The Leadership Skill No One Talks About
It wasn’t my decision to make.
Not my challenge to meet.
Not my ‘life gristle’ to chew.
And I think I’d have rather it was!
A close friend was navigating a challenging situation at work and it wasn’t going well.
The other leader wasn’t prepared to talk or own what was theirs to own. My friend was forced to concede and be the bigger person again and again and again – for the sake of their team and any future relationship that might be needed with this leader.
I was outraged on their behalf!
It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t right.
But it was the reality they were facing and I knew that me piling in and adding to the emotional drama certainly wasn’t going to help.
And so I learned to hold space.
To walk alongside them on a journey that was theirs and theirs alone.
To listen deeply, with compassion.
To stay open, curious and non-judgemental about their experience or that of the other leader.
To hear their frustration, rage and at times, hopelessness that it would never get any better, without trying to fix it.
It was such a valuable lesson for me to learn.
That perhaps I am a better friend, parent, leader by holding space for others to walk their path in their way; without me telling them how to walk it or trying to walk it for them.
What is holding space?
Author and teacher Heather Plett suggests that holding space “means we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”
As I work with my clients – whether that’s coaching a CEO to expand their leadership, supporting an Executive team to shift their internal dynamics or keynoting at a conference of thousands – I hold space.
What does this mean for me?
It means that I am deeply committed to the work we are doing together, to showing up present, engaged and in service of creating an experience that is joyful, invites curiosity and encourages growth.
And I am completely unattached to what the other people do with that experience.
I honour their experience, their choice, their journey.
Because holding space comes from a place of inquiry and invitation rather than instruction and expertise.
Holding space as leaders
For leaders this can be challenging.
We are often asked to provide solutions and problem solve, which can become our default way of being. Holding space can feel like ‘doing nothing’. That we are abandoning our people rather than supporting and leading them.
But far from being passive, holding space is about intentionally creating a safe environment where growth and development can naturally occur.
Our role as leader becomes facilitator for the people we are leading.
Harrison Owen originator of Open Space Technology says this of holding space:
‘The job of holding space and time does not fit neatly within a precise job description or linear specification of tasks. Done well, the role manifests as total presence and absolute invisibility. Holding space and time requires that you be in that space and time as fully present, available, open, truthful, and having no agenda of your own, except that the time and space be held and honored.”
And this is the crux…
Without personal agenda.
So the next time a friend, colleague, your partner or one of your team is struggling through the gristle of life, rather than trying to offer advice or solve the problem for them, just pause.
Take a slow deep breath.
And see if you can hold the space and invite the growth that comes from sitting with the messiness alongside them as witness to their journey and yours.
Honour them. Honour you. Invite expansion.
Hold your tongue and offer your presence.