Get excited: passion is fashion

By Heather Gibson, Managing Director, Pendulum Partnership

Passion is a key capability in the new leadership paradigm. Yet, in an industry regarded as an assortment of passionate people, do leaders really deliver through the fire in their belly?

Why do corporate entities aspire to be more entrepreneurial as a culture? How do leaders suffer mental breakdowns despite seemingly overwhelming results? Where is the dreamer inside of you? Make no mistake these are the real questions that need to be asked of leaders in our era of disruption. The answer to each of them is reflects the internal struggle most face on their way to the top. The loss of influence through original thinking and straight communication; of the raw, gut instinct led by the passion that we all have inside of us; usurped by the status quo pull to conform, especially when there is a need to fundamentally change an organisation.

Our passion is challenged and diminished the further up the career ladder we go, and that word accountability gets thrown around.  It’s well intended, of course, but reliance on the question of accountability makes one fearful of the words they say, constricted against the emotions they feel and an inability to have elephant in the room conversations. Passion and accountability must learn to co-exist. Leaders are influenced by formal and informal rules of the game, which typically translates to learning how to exist within a system rather than think and act outside of it; and hey, if the going has been good, why rock the boat? The harsh truth is that we really didn’t know any different and now these rules of the game have changed – there is no set rule anymore.  It is the real you that needs to be allowed to lead at this point, the mantra of a leader serving the people means something quite different in disruption terms. Serving people is about being transparent and this is an exquisitely individual accountability like no other. Yes, you are indeed accountable but to really land in a transparent place involves a, frankly, brutal unlearning process.

“It is incredibly hard to deliver outcomes and get things done in any organisation, particularly as transformational change is the norm.”

Over the years of working in many different industries and organisations I have observed the non-verbal cues on the faces denoting alarm and fear that arise when leaders describe themselves as passionate. The more progressed that you become in your leadership career, the less the status quo likes this word as a descriptor for leadership style. It’s an informal rule of the game; you can’t be seen to be too loose or risky, so words like agile, lateral thinker, dynamic are more acceptable. To say that that one is passionate at the boardroom table is just not done and, in doing so, we are taught that it’s not what is important at this level. For leaders with the helicopter view and becoming increasingly concerned as to the unanswerable questions, the fight back is against the artefacts we use in our formal rules of the game– plans, methodologies of logic, meetings, layer upon layer of scrutiny – to punch away what is a lonely, stifling space.

Unfortunately, the passionate you has gotten swallowed up in a void between knowing what is right and having to do what is expected. This leads to a vicious circle; the fire is gone, the dream turns a bit cynical, we put our masks up to get by and then we check out; we go through the motions even at CEO / MD level, possibly leave the organisation and even give up on an industry altogether. You know exactly what I’m talking about and the statistics bear it all out. Yes, retention is key; the cost of these losses is more than financial and it’s the misalignment of human instinct and vision with a quite implicit resistance to change that stops a leader from driving the lasting change you know can be achieved. When you break it down like this, it is a very sorry state indeed. In the beginning what we are told and what happens in reality, more often than not, are two very different things, and that is where leaders can be forced to compromise so much. In an industry all about people, hospitality is not different or alone in this almost inevitable sadness; I have seen many leaders at all levels shut down almost overnight when they attempt to reignite their passion and instinct, as the invisible hand of the status quo comes back to whisper that the change is not possible, that it’s happening too fast, that we aren’t ready or that it’s just too risky. These may be conversations you have had as recently as today, and they may sound reasonable, but these are the lines that are stopping genuine, lasting change and progress – as leaders and as businesses.

“Freedom to speak, create, discuss and debate in a voice that is as transparent as possible.”

It is incredibly hard to deliver outcomes and get things done in any organisation, particularly as transformational change is the norm. This is quite a scary place and the sheer stamina and isolation experienced at a personal level is one of the real side effects of leading in an era of complexity and ambiguity. Yes, you are accountable for the business model’s reformation but also the people; and where it’s heading is that some things just cannot be done with the current mindset and capability. Radical, new and free thinking is essential to be as broad-minded as possible about what is required. This is why unlearning is so essential to leadership; to enable a leader to understand that by simply lowering their mask and showing the world the real you, great change can and will happen. It is just incredibly hard to take the first step; and that first step is to get excited again – to be comfortable to be passionate.

Operating through passion is central to leading through values, personal leadership reference point for delivering widescale change.  The questions I asked at the beginning of this article are right and they are indicative of the self-denial and personal cost you have taken on in the rise to the top of the career ladder; that constant suppression of gut instinct is what is what is making you feel exhausted, trapped and unable to move properly forward. New leadership is very much an acknowledgement of self; self-love, self-care, self-affirmation as part and parcel of your everyday leadership – right up to the boardroom. Freedom to speak, create, discuss and debate in a voice that is as transparent as possible. Leadership of change is dependent on transparency and it is very personal indeed. As a limitless leader, when in doubt, keep doing you with no apologies and no excuses. It’s brutal what needs to change in your mind to get to the culture, model and capability needed for our next era of evolution. Let me throw the gauntlet down for you right now; passion is fashion and passion is everything.

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