Time for a new whole-body, whole-hearted leadership style

I had to seek coaching supervision recently, before going back into the coaching room. I have supervision regularly anyway, as any professional coach would, but I’ve never had to seek an emergency check in before. I’ve been so touched and emotional about the stories I’m hearing from leaders during lockdown that I thought I might become overwhelmed and weepy in the wrong moment. The supervision was awesome as always, and I’m back on track – that’s the power of great supervision.

One of the things I realised in supervision was that some of the sadness I’m noticing is based on what so many leaders have been bringing to their coaching sessions for years. Maybe five years’ worth of overwhelm, “drowning”, “juggling”, ”rushing” in increasing intensity. It’s been breaking slowly over years and years and this chance to go home and stay there, has exposed the dark side of the choices that we’re making (and our industries are making for us).

I have permission from one of my clients to tell you her story. It’s so absolutely familiar to so many women I’ve worked with.

She’s approaching fifty-two. Her career has been really good so far – a good education, a cracking degree, an effective and purpose-led scientific work life that she’s passionate about. She’s potentially approaching career peak, now a leader of people, projects, maybe an organisation soon. She’s publishing papers to influence government and feels the weight of responsibility to make the data great. In all of this, she’s also managing a teenager who feels lost, and elderly parents who live far away. Her husband is a high flyer. They both are; but somehow, when life hits the fan, she’s the one to do the diving catch. His salary is higher than hers after all, and apparently that dictates the emotional work load at home, right?

For extra fun, her body is starting to let her down in public as menopause starts to flex its muscles. Her face turns red and sweaty as she gets up to present to the board, even though she feels fine – and the other people in the room label it as ‘nervous’ even when she’s not. Nearly all of those people in the room are men, so she feels lonely, even bored sometimes when she can’t relate to the chat. She is shocked to find that after a lifetime of feeling she had got herself together, she has a sense of disappearing, going invisible and losing her identity. She’s in that classic “middle place” between kids, parents, partner, work role and transitioning body. Her organisation expects her to travel, deliver, excel – and she expects that of herself too, of course. And she has contacted us at Clearworks to work on all this, to find a new way; to emerge from lockdown with a different plan. The magic in this enquiry is that she didn’t contact me to say “I can’t cope”, she just wanted to get back to her sense of self, purpose, direction, and reverse the sense of disappearing. The energy of women in flow is astonishing.

Sheryl Sandberg has highlighted the impact of lockdown now, increasing this intensity even further – so women are no longer doing the double shift of work and home. She’s describing a “double double shift”, if you add on home schooling and care responsibilities too.

It just can’t all fit in. And we can’t possibly continue like this without consequence.

I had the same sense of losing myself a couple of years ago, as I approached fifty. Sought some fantastic coaching from my executive coach network, and made a new plan. Started running, cycling, continued with the yoga. Dropped a stone, felt stronger and rearranged my business. With all this ‘busyness’, I realise that my eating habits had been bent out of shape, a touch too much Sauvignon, poor sleep as my nocturnal teen bangs the door at all hours.. all classic signs of burning the candle at both ends.

I asked myself (and my client) “what are we not listening to in our bodies and minds that is clearly signalling that burn out is a potential risk. What do we think is going to happen next?”

If I think back, the signs were all there.

So so often I work with clients who describe life out loud for the first time. As they say it, they start to really hear in their own story, the high risk they’re taking with their own safety. The news is that we don’t get a letter a month in advance, warning that we’ll break down soon. I promise, the people I’ve known who’ve broken down, just broke down. Just like that. I didn’t, thankfully, but I must surely have been on track for that.

As organisations support their senior leaders through the new chapter of COVID 19, and back into the swing of the office, I so hope that there’ll be a new awareness of the choices we’re making and the risks we’re taking. I hope they will invest in their people, to support mental and physical health, at the same time as leadership development and executive coaching. And even more than that, I hope that leaders themselves will decide that they don’t have to wait for anyone or anything to decide to do things differently.

Real personal change is driven by individuals, not organisations, and sometimes, for this kind of work, self-funding one’s own coaching is incredibly liberating and transformational. You can take your conversations absolutely anywhere you like, and explore your wildest dreams (and fears) without needing to stick to your organisation’s direction.

As a team at Clearworks, we are all committed to helping as many leaders as possible decide on and implement a new chapter of effective leadership that’s inspiring and powerful AND is happy, healthy and fulfilled. Over the coming weeks I’m excited to share with you some of the ways I’ll be supporting female leaders personally, to hunt down the ways to make life great, and to help them emerge stronger, potentially fitter, happier and still high performing.

This article was written by Aly King-Smith. Aly is Director of Clearworks and writes for Clearworks and others as Aly KS & Co Ltd. Please get in contact via aly@clearworkscoaching.co.uk