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Leadership, block by block

Experiencing a creative slowdown at work? Treat it like the flu

Why does a dynamic team leader, once greatly passionate about work, suddenly seem demotivated and disengaged? Is it mere professional burnout, or a case of what may be called leader’s block?

After all, if authors can suffer from writer’s block, surely professionals may also encounter a seemingly insurmountable plateau at work? “...leader’s block is a condition in which a leader experiences a creative slowdown. In this state, leaders feel uninspired and demotivated and are unable to perform at their best,” writes Ritu G Mehrish in her book Leader’s Block: How Great Leaders Recover After They Stumble.

As I set out to meet the author, I wonder if this is the new normal. “It is not uncommon,” replies Mehrish, an executive coach and speaker with 20 years of corporate experience in companies such as Procter & Gamble, and GE Capital and its spin-off Genpact.

How did she coin this term, I ask her as we settle down for a chat about the book. “After about three years of coaching leaders, I realised that most were getting stuck somewhere or the other. In fact, even the reasons for getting stuck were somewhat similar. This made me wonder whether this trend was only with the leaders I coached or whether it was more widespread,” she says.

It led her to look back at her own corporate journey of 20 years, and conclude that she faced a similar situation on many occasions. “I found so many instances where I could feel that I was blocked. So this was my own journey and that of the leaders I coached. It also led me to think that if this was happening so frequently, I should explore it further. Thus, this idea of interviewing more people came about... and that’s when I coined ‘leader’s block’,” she adds.

“I didn’t start with the term and then do my research. The topic led me to come up with something that people could relate to.”

The book talks about team leaders and CEOs who have suffered from this, and come out of it. But the challenge, she points out, lies in first identifying and then acknowledging the problem. “You love your job, but you no longer find it stimulating and exciting. It is an indicator that you could be hitting leader’s block,” she says. “It is not a stigma. It is common, innocuous and contagious. It is like the flu, but the scale of intensity can vary.”

So, as in the case of a virus which leads you to visit a doctor, once the problem is identified, an employee should first meet his or her immediate supervisor or manager. “For the employee, the manager is his/her organisation. HR is an enabler and creates the ecosystem. For example, if I was stuck my first point of contact would be my manager. HR would enable my manager,” she says.

But what does the CEO or founder of an organisation do when they face a similar situation? The author suggests he or she talk to the team. An organisation must encourage open dialogues to move leader’s block from a closed-room conversation to corridor conversation, she says.

Mehrish believes the reason behind the rising numbers of those getting hit by leader’s block is their constantly changing work environment.

“Today, we rarely find cases where people have spent 15-20 years on the same job. Also, technology is redefining jobs. You cannot continue with the skill you started with. And, yes, there is the competition out there,” she stresses.

According to her, a leader has to unlearn and relearn concepts and keep the channels open because he or she will constantly be dealing with a new set of people. Further, teams are no more homogeneous — they are represented by people from different generations and gender, and with diverse thoughts.

Leadership, she adds, is not a linear skill. “It is curvy and abstract. And has many challenges. It is the task of the leader to find the right balance — how much to motivate, how much to be involved, how much to be detached, how much do you lead and how much you let them learn. Great leaders do that,” she maintains.

The trigger for the block can also be personal. For example, society often defines what success is — and any aberration can be a hurdle. “Society defines that by the time you are 40, you have to have that beautiful apartment, you have to have that car. Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of us get influenced by it,” she says.

While the book does not deal specifically with women being adversely impacted by other women, Mehrish says, “I can tell you from my own experience and through coaching that a big reason why women sometimes end up pulling each other down is because the opportunities are limited for them at the top. Therefore, I think the competition gets stiffer as compared with that of men.”

She ends the book with case studies which illustrate how coaching and dialogues can help one deal with leader’s block. Mehrish agrees that there are many issues — such as the role of society and challenges faced by women — that remain to be tackled.

Maybe there is another book there, and perhaps the emergence of another new catchphrase?

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