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Leadership lessons from the ‘Fourth Plinth’

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Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth is more than a PR gimmick, argues Alan Ward, it's a useful metaphor for coaching and leadership.

Sculptor Antony Gormley has asked members of the public to apply to get up on the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London for one hour, to create a ‘living monument’ that ‘represents humanity’. Every hour, 24 hours a day, for 100 days, a different person takes to the plinth to perform, demonstrate or reflect. The rules are simple: they have to stay there alone for an hour; they can do whatever they want, provided it’s legal, and they can take anything with them that they can carry.

Standing out from the crowd

So what does this have to do with coaching, leadership and life in organisations? I believe it presents a useful analogy to observe what happens when we metaphorically put people on a pedestal in the work context. For a start, the way that people choose to spend their time on the plinth models different leadership styles. Some enjoy the view from the top: they watch people, they contemplate.

Some deliver a strongly-held message, to varying degrees of interest. Some look lost and ill at ease. Others play to the crowd and try to entertain or interact with them. The Trafalgar Square audience generally reacts positively to involvement and wants to be engaged. If the person on high doesn’t connect with them, they quickly lose interest and drift away. How familiar a lesson is that for leaders?

There’s more. Think about the crowd standing around the plinth watching those on high. They are free to come and go, attend or ignore, support or jeer. What compels them to stay, to want to be there? A good leader has to understand the needs of ‘their crowd’. So what are the expectations of a leader? The people around the plinth seem to crave action. They constantly shout: ‘What are you doing up there? What are you meant to be? What are you going to do? Do something!’ In the current, fragile economy the same thing is happening in today’s organisations. Employees are looking up at their leaders and asking: ‘What are you going to do? Do something!’

One factor, which often influences whether people are seen as ‘successful’ on the plinth, is the action of their immediate predecessor. Whether the person in front of you threw out gifts or sat there mutely, there’s an expectation that you’ll come on and do something different. More of the same does not hold attention for long, even if it is more give-aways. The lesson here is that leaders need to understand what has gone on before, to be able to tailor their approach accordingly and to get the crowd on their side, if they are to capture people’s interest and hold their attention long enough for the message to be heard.

Why bother?

What motivates people to apply for a position on the plinth? The individual blogs would seem to suggest that many plinth applicants have given little thought to what they would actually do if they were allocated a slot. Simply getting selected is probably the principal goal for most. Some will have applied so they could tell their friends they’re going to be up there or because they felt it would be ‘interesting’ or to take their part in history. However, once chosen, many start to worry about what they’ve let themselves in for. One commented: “Not worried about feeling foolish on the plinth but more concerned about being mediocre!”

This is an interesting parallel for what happens to some people when they pursue a leadership position at work. They want the sense of ‘achievement’ from being selected. Success is often defined simply by being chosen for the role. When I’m coaching someone who is going for a promotion, I’m much more interested in asking them what they plan to do when they get the job, rather than asking them what makes them think they’re eligible. I’d go as far as to say that leadership in organisations would be much more enlightened if selectors focused on this question up front - and if candidates came prepared to answer it.

Lessons learnt

The plinth also raises a leadership lesson about understanding the circumstances you face. Each day someone will be designated to stand on the plinth between 4.00am and 5.00am. Clearly those people will be frustrated if they want to play to a large, receptive crowd. Others will have to stand there in pouring rain at whatever hour. The point is that some events and circumstances are inherited, non-negotiable or outside our control. Accepting that and being prepared to carry on under ‘unfair’ conditions are characteristics of true leaders.

You might not choose to lead in unfavourable markets but your actions will determine the future of the organisation probably more than when all is plain sailing. This brings us to some analogies for coaching. As coaches, we have to recognise the drivers of leaders, understand the reality of the situation in which they’re working and help them to achieve within those circumstances. In the same way that people volunteer for the plinth for different reasons, the people we coach will have different needs, whether it is to be loved, applauded or listened to.

To be an effective coach, we have to recognise these different needs. Finally, if we were to ask each person as they came off the plinth what they noticed about how it made them feel, I expect that many would say the experience had taught them something about themselves. There’s an obvious lesson here about getting people out of their comfort zone. But in addition there’s a lesson for coaches about helping individuals to reach a high level of self-awareness.

Surely, as coaches, this is our primary role. Antony Gormley’s ‘living portrait’ on the Fourth Plinth runs until 14 October 2009. Slots are still available. How would you spend an hour on the plinth? What would you do up there? The answer could be quite revealing. Click here to apply.

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist. He also chairs TrainingZone’s Coaching Discussion Group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business.

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