Becoming a People Leader

It was 8.00PM on Sunday. I usually take this precious time for planning to get a head start on the coming week. My primary five son Alex came into the room and asked me to help him with his Math homework. I was slightly annoyed to be disturbed as prioritising requires Level Three thinking, but I told him to sit next to me and consult me if he gets stuck.

Bad decision.

Soon, it became clear that I was doing Alex’s homework. Alex wasn’t even trying — he was just waiting for me to tell him exactly what to write. I blew up at him: “This is not fair! I did all my homework on my own when I was a kid. I didn’t bother anyone. And now I have to do my children’s homework?!!”

“But you already know the answer, mummy. Why can’t you just give it to me?”, Alex said, with his big innocent eyes.

This was not the first time he was asking me for help. I’ve been helping him since primary three (when Math suddenly became a whole lot tougher!). He always approaches me for help at the absolute last minute: right before bedtime. I’ll be so knackered at the end of the day, and will dictate the answers to him, just so that it can be over and done with. Chop chop lollipop. Which suited Alex perfectly fine.

I have often found myself in similar situations at work. I carry around this beautiful red backpack.

“You’re not doing it right. Let me do it, I can do it faster”, and pop it goes into my gorgeous backpack. I know how dumb this sounds as I’m typing this, but when faced with challenging deadlines or demanding customers screaming for service recovery due to a screw-up — when failure is not an option — it’s next to impossible not to get involved. Over time, the backpack weighs a little more, until that one day it becomes too much, and the Power B*tch, a.k.a. Shadow Victim, fully emerges. Military orders ensue.

In the end, I had a coaching conversation with Alex. We talked about the importance of his Math homework, not for it’s own sake, but as a life lesson on how to face up to challenges. I guided him to find the answers from within. I focused on his thinking, and he solved his own problems. I could literally see his brain light up, the proverbial a-ha moment, when he “saw” how he was going to solve that Math problem.

“In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening. So rather than thinking, oh, I’m going to reveal my weaknesses, you say, wow, here’s a chance to grow.”

– Carol Dweck, Author, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

As leaders, we face tough choices all the time:

  • “Should I invest in the future, or manage based on past successes?”
  • “Should I focus on learning, or tangible achievements?”
  • “Should I confront my own shortcomings, or blame others?”

In an ideal world, I’ll be 100% focused on developing people. I’ll be providing authentic, positive feedback, catching people doing things right. Too many times I’ve fallen into the trap of wielding power instead of transforming the people, the company and myself. I feel like a schizophrenic sometimes. One minute I’m a coach acknowledging great work, the next minute I’m a military dictator barking orders.

The dark side of “constructive feedback”, a.k.a. barking orders

If you’re constantly criticising the team, then you’re killing your organisation’s ability to innovate.

Criticism is rarely taken positively, only once in every 13 situations.(1) And in the other 12 situations, our fight-or-flight response kicks in with turbo power. Criticism sets off a threat response, which decreases perception, cognition, creativity and collaboration.(2) We reduce our ability to clearly see issues, solve problems and work with others. In other words, criticism limits our potential to innovate. Oops.

What are the implications for me as a leader of an organisation that needs to innovate? It means that amidst all the chaos and mayhem, I need to be the g*ddamn Dalai Lama.

As a business impact coach, one of the most common, and valuable, goals I work on with our clients is to instil the growth mindset, and it starts from within. Trust me, one of the hardest things for them to learn was how to acknowledge themselves more.

Reality is much more complex. As my good friend Dan Lee shared, “There is black, there is white, and then there is one thousand shades of grey in between.”

(1) Smith, B (2004) Gallup Business Journal

(2) Rock, D SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, Journal of NeuroLeadership 2008.



Curious to learn how to stand in your circle of power and unleash the force for positive change? Join the Fight Club monthly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.

About Sophia Chin, Coach & Co-founder of PERSONNA

Sophia helps people unleash the force for positive change to create transformational business growth.

Over the last 10 years, Sophia has interviewed thousands of senior business leaders and learnt their secrets to driving transformational business growth in large complex organisations including Apple and Grab.

Photo credit: Klimt, Gustav. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907. Neue Galerie New York, New York City, US.

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