A Leader Polishes Souls

I wish we had a camera for the souls of people walking out of our offices and factories every day; it would make sludge look pristine. ~Bob Chapman

A sculptor looks at a marble slab and envisions the soul of the sculpture waiting to be released then chips away at the extraneous to reveal the beauty hidden within. So, too, a great leader sees the potential of a person, a new recruit, a frustrated colleague, an underperforming workmate and, with ongoing conversations, revealing questions, pointed suggestions, helps release the person’s soul into edifying work, work in which the person thrives.

Too often in the business world, people are seen as interchangeable cogs and pushed into roles because the organization has a need. They may not be a perfect fit, even a good fit, so the machine must grind them down until they fit just enough to ensure the contraption continues to plod along. Efficiency and effectiveness are sacrificed for the illusion of progress. I have existed in such organizations and attest they can be soul crushing. The difference between soul crushing and soul polishing lives within the influence and effectiveness of the leader.

The mark of an effective leader is the ability to match a person’s skills both, extant and potential, to an opportunity rather than forcing a need onto a person. Matching skills to an opportunity polishes the soul to a luster. Force fitting a person to a role, as the opening quote so elegantly states, makes sludge look pristine in comparison to the souls.

To effectively polish souls, requires the leader to believe in the fundamental value of people. Leaders MUST love people. Leaders MUST care enough about an individual to invest the time needed to understand the person’s potential and desires. They use all their leadership influence to match the person to a need. Sometimes, it means encouraging the person to seek opportunities in another organization.

If a leader is unwilling to invest in another person, I don’t consider them leadership material. It’s quite simple. Either you care enough about people to lead them or you don’t care and settle for managing them. People deserve leaders.

You manage things, you lead people. ~Grace Hopper

Once the potential/desire answer has enough substance to set a direction, the leader begins soul polishing. My method is to continually ask challenging questions pushing people to understand themselves, to retrospect on past decisions, to vet upcoming decisions, and to suggest options to expose the road not considered, to crack open the door not noticed.

Always, always, always the final decision (unless there is a matter of safety or legality) is theirs. They must own the outcome. The leader must care about the person enough that they are willing to let them learn from the natural consequences of their decisions. The leader must care enough to make space for failure.

Critical to the soul polishing process, is to not attempt to remove all the, so called, ‘imperfections’, to recognize the ‘rough spots’ in a person that make them unlike others, those unique traits which, when applied effectively, uniquely contribute to their success. If a sculptor focuses only on making a slab of marble smooth, it will be a polished blob devoid of the rough spots that give it character. The nose will be polished away. The hair will not exist nor will the arms, legs, face. It will be the same as any other smoothly polished blob.

The things that make me different are the things that make me. ~A.A. Milne

Think of it this way, it is the grit in the sandpaper that makes it effective. Coarse sandpaper rips away most everything while completely smooth sandpaper is nearly useless. Grit is needed in varying degrees. It is the job of the leader to help a person understand their grit and manage their grit into an effective agent for change.

There is no formula that can be universally applied to understand which rough spots need to be chiseled away, which to leave unchanged, which to hone to a fine edge. Knowing is part of the art of leadership. It’s an art developed over time with focused effort and with heartache.

I’ve worked under people who attempted to manage me into conformity. It didn’t go well. I never felt valued for my unique abilities. It was frustrating for me and for the managers. And my output was not optimal.

Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive. ~Jhumpa Lahiri

And I worked under a leader adept at the art of leadership, a leader who understood how to channel my rough spots for maximum effectiveness. One of my rough spots was the way I challenged people. People needed to be challenged but my style was often too direct, occasionally harsh resulting in hurt feelings and resentment. This leader helped me learn empathy and to challenge with tenderness using ‘What if’ statements. As in, “What if we presented from this perspective? What would happen if we expanded the scope? What if…?

It was easily the most fruitful phase of my career in terms of personal growth and growing influence and change benefitting the organization. Though he has not been my direct manager for over four years, his coaching still has visible impact beyond the immediate leader/follower relationship.

I believe that the measure of my soul is my capacity to love imperfect people. ~Joseph Grenny

The process is not to polish for polishing sake. It’s a process that begins with the deep study of a person so the leader understands which rough spots to polish and which to leave alone. It’s a process that helps the person become a better version of who they are not to make them a mini me.

The leaders coaching must be designed to engage the individual in the polishing process with the ultimate goal being a person that knows when to self-polish and knows when to seek input from outside for those rough spots they can neither see nor reach.

One method I use starts with these questions:

  1. What are you good at?
  2. What do you like to do?
  3. What is your ideal job description?

The subsequent, dynamic conversations drive the self-polishing process.

I never know where the journey will take us but I can guarantee it will be filled with ups and downs, joy and sadness. Along the way, both the mentee’s soul and the leader’s soul will be polished to a higher state of luster.

Author: David A Olson

I often find my mind wandering to various subjects, subjects that make me stop and think. The blog, Musings of a Middle Aged Man, is a catalog of those thoughts I muse upon as I search for significance in life. I am the father of 3 children and the grandfather to 2. I spend my days working for a medium sized multinational corporation where I am an Agile Coach. I view myself as a Servant Leader, have a passion for leadership, particularly, in helping people develop their individual leadership skills and abilities. In October 2012, I went to India on business. After a week of being there, I still had not talked to or texted my 7-year-old grandson. He asked his mom, "Is Papa dead? He hasn't texted me all week." To facilitate communication now that he and I no longer live together, I started a blog for us to communicate. It's titled, "Correspondence Between Luke and His Papi". In April 2013, I moved to Pune, India on an 18-month delegation. It's an adventure that was 1.5 years in the making...The experience is captured on my blog, "The Adventures of an American Living Abroad" My two latest blogs are "The Learning Leader", a topic I have been studying since 1990, and "Lipstick on a Pig", a foray into the fashion sense of this middle aged man.

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