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Holding out for a hero(ine)

If you don't already have Bonnie Tyler's gravelly vocals running through your mind to a thundering drum beat, you soon will (sorry, not sorry).

Music has such power to stimulate thinking and creativity and as I caught this song playing recently, it prompted more thought about the kind of hero or heroine we are all holding out for. Anachronistic song lyrics to one side momentarily, it's a really important reality check. What do you class as heroic behaviour at work? How important is it to you to play this role? Have you ever judged a leader's performance based on how closely they resemble a hero?

The concept of the top down, command and control hero leader lost credence long ago but I'm willing to bet there are still vestiges in the majority of workplaces. You know it when you feel it. And it's not always about power. Many leaders feel under pressure to have all the answers, stemming from a sense of responsibility and care for their people. But however you look at this, the starting point is mindset. We could go off at a tangent on the rise of agile teaming and the dawn of democratised leadership but I'm most interested here in the individual. I'm really interested in you.

There is so much to learn when we get frank about the narratives in our own heads around heroism at work (and while we're about it, at home too) and how that shows up every day for you and the people around you.

Put your hand up if you've caught yourself doing any of the following: not delegating work to protect the team but working late yourself to cover it; putting the client need ahead of your family because they "can't succeed without you"; forgoing eating to power on through your burgeoning inbox; blasting through domestic duties late into the night at the expense of sleep because you need to. Intent may be good, motives may be honourable but what is it in your mental map that drives you to push on when you know the better choice is to reprioritise? Beyond the need to fulfil commitments, we are powerfully motivated by deep-seated narratives about what 'great' looks like at work/home, what's expected and what other people will think of us. How honest are we about this? These kind of heroics are visible daily under the well intentioned guise of client service, delivering the goods, leading others, being the best we can be but when we choose to keep pushing, it comes at a cost to ourselves, our families and often the effectiveness of our impact.

Burn out is unsurprisingly on the rise given the last 18 months of pandemic-induced lockdowns, business challenges, home schooling and anxiety. Even in 2018 when the pandemic was merely a twinkle in the laboratory test tube/bat/pangolin's eye, Gallup shared that 26% managers and up to 24% individual contributors were likely to suffer from burn-out, telling us it's not unusual and managers are as prone, if not more prone, than those who work for them so it is not just a case of work being pushed down the line.

It's a very good thing that there is now growing awareness of what it takes to keep our mental and physical health in shape and that firms are responding by increasing the support on offer and talking openly about the importance of well-being. But why is little changing at the most impactful level - the individual mindset level? Is it all organisational culture? Well, that certainly packs a punch in influencing the decisions people make and how they behave and it can't be over-looked. But at the personal level, the 'you' level, what's keeping the status quo and holding back a change of approach? After all, only you decide what you do and don't do, what you say 'no' to, whether to stay or leave.

We all have common saboteurs in our minds which tell us what we must/should/ought to do and many of these developed a foothold when we were much, much younger. They have served a purpose and are part of our success to date because they have driven us on but at what point do they tip into unhelpful, counter-productive traps which diminish our ability to be effective, healthy and sustainable? What might you need to let go of to help you get to where you're going next? What needs to shift if you're to be sustainably successful now and in the future? What kind of role models do we want to be for the next generation?

I'd like to invite you to candidly drag out of the recesses of your brain the hero(ine) lurking in the shadows. Perhaps it has a look of the insecure over-achiever, a glint that says you're only good enough if something's perfect, a legendary work ethic forged in the furnace of dearly held family values, a servant-hearted but martyr-like quality or a need to please at all costs. Now think about the kinds of people you admire most and what it is about them that makes you consider them to be role models. Maybe they look the spitting image of the hero inside of you (music references seem unavoidable today) or maybe they look pretty different and that's what you admire about them.

Here are some modern day hero(ines) you might have noticed at work. The leader who puts their hand up to say sorry, acknowledge they've got it wrong and ask for help; the manager who signals self-care by taking much needed time out and being open about that; the employee who chooses to say no to their smart phone, despite the never-ending work emails, because they have committed to spending the evening with their partner and they know that's more important; the person who turns off the screen even in the midst of a crazy project and goes out for that short but important daytime walk because they know they return a clearer thinker and a better team-mate; the parent who overcomes the fear of what others may think when they switch off the laptop to prioritise hearing about their children's day. There are many more; you will have met them. You might even be them.

What makes it possible for these small acts of heroism to take place? It's an awareness of choice and agency, that no-one makes these decisions on your behalf, that your greatest enemy is the voice inside your own head and the ability to access a new-found agility to switch to different narratives. Of course there are times we just have to pull out all the stops for that one off piece of work but take a ruthless look at your patterns. What do the people closest to you notice most and how do you and they feel about those patterns?

'Yes' and 'no' are two sides of the same coin. We kid ourselves that when we say 'yes' to work we just add more into our stack but when we say yes to one thing, we are actually saying 'no' to something else, whether that is a no to your own recovery time, your family's time, your friends, looking after your health, prioritising your happiness. Think about it. When you say 'yes' to working late on that important thing, it means 'no' to..... what? Coachees often tell me they find it hard to say 'no' but in fact, when you really reflect, you can see that you're incredibly effective at saying 'no'. It's just that the thing you're saying no to hasn't had a proper platform to catch your attention and you haven't registered it as a no. You're not counting it. You are less worried about what others or your own inner critic will say when you say 'yes' to work stuff because it's deeply ingrained in your values, sense of identity and self-worth that your performance is paramount.

Effective coaching operates at the level of mindset change because it is only from here that we are released to make change that matters. I work with leaders every day, often around establishing healthier boundaries, delegating and connecting better, creating more space to think and creating alternative mental models of what great looks like. It's very often about identifying the saboteurs and finding ways to calm them. What do you need help with to reframe your view of heroism and what difference could that make to your work and life?

Don't be a statistic in the next burn-out report. Get smart, get focused and start looking ahead. Preventative change is by far the better option and the workplace is crying out for heroes like you.


Georgie Rudd is an accredited Executive & Leadership Coach, working with business leaders across global FTSE 100 and Professional Services firms. She leads Rudd Coaching Ltd offering 1:1 and group coaching on topics spanning business development through to leadership effectiveness, emotional intelligence and working parent coaching. Georgie is co-founder of Think Perspective, a collaboration between Rudd Coaching Ltd and People and Practice Ltd, offering programmes that enable everyone to talk less and hear more. They are coaching skills programmes with a difference for managers and leaders.

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