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  • Writer's pictureNick Smith

F is for Formation (and Fear)

Some people I'd follow pretty much to the moon. I believe in them: they engender trust; they're generous; they empower. Other people, I wouldn't follow to the chip shop. That's how you recognise leaders - they're the individuals that people are following. It's true of leadership in pretty much any domain, including change leadership.

So what is it that makes a leader someone that others want to follow? Is it what they know? Maybe a bit. What they say? Perhaps, but certainly not the big things only. Is it what they do? Much more so, but it's not just that. Isn't it what they are? It's something about their character, their essence, their nature as a person - how they've been formed. Regardless, of the mix, we might then say that it's about the mix of knowledge, skills and character - and I'm prioritising character.

If that's right, we could expect leadership development programmes to combine education (for knowledge), training (for skills), and formation (for character, for the person). And, that's the mix you find in some professions: for therapists and counsellors personal development, built on increasing self-awareness, is a critical part of securing professional status. Clergy preparation too, in some traditions, talks more about ministerial or priestly formation than about training. Arguably military officer development too. But in change, in business, in the wider world? Much less so, it seems to me.

Try googling (in quotes) as phrases the word 'leadership' followed by each of 'knowledge', 'skills' and 'character'. Character trails in a poor last by volume found. Or try googling combinations of leadership and education, training and formation. It's the same picture. Is it just words? Is it just me? I don't think so. I'm clear that I want to follow leaders I believe in - not just people I believe, or people who are skilled, capable, and knowledgeable.

If I'm not overplaying this (and if you think I am you'll have switched off by now, I suspect), what does it mean for us as change leaders. Here's three suggestions:

  • Think of yourself as a work in progress - not just in terms of skills and knowledge, but in terms of what you're like as a person. Want to grow, expect to change - whatever personal growth looks like for you

  • Be intentional about your development. This might mean (first) finding ways to self-reflect or be still (eg mindfulness, journalling) and (second) some developmental goal setting, techniques, and relationships in which you can be accountable (to a friend, a coach, a therapist). Imagine what a best version of you could be like.

  • Seek feedback - and not merely as a gift that you'll send back or bury in a closet if you don't like it. If people won't give you honest feedback, that's something to consider in itself. Welcome it, reflect on it, and act on it.

Summarising, if we want to lead people through change - let's strive to be people that others want to follow. And if we're not up for formation as leaders people want to follow, if we're not up for changing ourselves - then what exactly is it we fear? F is for Formation - and for Fear also.

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