My Best Leadership Moment and What It Taught Me

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My best leadership moment happened while I was running a strategy conference for my senior leadership team, and the leadership of our strategic partners, in total about 70 people.

It was my second strategy conference with the same team. The first had gone very well, and the teams were getting used to my style, and we were starting to create the culture that I was looking for.

We were a new department, and we were driving a significant transformation, there was quite a bit of friction between the team and our strategic partners, as well as with a few other departments, because of the change in the service model. It was a move to outsourced and offshored services, and it was a move that not everyone was happy about.

I was also a part of the problem myself. As the leader, I felt it was my obligation to defend my team whenever someone attacked them, and as this happened often I was fighting a lot.

The theme of the conference was Collaboration and Cooperation.

Our overall performance had improved over the last year, but it was clear to me that we could do even better. But to do so, we needed to focus more on teamwork, sharing of best practices and creating synergies not only within the department but also with our strategic partners.

The time for fighting was over, we needed to rise above it, and work with everyone, even our critics so that we could provide the best performance possible.

We had a great program for the conference, with lots of interactive sessions, and some great teambuilding events. But the problem is a great agenda is never a guarantee of success.

As I arrived at the conference, I was chatting with my coach, and we agreed that for the conference to achieve the changes we were looking for, I was going to have to be the change I wanted to see.

When I entered the conference room, I saw Ricardo, who was leading our Latin American operation, and as he came over he gave me a big hug, which I reciprocated.

Then it occurred to me. I was going to hug every one of my team including the partners, because when you've hugged someone, and meant it; you have moved the relationship to a different level.

At the time I was working in Germany and hugging was not something that was that common in the working environment, so it would be an action that would take people by surprise. It would be a big change in behavior, one that would be clear for everyone to see.

So after hugging Ricardo, I hugged everyone that I met, including my German colleagues.

One or two of them asked why I was doing it because it was not common in Germany for people to hug, and especially not for a boss to hug his staff.

I said "I'm doing it because the time for fighting is over. Now it's time for improved collaboration, and it's difficult to fight someone who is hugging you".

People responded well to this; it created a bit of a buzz, it became a big a talking point, and I noticed that other people started to hug each other too. It was becoming contagious.

As part of my opening keynote speech, I decided that I would include hugging as one of my strategic objectives. I was not going to fight with anyone, anymore and I didn't want them to fight either. Whenever someone tried to start a fight me, I was not going to defend myself, I was going to hug them. Show them that I cared about them, and that I wanted to help them.

Over the course of the conference, the theme of Collaboration was replaced by a new theme that of Hugging.

At every interaction I hugged people, it became expected, it became wanted, and I never turned down the opportunity for a hug.

On the second day of the conference, I was on the agenda straight after lunch, and the topic was my vision of our organisation going forward.

As I stood up to speak, I was asked to stop, as the team wanted to play a piece of music for me, which they felt strongly epitomized me, and my leadership style.

I said ok, and as I stood there waiting I wondered what on earth this piece of music was going to be. The atmosphere was electric; I could see on the smiling faces of the team that they were looking forward to surprising me.

Then the music started, at first, I didn't recognize it had quite a long intro, and my music knowledge isn't that great. As the lyrics started, everyone joined in, which was great but didn't help me figure out the song, and then they all sang the title line, which made it clear.

It was 'Can you feel the love tonight' from the Lion King.

As they all sang it, I can tell you I had a lump in my throat, without a doubt, the best feedback I have ever received from a team that I had led.

I thought they would just sing the start, and we would move on, but they sang the whole song, they had their lighters out, or the lighter app on their i-devices, and were holding hands and swaying as they sang.

I couldn't believe the feedback; it was incredible, it was electric, and it also showed me that cultural changes do start at the top, and can happen very quickly if we are passionate and have an open heart.

The rest of the conference was a huge success. At the close I said I was honoured and proud to be part of this team and that I had a speech prepared, but given what had happened I was going to skip it and close the conference with a piece of music, and I would like it if everyone could just hug the person next to them. Once we have hugged, we are well on the road to increasing collaboration.

We had the music playing for 15-20 minutes as everyone went around the room and hugged everyone else, they were not content to just hug the person next to them.

My coach, who had facilitated the conference was surprised, impressed and dumbfounded as to what had just happened. She said without having seen it; she would never have believed it.

About three days after the conference she contacted me, she said that she had been telling everyone about the conference and that she had been trying to find an explanation as to what had happened. How had we made that transition in just over a day and a half, and she said the only answer she could come up with was it must have been magical pixie dust, as nothing else made sense to her.

What did I learn from this?

It is true that leadership can be magical, but it's not magic, it just starts with a leader who is prepared to be open, passionate, vulnerable, and who chooses to follow their heart.

When you do that, you can change the culture, build trust and get a team to follow you anywhere.

That year we had our best results ever, all due to the team collaborating, working better together and caring for each other, and it all started with just a hug!