With the tip of his toes kissing the baseline, his knees slightly
bent, he ritually rolls the racket in his fingers, poised to return his
opponent's well-known, yet unpredictable serve.
The American legend, Andre Agassi, is widely regarded as the best
serve returner in the history of tennis. In an instant, he instinctively
rebounded sure aces with stunning return winners.
A self-disciplined and extremely focused tennis player can submit
himself to meet whatever the opponent has in store for him. However,
responding to the surprising moments can be overwhelming. Not only on
the tennis court, but also at the office. Whether you chair the weekly
internal meeting, facilitate a workshop with 300 clients or meet with a
high-profile customer for the first time, surprising things happen.
Different interests are at stake, things can get political – or even
- Regardless of the situation, you can't hide behind your
professional toolbox. Most leaders like to be in control, but when we're
caught with our pants down, we can't possibly know all the answers. To
be comfortable with these moments, we need to seize the opportunity to
explore whatever arises.
The words belong to Psychologist Karina Solsø, expert in leadership
and organisational development at Ramboll Management Consulting. It is
easier said than done, obviously. But this process consultant has
witnessed the same pattern in a long list of companies and
organisations. A pattern so recurrent that she, at the time of writing,
is working on a PhD under guidance of Professor Ralph Stacey from the Complexity and Management
Centre at the University of Hertfordshire in London. A PhD that
challenges the idea that to become a great leader, you need a big box
full of tools.
Explore the burning issues
The PhD student is in the process of deconstructing the patterns that
occur when leaders find themselves in tricky, unpredictable situations.
Her research and experience show that people are most often interested
in appearing competent and in control because of their professional
identity – and pride.
When those unpleasant moments arise, leaders are left with a
difficult question: How should I handle the situation, and how can I
respond in a way that accommodates both the employees' needs and the
overall purpose of the meeting?
- Many leaders tend to close up and avoid the burning issue.
Sometimes because they are too concerned about sticking to the meeting
agenda and getting to the action plan as quickly as possible, and
sometimes because the issue is too sensitive to cope with. Yet a big
potential often lies in the ability to take a timeout, drop what you had
planned to say and engage with curiosity in a spontaneous and
explorative conversation. Showing your appetite for risk and reflection
creates understanding and a new sense of common ownership which can pave
the way for innovation, Karina Solsø explains.
- That being said, I think it's difficult and pointless to live
without tools. To be successful as a business, you need to progress, and
for that you need guiding categories and certain practical grips to
avoid getting lost. However, tools rely on predictability and control,
and since every context or person is unique, they often fall short.
Instead, you have to figure out what the particular situation calls for.
From competent to expert
Even the best and most experienced tennis players have weak spots.
What truly characterises the top performers is the ability to realise
your own vulnerabilities and investigate them. "Why is my backhand so
unreliable when under pressure? How come it destroys my game when I get
According to psychologist Hubert Dreyfus' model of skill acquisition,
moving from competent to expert takes the ability to make intuitive
decisions based on tacit knowledge that you gain from experience. In a
professional context, leaders must refine their practical judgement,
meaning the ability to handle the complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity
that mount in complex processes.
- This means that leaders improve when they examine their own
experience. "What happened? How did it make me feel? Why did I react so
strongly?" Through this self-reflective process and inner dialogue,
leaders can learn how they react in unpredictable and uncomfortable
situations, and how to recognise patterns and develop an intuitive
awareness, Karina Solsø says.
Do these physiological notions about practical judgement still seem too fluffy? There is hope, Karina Solsø reiterates.
- Most professionals recognise the picture of thick-skinned leaders
who don't pick up signals, because they are too insecure. Learning to be
comfortable with the unexpected can liberate you as a leader and team.
On the one hand, it equips you with an enormous amount of robustness,
while on the other hand, you develop a delicate, sure instinct for
sense-making. And that you can turn into motivation, engagement and new
ways of thinking.
As a tennis player, hitting the perfect counterpunch demands an
extraordinary ability to explore your own strokes. The same goes for
leaders. The ones, who do not have the discipline to engage in the
self-reflective conversation, risk missing out on the chance to
And those, who do not dedicate their time to understanding how the
game is played, will lose. When you understand it, then striking that
intelligent return is no big deal.