Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How to be a tough mudder and lead ugly

Published 05 August 2013 11:41, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

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How to be a tough mudder and lead ugly

Sometimes you don’t need to be elegant to get the job done.

When you are going through hell, it doesn’t help to try to pretend you are impervious.

Corporate coach Peter Barr says emotions in businesses are seen as “ugly”, but they can be recognised and channelled, and put to good use.

“We all know the term ‘winning ugly’ in sport when things aren’t going that well, when somehow you get through anyway,” he says. “You might be muddy and dirty at the end of the game, but you end up winning. Leading ugly is about that.”

One of his clients, a chief executive, used his disappointment in his management and board to stop their oppositional and destructive behaviour.

Normally, he would have seen that sort of response as a declaration of weakness and failure – but he was on the brink of losing his job and was willing to try something new.

He had been hired to fix a troubled organisation and, in 12 months, had turned losses into profit. The board had asked him to present his strategy and gave him a tight deadline, but his executives, who were still entrenched in the old way of doing things, felt they did not have enough time to sign off on it and refused to support it.

They went to the board and declared they had no confidence in their chief executive. In a “facilitated meeting”, the CEO expressed his disappointment to his managers and the board.

Showing vulnerability

“The CEO made that choice to be vulnerable. The leading ugly thing doesn’t mean that showing emotion is a bad thing, it’s knowing that emotion does effectively move us forward,” Barr says. “He was showing his sadness that they had let him down, that he thought they were a team and, when push came to shove, they had walked away.”

At that point, the rift between the chief executive and management team had been going on for nine months.

Barr says the management team was then able to acknowledge they had responded badly because they were protecting themselves from a situation they saw as threatening.

“They can now see he is not this ogre who comes in and lays down the rules. He is a guy with a lot of emotion and compassion and a high intention to create a great organisation. They could see they had all been hurt and then, in that space of ownership, they had the potential to shift it forward.”

Barr says leaders tend to think they must behave like swans – all grace and elegance above the water, while paddling maniacally down below.

“They look so damned elegant,” he says.

Leadership is not symmetrical

Before his coaching career, Barr worked in the corporate and charity sectors – most recently as CEO and CFO of the Leukaemia Foundation of Australia. He also held positions as international finance director of a global not-for-profit based in Switzerland, and commercial manager of the first open-cut coal mine on the Darling Downs.

He says his experience tells him that it is unrealistic and unhelpful to expect leadership to be perfect or symmetrical.

“Leading ugly” does not, however, give leaders permission to express their emotions in a damaging way. There is a big difference between channelling anger in a positive way to overcome a challenge, and bullying, for example.

Sometimes, it just means recognising that emotion and making a conscious choice about whether you will allow that feeling to dictate your moves.

Another client, an inventor and chief executive of a company, was growing frustrated with the amount of time it was taking to get two venture capital companies to commit to invest in his product.

“They were asking a million questions and slowing the process down. The director of one of the companies made the decision they were still not ready to invest, and he went to anger. He has been waiting a long time,” Barr says.

But the chief executive realised that he had exploded before and that anger makes people “shut down”. He took a deep breath and reminded himself of what his purpose was, rather than telling the investor to take a “running jump”.

He allowed himself to listen, to answer some more questions, and satisfied the investor to the point that he approved a first tranche injection of $2 million last Friday.

“I saw him and he was glowing like a light bulb.”

Clear the mind chatter

Barr is an ultra marathon runner and says he has learnt that emotions can sometimes be the last resource left when everything else has been expended.

It could be the emotion of fear, of being afraid that you will fail, look bad or hurt yourself. Sometimes it might just be connection with the human desire to finish what has been started.

But finding a way to use that emotion and clear the “mind chatter” can shift the way you think, change the chemical way your body responds and alter your behaviour to something that helps you win, he says.

Peter Barr will talk about “leading ugly” at the RCSA International Conference: The Leadership Edge, Building a competitive advantage in a changing world, August 28-30 on the Gold Coast.

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