​A Leader’s Lament: “I Thought We Were Family”


A Leader’s Lament: “I Thought We Were Family”

As these VIM Executive Coaching posts always remain anonymous and confidential as to those we use for interesting examples, I don’t think a former client will mind if I introduce his story. When he first brought up his “dilemma” in an objective fashion I must admit he found it as funny as I did (though I tried to remain serious as he told it).

“Russell, I have always tried to treat my staff as though they were my family members, in some ways, closer than family members. Lately my staff has become difficult, self-centered, gossipy and demanding.”

I told him those were a tough set of challenges for any leader to go through on a daily basis. I’m not certain what led me to the next question:

“Well, just out of curiosity, how would you describe your real family?”

He shook his head and blurted: “Truthfully, self-centered, mean-spirited, demanding gossips.”

I let him have a pause and then he started to laugh.


“Congratulations,” I said, “you have managed to create all of the most troubling aspects of your family dynamic in your workplace – and that’s not easy!”

It is not always apparent to see the point so quickly, but in this case my client understood exactly what I had been talking about. I asked him a follow-up question, and this time there was no humor attached or expected, “Can you be ‘yourself’ when you’re with your family?”

His answer was terse and straightforward: “Usually not, Russell.”

Now, I need to make it clear that as a business coach I always make sure that I never drift into the world of psychology or therapy. However, in this particular case I asked my question to underscore the concept of authenticity.

Being oneself, speaking directly from a place of sincerity, compassion and truth is not a simple assignment. While many of us, admittedly, have trouble with authenticity around a family banquet table or at an outdoor family reunion BBQ, we are under no stress to bring our family dynamic into our companies.

When an executive leader is authentic it not only enhances leadership, but the authenticity tends to spread throughout our peer relationships, departments and companies. Being authentic with ourselves and with each other at least within the workplace enables executive leaders to express a position from the heart without manipulation or posturing.

Given the fact that we must often be who we are not when we’re with family, many executive leaders who are not coached will often fall back to familiar and familial territory when confronted with an issue. Not to sound hard-hearted or mean-spirited, your employees are not your family – either good or bad. Nor, do they want to be an executive leader’s family.

Lower level employees and managers expect to be treated fairly, rationally and justly. While they might appreciate the gesture of a chocolate chip cookie on their desk each Monday, what they would appreciate even more is a workplace where they are fairly heard, and where conflicts are rationally resolved.

Being authentic helps the executive leader immensely. If for no other reason, speaking directly from the heart, enables any executive to remember exactly what he or she said. Many of us have no such luxury when we’re presented with a five pound fruitcake at holiday time.

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