Friday, 20 June 2014

Leading when you feel useless

John Walsh speaking to guests at a Men's Health Week
event at the Crypt
Many good leaders - even great leaders can sometimes feel useless or hopeless. The same has happened to me. I remember a while ago I did a leadership development talk and came back to York Street feeling all positive and inspirational. I had a client booked in to see me so I went into the one of the rooms at York Street to see her. After we sat down, she shared some awful news with me. She was devastated and not seeing any hope or way forward. I suddenly felt very useless, having no words or easy options to offer. The positivity and inspiration evaporated very quickly as the story unfolded and I saw in this woman's face and features deep grief. I listened and offered words of support that seemed so weak and ineffective when compared to the anguish this woman bore. We talked for a while and then she left. I left the room feeling of no use at all to a fellow human being in need. 

I have thought about this incident since. I have got to a place where I think feeling useless is actually OK. What isn't OK is not managing it and working to transform it. To feel negative emotions is part of being human - it's what we do with them that makes or breaks us. There are personal and organisational behaviours that facilitate the transformation of these negative states. If we practice these consistently and patiently we start to build good cultures and practice. We also end up better people as we are focused on the positive. The great thing about these things is they cost nothing and can change everything.  So what are these actions or approaches? I'll touch on a few.

The most wonderful thing we can offer someone is not our words or sentiments (although they can be really helpful and powerful). The greatest thing we can offer someone else is our presence, listening and attention. A friend of mine was a psychiatric social worker in Bradford. He's retired now. He told me the story of meeting a homeless man and sitting on a wall in Bradford talking and listening to this man. The man spoke of his story and life. After half an hour my friend explained he had to go and instinctively put his hand in his pocket to offer some change. The man looked at him with deep and sad eyes and said, 'Put your money away my friend. You've given me what I really needed. You gave me yourself'. When my friend described the man, I actually recognised him. I was inwardly surprised as there is no way this man would ordinarily have turned down a 'hand out' but he did. Probably because he found something better - something more healing and helpful. I'm not advising people to approach homeless men on their own in Bradford or any other city, it's always safer to do this work with others through an organisation. What I am saying is we bring to every conversation, meeting and consultation what we are. We can be like my friend - a presence that brought peace and connection or the opposite. That's the power we hold in our hands. It's actually an awesome responsibility. So reflecting on the sort of presence we will be today is no small thing.

Another thing is that we can be a mirror to people struggling. This mirror reflects back to them what they cannot see at the moment or are not hearing. A friend of mine who is a mental health chaplain in a hospital outside Leeds will often talk to the nurses on the wards. The nurses tell him of their work. He tells them they are doing a fantastic job and sometimes he thanks them for all their care for the patients. The nurses tend to light up and are clearly thrilled to hear these words. My friend usually then says, 'Doesn't your manager say these things to you?' The answer is always the same, 'Never.'  This is so sad. We need desperately to re-discover the beautiful art of affirming others. We need to speak truth to feelings of uselessness in ourselves or others. We need to help others see what we see in them. Negative emotional states blind us to what we have and are. We can see so easily the gnat and miss the elephant. I have been very fortunate to have had such great NHS colleagues as Yvonne Coghill at the NHS Leadership Academy, Catherine Hall at York Street and Andrea North at LCH Specialist Services speak to me of my own gifts and qualities in ways that nurture and develop. This really is transformational work. People start to see who they are and what that means. Accepting at times our own feelings of inner poverty is fine as long as we don't stay there. We have to own them to transform them. Own it but go through it. See it but then look up and onwards.

The woman at York Street I mentioned early on in this post got through the incident, we were able to offer support and she moved on to a life and place of recovery. York Street is somewhere where we see again and again people face the worst and somehow get through it. It's incredible how things can turn around and work out as we work it through.

If you are reading this and feeling not too great about yourself and your leadership skills and practice, take heart, good and even world class leaders go though the same. You're in good company! There's an Oscar Wilde quote that says, 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' I hope no one reading this is in the gutter. I also hope next time you feel useless you also look at the stars too. 
John Walsh, York Street Practice


  1. A very well written and encouraging piece.

  2. Thanks for your comment, I shall pass it on to John.

  3. Thanks John for this very inspirational blog!

  4. An unbelievably beautiful, very moving and inspirational piece John, thank you for all your inspiration now and always.

  5. An inspiring piece on the healing power of human contact and affirmation