Shine A Light

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When I was about 14 years old, I joined my school’s Army Cadet corps. It was attractive because I’d heard they did cool things out in the bush. I was having a bit of a hard time at boarding school, and I thought it would a great respite.

It wasn’t what I expected. The rule-bound hierarchy, the command and control culture, and the endless, monotonous routines of learning how to march in formation and shining your boots until you could see your face in them was not what I signed up for. For a boy seeking freedom from the confines of boarding school, it wasn’t cutting it. I felt small, unseen and unheard. In many ways, it was worse than school.

However, I chose to stick it out for a year. We actually did do some cool things in the bush, like learning how hike from A to B though rugged terrain using only a compass, map and your common sense. How to light a fire with no smoke so you could stay undetected. But, for the vast majority of the time, it was spit, polish and parade grounds, all the while being bossed around by a bunch of older boys and teachers. Blah.

Towards the end of the year, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay on the following year. A simple choice for me: “No”. Yes, I had learned some good stuff, but the way they did things in the corps was not for me.

A few days later, one of the senior officers came to me and said he was surprised and disappointed that I hadn’t chosen to stay on. He said that they saw me as leadership material. Would I reconsider?

This came as a huge surprise to me. When and how did they see my leadership potential? I had been given very little feedback during the course of the year, other than that I could shine my boots better. I thought they didn’t see me at all. To my mind, my leaving would be of no great consequence to them. And here they are telling me that I’m leadership material?

Of course, it was too late. I’d emotionally checked out a long time ago. There was nothing he could say or do to convince me to stay.

That incident has stayed with me ever since, and has fundamentally shaped my approach to leadership. A core responsibility of leadership is to shine a light on people and show them their potential. Especially if they’re not seeing it themselves. It is nourishment for the spirit. It is a catalyst for confidence and builds courage. When we fail to do this, we not only do them a disservice, we also do ourselves and our organisations one.

Most people think that shining a light is about giving positive feedback. That’s part of it. However the real gift is to let someone know the potential and power you see in them. Whenever someone has done that for me, my self-belief soars and the world opens up in front of me.

Where and how are you shining a light? Where and how could you shine it more?

Some guidelines:

  • For everyone you work with (not just your direct reports), find out something interesting about them.
  • Be actively curious about what makes them tick. Find out what drives them. Ask them.
  • Let them know what impact they are having – on the mission, on the team, on you.
  • Let them know the potential and possibility you see for them.
  • Work with them to set stretch goals that are important to them.
  • Recognise effort, and achievement. Let them know you see their progress.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these simple things, you’ll know how much they mean, and what they do for motivation, engagement and discretionary effort, let alone your relationship with them.

It’s not rocket science. It’s uncommon sense.

Make it common sense. Shine a light. Every day.

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Photo: Digby Scott

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