4 leadership lessons I learned from a recent physical setback

This is a more personal post based on a recent physical setback I experienced. I hope you don’t mind.

I had a minor operation on my toe at the end of June. This was the final step (no pun intended) to finally resolve the pain and debilitating effects of a yucky toenail.

Why am I writing about this?

Because I could (and should) have handled the situation so much better than I did; and I think the lessons learned can be applied to leaders and managers.

Lesson one – acknowledge there is a problem

I thought my toenail looked a bit weird back in October 2016. I chose to ignore it. Thinking “it will be fine”.

Now, apply that to some work contexts. That project where things aren’t moving forward; that team who don’t seem happy.

It starts with acknowledging something might be wrong. And yes, part of the problem might be you.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss.

Lesson two – once acknowledged, do something about it

Okay. So I knew there really was a problem in January 2017. My whole toe was now swollen and itchy. Again, I thought “it’ll clear up by itself” and told myself, “It’s not that bad”.

Ever caught yourself saying that about an organisational issue?

For example, if you have two team members in conflict, what have you done to help them resolve things? Have you ignored the situation, thinking “it’ll sort itself out”?

I worked with a team manager once who thought the conflict would resolve itself. It didn’t. It got worse and led to formal grievances, HR involvement and a dip in overall team performance.

If you know there is a problem, find out what solutions have already been attempted. You’re then in a better position to determine other courses of action. The key being to actually take action.

Lesson three –  listen to the experts

I went on a hiking holiday in Devon with my husband before Easter. At this point, the situation had been going on for six months.

Long hikes + walking boots + gammy toe = Bad idea (Resulting in a trip to nearest doctor and a course of antibiotics).

A few weeks later I was back at my own doctor’s, and put on a second course of antibiotics. I was also told that I should completely stay off my foot for two weeks. When you’re self-employed, running your own business, taking time out for two weeks at a very busy time is near impossible. Ultimately, I prioritised work over my health. (Yep, you guessed it. I ignored the advice).

I’ve encountered organisations who bring in experts to help them on issues such as digital transformation, organisational culture and leadership development. The organisation then proceeds to ignore all the expert recommendations. This has tended to be the case where it’s highlighted that the organisation will need to make some kind of sacrifice in order to get to the result they say they want. Most of the time, ignoring the experts comes down to the ego of board level leaders who think they know better.

Two weeks later and my doctor diagnosed an ingrowing toenail (although admitted she wasn’t sure) and booked me in for toe operation where I would have no choice but to stay off my foot for a while. I then went to practice where I was referred for the operation only to be told that it wasn’t an ingrowing toenail, and therefore there would be no operation. *shakes fist at the sky*

So, if you find yourself hiring in experts for an organisational problem (and paying them lots of money), make sure you get the right ones for your organisation. You want to be confident that they can understand your organisational context and diagnose the key issues accurately. The result being a set of recommendations you can be confident in and hence, more likely to listen to.

Lesson four – accept help when it is offered

When I first went to my doctor, at Easter, my mother suggested I should go private, to a foot specialist. As I’m still in the first year of running my own business, I’m watching every penny, so mum offered to help.

Now, I have a real ethical issue with going private – being a Brit and hence, a passionate supporter of our beloved National Health Service. I also had pride. I’m in my early 40’s and been financially independent for a long time.

Yes, you guessed it. I made that fatal error of ignoring mum’s offer of help (never a good idea).

Following the failed referral (where the toenail wasn’t removed because it wasn’t ingrowing), things got progressively worse. I was really struggling to commute as walking became unbearable. My weird hobble meant that I was beginning to affect my back and hips. I was also worried that the infection was so deep that it had got into the joints.

So, if someone you work with reaches out to offer help, take a deep breath before you automatically say “no”.  Don’t let a mistaken sense of pride get in the way.

Accepting help does not make you a failure. it doesn’t make you weak. It means you’re thinking about the bigger picture. That help could make the difference to you overcoming whatever leadership issue you’re grappling with. It could also help you overcome the issue a lot faster – two heads being better than one and all that.

I finally realised I couldn’t continue in the same vein and accepted the offer of help and went private (don’t judge me). Toenail off and nearly two weeks later my toe and foot is almost as good as new. I’ll even be able to start my beloved running again in a few weeks.

It took things to get dangerously bad for me to acknowledge my vulnerability and accept help. Don’t let the same thing happen to your leadership.

What non-work challenges have you overcome and how can you apply any lessons to your own leadership? I’d love to know, so why not share your stories in the comments section below?


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