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A consultant with a heart

My friend got married a few months ago and at the wedding, his dad said to me: ‘I know who you are – you’re the consultant with a heart’…

This prompted me to reflect on what consultancy with a heart is.

Leading with emotion

Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz think about leadership in terms of change and make the case that nobody resists change per se. People resist change when it challenges a value they treasure – when it touches their hearts. Leadership is creating change even in that context.

Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan make a connected (and more literal) argument in their work on Immunity to Change, citing evidence from a study in which a significant number of heart attack survivors were shown to avoid taking life-saving heart medicine after their major cardiac event because to do so would have signalled their physical or mental weakness. In this extreme example, people made a choice that involved them redefining their sense of self. They were happy for doctors to rewire their hearts literally but would not do the same for themselves figuratively.

To exercise adaptive leadership is to work with groups, teams and organisations through change that touches hearts as well as minds. Adaptive leadership involves surfacing tough organisational realities that it would be more comfortable to leave beneath the surface and bringing conflict out into the open so that it can be worked through. Many groups, teams and organisations would rather avoid that kind of work. They would even rather risk organisational death than confront the shortcomings, compromises and disappointments that inevitably arise when attempts are made to work with other people to achieve ambitious goals in complex environments.

Conflict within a team

Leading with courage

Adaptive leadership is courageous leadership. And consultants who use an adaptive approach, exercise courageous consultancy. Courage in leadership and consultancy is needed more than ever today in organisations that confront shrinking resources, increasing demands and unpredictable local and global environments.

And yet it is often glaringly absent. The risk of heartbreak is considered too frightening and the desire to be liked too great. The result? Poorly thought-through change initiatives, blundered internal communications and fatal short-termism.

Being a consultant or a leader with a heart might sound like a soft kind of a thing – consultancy and leadership with a bleeding heart. But we must remember that a real heart is a tireless workhorse. It pumps blood around the body day and night – at the same time as standing as a symbol for the emotional world.

Adaptive leadership

It is somewhere between these two conceptions of the heart that I want to find myself as a consultant. Doing what works (the workhorse) and at the same time being constantly alive to the particular needs of each individual, team and organisation I encounter (the feeling heart). In touch with coarse reality, as well as with the emotional pulse that runs through all group and organisational life.

My hope is that if I can model this in my work with those I teach, coach and consult with, they will be able to do more of that in the teams and organisations they are part of and lead. They will show up in their work ready to embrace (as opposed to shy away from) the difficult work and be able to undertake that work with the emotional intelligence it demands.

Every day at Roffey Park, I work with managers, individual reports, consultants and others on their capability to exercise courageous leadership and consultancy. Senior leaders in global companies looking to build sustainable teams across geographical and generational boundaries, internal OD professionals trying to do more with less in the NHS or local government, experienced consultants working to expand their range as facilitators of complex organisational work – all are eager to partner with us to find more courageous ways to show up for those they serve.

A consultant without a heart

Standing against consultancy with a heart is consultancy without a heart, where organisational interactions are seen as simple and technical moving parts that can be shifted from one place to another with no feeling involved along the way. Most of us would like to think that only happens to other people or elsewhere. In truth, that is a default we can all be guilty of slipping into sometimes. I can bring to mind dozens of times I have fallen short of finding the right point between my two definitions of heart. This is, after all, is exacting work and as such is always only partially complete.

Some organisational thinkers have translated Donald Winnicott’s conception of parenting and come up with the ‘good enough consultant’. That seems about right to me. So, my friend’s dad was being complimentary – but also too generous. None of us is a consultant with a heart. It isn’t an end state. The best we can hope for is to be consultants who truly grasp the significance of the heart and who endeavour consistently to bring our own and our clients’ hearts into all of our work.

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