Christmas can bring its own kind of chaos. Christmas 2001 will always be one of my absolute favourites, notwithstanding that I’d optimistically invited sixteen guests for lunch at our pink mews house in London, with a table that seated ten at a push, a husband bed-bound with double pneumonia, a fourteen-month-old and a turkey of a similar size, that was far too big for the oven. Known for being over-ambitious with my vision for such events and certainly over-optimistic about my cooking capabilities, I planned a feast for the seventeen and a half of us. We were an odd bunch, ranging in age from one to seventy, some familiar faces, some brought absolute strangers, only unified by the fact that we were all Australians a long way from home. One was a rather conservative retired Supreme Court judge, who was gifted “Islam for Dummies”; another, the humanitarian son of a progressive Supreme Court judge, lawyers, artists, writers, fashionistas, bankers, designers and one overtired entrepreneur. I had to take down a door to use as a table extension. I forgot to buy sand in which to stand the dozens of decorative candles, so I decided to use brown sugar as a substitute. What could possibly go wrong?
The table was alight with laughter, conversation, diverse opinions heartily expressed and flames. (Don’t ever replace sand with sugar if a lit match is involved. You knew that, didn’t you. Am I the only person who didn’t know that?) I loved the glorious melange of people, most never having met before, celebrating what made them unique and what unified them as a group. I loved the rapturous collective response, as the entire group became momentary firefighters as we doused the centrepiece when it caught fire. Even when the judge and the son of another judge had a “lively discussion” which ended in them being separated and entertained in separate rooms, the joy continued to flow. On paper, the day reads like a cacophony of disasters, but the generosity of spirit amongst the group created an irrepressible positive energy, which forgave the chaos. Actually, the collective goodwill nullified the chaos.
Chaos seems to abound everywhere at the moment. It continues to harangue us from a multitude of directions. It’s exhausting and challenging. How do we look after ourselves? How do we look after our people? My leadership style has always been servant leadership. I care deeply that the people I’m responsible for feel heard, empowered, safe and energised. Just like that Christmas lunch – any good host creates an environment that embraces each and every guest, expressing genuine interest in them, ensuring that they have a voice at the table, providing an environment that celebrates diversity and respects their beliefs. Giving people every reason to feel better for having had the experience. That’s how leaders should want their teams to feel about working for them.
Perhaps as leaders, we should consider our team members as if they were guests in our homes. We understandably focus on our customers, but without nurtured and confident team members whose trust we’ve earned, our businesses are nowt. We need to set the tone even before people cross our threshold. Our statement of purpose needs to be evident from the very first touchpoint (the invitation or interview). Once they arrive, in order to earn credibility and trust, and to establish the right tone, the values set, have to be authentically consistent in all behaviours.
Leaders are no less immune to stress, anxiety and uncertainty than anyone else. We need to nurture ourselves and accept with humility, that we also make mistakes and feel overwhelmed. When chaos reigns we need cool heads and warm hearts. The perception of our team members and guests is tantamount to our success. They need to know that in the face of all adversity, we are consistently committed to supporting and serving them so that they feel strengthened and safe in the chaos. And when we have to make tough decisions, as we all do when business environments are so challenged, teams will trust the necessary process, because the commitment to values and goodwill has been the consistent north (Christmas) star.
Deepak Chopra says that “all great changes are preceded by chaos”, and we should take solace in that. It’s never proven to be the case with my cooking, but I think there are glimmers of light and hope on the horizon for us all.