I want to tell you a story about Rachel. An incredibly humble change leader I interviewed as a part of my doctoral research. Ordinary courage and compassion were at the heart of her leadership practice. When I say ordinary, her courage and compassion, I considered to be extraordinary.
But she didn’t see it that way.
So practiced was she at these ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that they had become second nature.
Rachel’s role took her to the forefront of leading her organisation through a tumultuous period of change. She committed herself to thinking in a spacious and mindful way as she navigated an organisational climate that felt uncertain, emotionally charged and strategically fragile. She felt a responsibility to tune into the distress her colleagues and team members were feeling. She made a conscious decision to let herself feel her own distress related to the change, so she could relate authentically to those she was leading. Her willing acceptance and comfort with her own vulnerability, helped her to inquire into the concerns of staff and volunteers with non-judgement, sensitivity and respect, as the reorientation of the organisation was planned.
As Rachel consulted with staff across the organisation, her willingness to instigate courageous and risky conversations with others gained her enormous respect. What she learnt through her engagement supported her to: honestly name the difficulties staff were confronting in the transition; empathise with their realities; remain curious about the reported impacts of organisational inefficiency; and graciously hear the accusations of wrong doing levelled at leadership from those staff who were both angry and anxious.
Rachel knew it was important to keep the management and executive directors up to date and in touch with the felt experience of staff ‘on the ground’. The emotional and psychological burden of carrying what she thought would be considered ‘bad news’ by her colleagues, was taking its toll on her wellbeing. She needed to report it up the line. However, she was also cognisant about how those in the upper echelons of the organisation might react. However, despite feeling exposed, she was committed to ensuring that the voices of staff were heard as the change process was being deployed.
As she suspected, Rachel’s “issue naming” was not received well by those in power. Conflict between Rachel and the leadership group resulted, leaving her feeling sad, confused, and emotionally battered and bruised.
She reflected on this experience with mixed feelings. In telling me her story, she referred to her enactments of compassion and courage as “little c’s”. I admired the way she seemed to hold her way of leading with a beautiful sense of humility. The “little c’s” were small gestures, which she said she hoped conveyed her care and compassion for the staff in the organisation, her desire for organisational change, and her love for the work she was undertaking.
Rachel’s story is marked with everyday, ordinary, and yet enormously powerful demonstrations of compassionate and courageous leadership. Her story reminds me and hopefully you too, that it is the small acts of compassion and courage, demonstrated quietly and humbly in the face of difficultly, that are so powerful.
The little c’s make all the difference to the quality of our leadership and the legacy we leave. What little c’s of compassion and courage will you pursue through your leadership today?