Leadership Means Learning to Swoop Below the Clouds

I had a very candid conversation with one of my team members recently and realized how grateful I was for her honesty. Without it, I’d feel like I was flying blind to what was going on with the team and her office (we work in separate locations). It made me think that leadership can be like mindfulness. There’s a mindfulness exercise to think of your present feelings and emotions like clouds or weather. If you’re on the ground in terrible weather, everything can feel awful. But if you go above the clouds, there’s actually blue sky and tons of sun. That part of the mind (happiness and blue sky) is always with us, even when it’s raining. We just can’t always see it.

Cloud-based denial

As I apply this analogy to leaders, the perspective flips. Leaders often fly above the clouds, way over the day-to-day challenges employees face in the weeds. The only weed-related intel that leaders often hear is from employees who are sometimes permitted an audience above the clouds. Even if leaders want a frank view from below, the sunny outlook they project downward could be seen as a kind of command. Colleagues might feel pressured to talk only about sunny days on the ground and leave out the windy and rainy ones. Or to just reinforce their leader’s view about beautiful everything looks from on high.  In organizations where speaking up isn’t encouraged, anyone that comes up above the clouds and starts talking about the storm below isn’t believed and is probably just shoved back down to where they came from. Leaders may think, “well it all looks sunny to me, so I don’t know what you’re talking about, or,  “I sent you an umbrella last month to protect you from the rain, so why are you still complaining about this?” (When what the employee really needed was a parka because the rain changed to snow.)

In bad weather, together

To be effective, leaders have to get below the clouds on rainy, snowy, terrible days. And they need to encourage  people to tell them all about the rainy days and what “equipment” employees need for combatting the weather. Keeping customers happy is tough work. Some days are sunny and bright and everyone is happy, but we build the most trust with our employees and our customers when we get through a storm together—not by pretending the storm doesn’t exist. This is why the voice of employees is so critical to success of any organization, and why firms that listen to and respond to employee feedback are so much more successful and have much higher retention than the ones that don’t.

Mindfulness can help us get above the clouds, but it also teaches that the only way to get there is to acknowledge bad weather (i.e., negative feelings or thoughts). In mindfulness you can train yourself to accept negative thoughts and watch them pass. In business, you have to take a much more active role in turning negative experiences or situations into positive action. Different strategies, but the principles of acknowledging and addressing the negative are the same.

Set your problem-solvers free

Mindful leaders will acknowledge the fact that tough things happen to people, then they will actively equip employees with the tools, decisions, rights, and skills to fix these problems for themselves and ultimately, for customers.

If you can follow this leadership path, you actually can step back and watch as employees will solve your most critical challenges on their own. They just need the permission and the tools to do so.

By allowing employees to solve their own problems, you will create greater autonomy and learning, driving motivation levels up. It’s a win-win. And it’s a way to seed genuine sunshine at every level of your organization.

Author: David Shanklin 

David is Managing Director, Culture Solutions at CultureIQ. For over a decade, he has helped companies and workers reach their full potential,
with a special focus on organizational culture and leadership.