A punch in the mouth of leadership

“Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time” - Mike Tyson

”Faaark! It’s all gone to s#!t! We’ve decided to throw in the towel.”

Said no great leader. Ever.

For the record, I’m not advocating violence in leadership. It’s just a useful analogy.

Mike Tyson is right. You can get all up in your head with theory and strategy, but when confronted with a challenge, the emotions kick in and you can forget everything you planned.

And it can all go to s#!t.

So plan for it to go to s#!t, not just for it to go well.

Hopping into the leadership ring is a choice. Putting yourself out there. Taking on the challenge of leadership. And that’s brilliant! Bravo! (seriously)

And you knew there were going to be moments when s#!t got real and it got hard. And when leadership change is involved, the challenge goes up another level or two – eg adopting and incorporating distributed leadership. And you can be certain it is gonna get hard.

So how can you show up in a way where throwing in the towel isn’t an option? and I promise these are the last of the boxing analogies…

Part of the skill is to avoid punches in the first place.

Part of the skill is to anticipate any incoming punch, and be ready to roll with it.

Part of the skill is to have your guard in place ready to block and absorb the punch.

Avoiding the challenges

You know stuff is going to go south at some stage, right? What do you think it’s going to be?

A pre-mortem is the place to start with avoiding the challenges. The pre-mortem is where you assume things did go wrong and exhaustively list of all those things. Continuing by asking your leadership team a series of questions.

Why did it go wrong? (list out those answers)

What could we do right now to stop it from going wrong? (write down those solutions and act on them)

If it still goes wrong what will we do then? (At least you’ll have a plan if, for all your best efforts, things go wrong.)

It might be in all this planning you also look for and research examples or precedents. To give you some other ideas to help you with avoiding the challenges.

Also worthwhile to ask, Who else could help us with this? and get them to help out too.

Anticipating the challenges

It’s unlikely your pre-mortem will cover all eventualities. They’ll always be unexpected events and challenges. It’d be boring otherwise!

Get some guardrails in place. Start with guiding frameworks, protocols and leadership skills training. And do it at the earliest opportunity. Even before the pre-mortem. Ultimately all this thinking and planning can inform and improve each part of the process.

Discuss and get clear on the shared values and goals of your architecture practice. Write them down and make them available so everyone knows what they are and can follow them. They’re the guardrails of your work, your decisions and they effect everything you do. They’re there to help avoid anything that doesn’t align with them.

Establish the roles and responsibilities in the leadership team based on individual expertise, experience and interest. Give leaders agency to anticipate, be proactive and act before the point of escalation. But keep in mind you’re still a team, when necessary work together on an identified challenge. It might start as a question: “Hey! There’s this ‘thing’ that might happen. What does everyone else see and think we might do about it?” Be intentional about anticipating. And have each other’s backs.

Build the skills required when faced with leadership challenges. They most important ones include: empathy, listening, curiosity, having hard conversations, giving and receiving feedback, and decision making. There’s more, but they’re a good start.

Adapting to the challenges

OK, so all else failed and you’re confronted with an unavoidable problem. No pressure, but this is when the best leaders thrive.

Humility and curiosity are everything here.

You don’t know everything.

Apportioning blame is rarely helpful but working together to solve a problem usually is. And it’s valuable in learning and growth. And hence avoiding problems in the future.

Ask questions,

What’s happened and why? – Start by clearly identifying and agreeing on the problem. You must address the problem not the symptoms, so important to be clear on what it is.

What’s worth trying? – Identify some possible solutions to address the agreed problem. Then try them. If the solution or action is easily reversed act quickly. If the solution has potential serious and irreversible outcomes, act cautiously.

Who might be able to help? – Don’t take it on solo. You’re a team, work as one. Find outside help if useful.

What needs to be put in place to stop the same thing happening in the future? – Time to learn, do better and get better.

Keep showing up

Lean into the discomfort. No-one won a marathon without discomfort. It’s part of the deal.

By doing so you’ll also build resilience. And learn how to get comfortable in discomfort.

Yep! There’s no throwing in the towel I’m afraid.

Remember to breathe

Holding their breathe never helped anyone.

This is the end

(of the article)

The reality is that this s#!t is hard. Leading, adopting change and addressing challenges that can and will come along.

But you can plan ahead.

You can get help.

And you can become a more resilient leadership team in doing so.

Don’t forget to breathe and keep showing up, even when it feels like you’ve been punched in the mouth.


Image by RDNE Stock project [cropped and edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach, helping the professional culture of the architecture profession. I believe the best way to do this is support leadership development.

I’ve worked in architecture for almost 30 years, and ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I help practices work on their leadership team and strategies. Supporting practices to become more open, fluid, and adaptable. Realising the collective energy, passion, and capabilities of their people.

Interested in hearing I can help? Let’s chat about the leadership development of you or your team.
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