Elementary school. Years of gap-toothed smiles, underwear jokes, friendships made in the time it takes to split a bag of candy.
We often think of these years as formative, but in a cumulative, hard-to-define way. In retrospect, I’ve realised that this is also when I learned a distinct leadership lesson that I use every single day: How to use personal leadership to unlock potential in others.
Today, I am an 11x award-winning executive coach for Fortune 100 and 500 leaders. In short, I help leaders lead. These leaders, like everyone, have opportunities and challenges to be and do differently, in order to create different results. They want to help people and organisations be the best that they can be through personal (rather than positional, command-and-control) leadership: through vision, participation, coaching, and mentoring.
Rewinding to elementary school, I was (and remain) particularly talented at second grade math. When my teacher, Mrs. Hunchak*, would assign a worksheet, I would finish well in advance of many of my peers. Mrs. Hunchak could have assigned additional work, but I suspect that she considered this would not progress my learning – and she would have been right. Instead, she asked me to help my classmates with their work. I wonder if she wanted a few quiet minutes to work at her desk without interruption, or if she knew that this was a different kind of learning opportunity? Either way, it was a brilliant move. Hats off to you, Mrs. Hunchak.
I recall this task, at least the first few times, feeling daunting. How would I know a) who needed help? b) who wanted help? c) who would feel safe enough to admit that they were struggling? I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, nor hamper my efforts by putting anyone on the spot. How could a 7-year-old, without a shred of positional leadership, use personal leadership to help those around her be the best they could be?
I took a deep breath and embarked on step one of my experiential learning journey: Ask how people are doing and give exquisite attention to the response. I asked those around me, one-by-one, privately, how they were getting on – developing psychological safety in the moment and, as my helping became more common, over time. I listened to what was said and what was not said.
If I sensed a door opening, a receptivity, I proceeded to step two: Ask questions to understand a person’s experience and thinking. If I had come along and given my 7-year-old peers the answer (“of course 9 plus 7 equals 16”), they’d miss an opportunity to learn a skill that they could apply to the next problem. My goal was not to get them to the right answer the fastest way possible, but to help them learn to find the answer. How often do we – at work, at home – respond to a false sense of urgency by giving an answer or command? This solves the immediate problem, but kicks the can down the road. People benefit from leaders building capacity in them, now. I listened to understand.
Step three involves noticing what may be outside, incomplete, or incorrect within their scope of thinking. What were my classmates missing? What were they making up that wasn’t true? Was anything contributing to them missing the mark, such as emotions (frustration), beliefs about self (“I’m not good at math”), or perspectives (“these numbers are too big”)? These (and more) still apply to us as adults. Are we getting in our own way? Are we calling attention to similar blind spots in others?
Finally, step four invites partnership to create solutions together. In the case of second grade math, there are indisputably correct answers, and creating solutions was a matter of bridging my peers’ thinking to a correct line of thinking. For many workplace problems, there is no right or wrong – just some solutions that appear more robust than others. So ask questions, point to what you see, challenge, and keep listening. Like my 7-year-old self: may we all keep learning.
Thank you, Mrs. Hunchak, for the life and leadership lesson.
*Real name used with permission