adults generally are more likely to suffer the long-term consequences of economic downturn, more likely to have lost their jobs or been furloughed, more likely to live in cramped shared housing; more likely to suffer Covid related mental health issues. There’s been a lot of talk about impacts of the pandemic on children, the elderly and businesses but impacts on young people and how to support them seems to be largely ignored and this troubles me.

Given my concerns, a couple of days ago when I heard Matt Hancock laying the blame on young people for the Covid spike, I felt angry. I wanted to blame him.

My rant began something like this: “How dare you shift the blame. It’s your fault they took advantage of ‘eat out to help out’ and heeded the prime minister, who said it was a ‘patriotic duty’ to go to the pub.  Your mixed messages made this mess, and so Mr Hancock, YOU are to blame for your governments chaotic, incompetent response to Covid19.”

My reaction got me thinking. In this tirade, the fact that quite a few young adults have been casual about social distancing, and the question of how best to do something about the risks is simply not part of my picture.  I’m off, on my high horse, lashing out at full speed, sucked into the ‘Blame Game’. What just happened?

Blame it turns out, is contagious, it spreads like a virus. A 2010 study from USC into ‘blame contagion’ showed that pointing fingers at others is not only infectious, it is amplified when trust is low and seems to be eliminated when people feel valued and appreciated. In other words, being blamed for things that are not our fault and not receiving acknowledgement and the credit that we deserve are entangled.

How the credit/ blame game is played is a key ingredient of organisational cultures, for better or for worse. I often meet clients who work in organisations with rampant cultures of blame. These are places where dishing out blame, unfair attacks or credit grabbing hijack energy and distract from tackling problems. Teams and organizations with a culture of blame have an uphill struggle when it comes to encouraging learning, creativity, innovation and productive risk-taking. Blame is an excellent defence mechanism, by avoiding looking at our own flaws and failings, blame protects our self-image. However, research shows that people who blame others for their mistakes lose status, learn less, and have poorer performance compared to those who own up to their mistakes. The pattern is so destructive, whether you are a coach or a leader, blame is something to be alert to, because in the end playing the blame game never works.  

The blame game is lazy. It’s easier to blame someone else than to recognise and accept responsibility for the part you play in a messy situation. Becoming blame-savvy requires effort, changing behaviour so you don’t repeat mistakes involves work.  Creating psychological safety is one of the most important things a coach or leader can do to stop the blame game but this takes awareness, time and commitment. Here are a few potential places to start:

  • Avoid collusion. By setting the right example and not joining in with the game, you can help grow awareness and model collaborative problem-solving rather than defensiveness and finger-pointing.
  • Own up to your mistakes.  When you make a mistake, it is tempting to shore up the illusion of our own self-worth and blame someone else.  Instead, say sorry when you are wrong, you are not omnipotent, face up to the reality that you are not always right. When you don’t pass the buck, you gain respect and help to prevent a culture of blame.
  • Focus on learning and creating a ‘growth’ mindset. This is where learning from — rather than avoiding mistakes — is the priority. This helps ensure that people feel free to ‘own up’, discuss and learn from their errors.
  • Pause. Take a breath. Step back. If you’re facing a “blame-thrower” or “credit-grabber” a good first response is to pause. We all tend to cast blame; it is often a subconscious process; the blame game might not be personal. What is behind the game? What might be triggering your reaction? This is where talking to someone outside of work, a coach or trusted colleague will help you gain perspective and distance make strategic decisions about your response.
  • When you do blame, do it constructively. Accountability is important and there are definitely times when people’s mistakes need to be raised in public. In these cases, make sure to emphasise that the goal is to learn from mistakes, not to publicly humiliate those who make them. As a manager, peer or coach, be careful not to use feedback as a sneaky way of dishing out blame.

Author of The Blame Game Ben Dattner summarises it like this: “We all want to be recognised for our effort and accomplishments, and we resist being blamed when things don’t go right. This leads to habitual patterns of credit and blame at work. […] The most successful leaders are able to see their role in the blame game, admit mistakes and focus on fixing rather than blaming.” 

Do you recognise the Blame Game?

Coaching as Pilgrimage

Walking coaching DartmoorCoaching and pilgrimage – what’s the link?

My son returned last week tired but happy from walking the last stretch of the Camino of Santiago di Compostella with his youth group.  The ‘camino’ or ‘Way of St James’ is a 500 mile long walking pilgrimage route that’s inspired seekers since the Middle Ages. It had become fairly dormant but since the 1980s its popularity has grown, though these days it’s commonly taken as a secular pilgrimage – you can  watch this video about the camino to find out more. Continue reading “Coaching as Pilgrimage”

Addressing Leadership Shortfall

Is your organisation doing enough to develop the next generation of leaders?

MP900398747 catching starsNew research  published in the Ashridge Management Index shows that many managers (48%) don’t think enough is being done to develop the skills and experiences of younger managers. As well as specific targeting of future leaders, the report recommends that there should be higher levels of investment in learning and development for teams and senior managers. Clearly, though there have been improvements, there is still work to be done in meeting the challenge of building organisations which value learning and development and appreciate the long term positive impact it has upon the financial bottom line. Continue reading “Addressing Leadership Shortfall”