The Care and Feeding of Better Leadership

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.

I was asked by a former client to check up on how well she had maintained her leadership skills following our six month coaching engagement.  As I read the results of the information I had gathered, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye.  The fern in the planter by my side door was dead.  Again.  My thoughts drifted from my client to the wilted leaves before me.  “That’s funny,” I thought.  “It was doing okay yesterday.”

I turned my attention back to the document at hand.  “She started out trying hard to be a bette3r leader but seemed to forget how she came across as time passed,” said one comment.  “She’s doing a little better, but she recently missed a few opportunities to enroll others as collaborators,” said another.  I was still puzzled….not by these comments, but by the fern.  “I’m sure I watered it last week,” I thought to myself.

 Back to the report again.  “She really dropped the ball,” said a third comment.  Inwardly, I felt disappointed.  We had done such good work.  She had embraced the results of her 360-degree evaluation, enthusiastically completed her development plan with my assistance, and had engaged in coaching with great momentum.  She had told her stakeholders what she was working on getting better at, and had even elicited suggestions from them, in the FeedForward tradition.  I had been an attentive, encouraging, challenging coach and she was successful as long as I was an /

Sighing and a bit distracted, I picked up the device that would measure the moisture of the soil surrounding the wilted fern.  There must be something wrong with the plant….a disease
]3rhaps….which would cause the fern to die when I had obviously been such a good steward of its ongoing health. 

I dipped the device into the soil.  The meter read…..bone dry!  Wait a minute….I now had not only a pre-diseased plant, but a defective device as well.  Puzzled but with a bit of now righteous indignation, I marched inside to the sink.  Well, I thought, I’ll take both the plant and the moisture measuring device back to the store once I confirm that it registers a bowl of water as…..wait a minute….I recoiled as it calibrated the moisture accurately as…wet. 

Reality slowly began to dawn on me.  The planter was indeed dry…. bone dry.  I put down my client notes and realized that I had killed the fern by my neglect.  Not conscious, intentional neglect, mind you…..but the neglect of “time passing so quickly that I didn’t do what I needed to do” neglect.  When I thought I was doing so well, how did this happen?  When did I start ignoring the fern?

I remembered that months ago, when I purchased the fern, I had a vision of how I wanted my side entrance planter to look.  The plants looked so vulnerable at first.  I watered them regularly.  The fern grew slowly, and I was rewarded by its vibrancy and its new fronds.  So I kept watering.  And I remember one day that I looked at the planter and found that my vision was….complete.  I had succeeded. 

Interestingly enough, this was about the time when I stopped watering.  I turned my attention to other things.  The planter was good.  Complete.  I could move on.  Is this what my former client did as well?

As I reviewed my findings on my former client, I realized that she and I had acted similarly.  We both “went dark” on our agendas.  We allowed the insistent needs of other more “urgent” pursuits to get in the way of the actions we were taking on our developing needs.  How many of us, when we achieve what we call “success,” relax….perhaps too much?

When did she begin ignoring the need to keep developing even better leadership skills? 

Like living beings (ferns included), leadership presence and their attendant behaviors require regular care and feeding.  We cannot afford the cost of becoming too complacent that we have achieved our desired level of executive “presence”…..particularly in a climate of an ever-shifting environment of needs and relationships.  To do so would be the equivalent of deciding that once a plant has achieved a desired level of growth, we can stop watering it.  It would be nice to think that we can rest on the laurels of our past achievements….but in today’s economic climate, can we afford to take this for granted? 

Action steps:
Ask yourself:  What leadership skills am I taking for granted? 
What steps am I taking…every day…to become an even better leader?

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