Clothing the Emperor

Wikipedia shares the Hans Christian Anderson Story – The Emperor’s New Clothes, This story is about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that they don’t see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent”. Finally, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

We all have a bit of the Emperor in us. A part of us that we can’t see and that we are not interested in knowing about. We often convince ourselves that others who see these aspects of ourselves “ do not understand” us or are themselves suffering from the same aliments.
These Emperor bits are perilous for the leader, they are our blind spots and negatively impact on our ability to be effective in the role.
When I speak to leaders I often ask:

  • Tell me about your leadership
  • What kind of leader are you?

The answers are not readily given, and often they state that they need some time to think about it. The responses are even more interesting when I ask the follow up question,
“What kind of leader do you want to be?”
They shake their heads, have deep and thoughtful bouts of silence and often confess that they never thought about it.
Now don’t get me wrong, my clients are high performers and goal setters. They are people who have set a vision for their life and are busy getting to it. They know that leadership is important and they have embraced the reasons why they are leaders. Yet, they often have not been deliberate or intentional about their leadership,
As I work with them, to define and enhance their ability to be the leader they want to be, I more or less follow a three step process which I’ve labelled “Clothing the Emperor”. These are simple steps and they are not easy steps.
1) What type of leader are you? This is the hardest of the three steps, since like the emperor we have to admit that we may be displaying characteristics that we prefer remained hidden. There are myriad of tests that indicate personality type, or give an insight to a person’s strengths and weaknesses, and these are a great place to start. To turn the scrutiny up a notch, I ask clients to be brutally honest with themselves and admit what they are like on a daily basis. If we reminisce on how we respond to others, how we treat with responsibility and how we treat ourselves, peers and team members we begin to find clues about what our leadership is like. When we look and listen to ourselves in the various arenas of our lives, we get an even sharper picture. Most of us find this self-review challenging, tiring and embarrassing, so it’s easy for us to not seek this kind of truth. For the brave hearted and the true seekers. I recommend anonymous feedback from team members and peers on what their leadership is really like. This is a way of holding up a 360 degree mirror so that we have a complete view of ourselves and understand how our leadership is perceived. Just as the child cried out that the emperor was naked, so too will the feedback reveal what parts of ourselves are exposed and the behaviours that we are unaware of.
2) Determine the type of leader that you want to be – Most of us believe in the importance of having visions and setting goals, yet, few of us set a vision for the type of leader we want to be. Like the emperor we want to be praised for our clothes, that is, we want to be seen as an effective leader. Unlike the emperor, we need to think about what we want people to say when we put on the new clothes. Think about it. When you strut around in your new clothes what do you want people to say about you? If people were free to shout at you when you parade what do you want to hear? How do you want people to feel when they see you coming down the streets? The answers to these questions tell you to the type of leader that you want to be. When I did this exercise, I became very clear about my leadership, and I knew hat I needed to be a “safe” leader.
3) Go ahead and apply it – So now that you have had the personal insight, gained the feedback, decided what you want to be, you need to do it. Put on your new clothes , take a swirl in them and see if they fit you and more importantly if they suit you. Don’t be afraid to toss it, since the most gorgeous of outfits may be unsuitable for you and your personality. Keep the parts that are a fit and replace the others. Try walking in your new clothes. see how they feel, and see how others respond to them.  Keep wearing them every day. There will be times, when under pressure, with tight deadlines, or under stress, that you will revert to previous ways, and that’s OK. It’s never easy to change habits, so keep your vision and affirmations close at hand to remind you of the way you want to be. Get help, get a coach, and most of all be gentle with yourself when you fail. Failure is part of the process, Remind yourself, that you have been leading in old clothes for x years and now it’s going to take a while for the new clothes to feel like a second skin.

So now you get to decide as you do with every part of your life. “What kind of leader do you want to be?” You get to choose. “How do you want to lead your team?” Your decision, your choice.

Maxine Attong is a “safe” leader. She is the author of Lead Your Team to Win, and Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual, an Executive Coach, an Organisational Development Consultant and a keynote speaker.

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