Emma (not her real name) runs hospitals. She is a senior leader in the NHS (UK’s national health system) with huge experience, high credibility and an abiding passion for healthcare. Emma, like all leaders, has been on her own personal journey over recent years, with ups and downs that lead her to reflect, learn lessons from the past and refocus on what is most important to her.
Naming a professional or leadership dream
In a coaching group I invite Emma to talk about her vision for her life for next few years. We are a new group, and I encourage everyone to introduce themselves not with their normal story (the usual way we introduce ourselves to new people) but instead with a description of what in their wildest dreams, they would love to be doing in 3 – 5 years.
Emma introduces herself. She speaks both about her past and about her future. Though very senior and experienced, she has recently experienced bullying at work. This was shocking and painful for her. She mentions this just briefly, adding that she’s wondered about leaving the sector completely. She’s unsure why she stays, because it can be so hard and demanding and at times, so uncaring.
And then she shares what, in her wildest dreams, she’d love to be doing in 3 years. “I want to run a hospital where the staff care so deeply and genuinely for each other, that it permeates everything they do. By caring and really looking after one another, they create a quality of love and care for patients in the hospital that has never been seen before.”
And at that point everything changed.
The power to move and inspire others
I felt it. And so did others. A little frisson or bolt of energy in my stomach running up to my heart. I was literally moved – both touched and also energised and engaged in this possibility. I asked Emma what it felt like to share that dream with us. She was a little emotional, and also radiant. “I’ve never said that out loud before” she said. “It feels like a … relief”. Emma looked physically different, more relaxed, glowing.
We explored a little further. How could someone go in a few sentences from thinking seriously about leaving the profession to then sharing a vision with the potential to move our group and perhaps hundreds, maybe thousands of others? How does that shift happen so quickly? From thinking of leaving, to deciding to lead – truly lead, and create something new?
I believe it happens when someone has the courage to speak out loud a private dream or vision that has been held inside, sometimes for a very long time.
Emma felt this as a joyful relief.
The rest of us experienced this as a powerful, energising, clear statement of what is possible.
Let’s look a little more closely here. And as we do, I invite you to bring to mind a secret dream or private vision that you’ve had regarding your own work or leadership. Something that never quite goes away, and keeps popping up in your mind periodically. Like it just won’t let you go. Something that perhaps you feel a bit embarrassed about, a bit ashamed of – like it is just too much, too big, or too fanciful.
Please bring it to mind as you read further.
What happens when people speak out loud a dream or vision for their work:
– Emma heard herself say it.
Our outer voice and inner voice are different. To actually hear ourselves say something has an impact. We say it and also hear it at the same time. This matters.
– Emma felt the impact that speaking this had on her.
Again this is different from just imagining or thinking. It’s out in the world for the first time and Emma then experienced the physical, emotional effect this has on her. It felt GOOD! This is not a coincidence. The relief, the joy and the smile are not trivial. They are embodied feedback and a sign that this is something worthwhile and healthy for Emma to pursue.
– Emma noticed the impact that her vision had on those around her.
This was a microcosm of her future leadership. Sure, we don’t work in hospitals. But we are all intelligent professionals and all engage with the healthcare system in different ways. And every one of us was impacted, touched and excited by this vision. Who wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t want their loved ones in a hospital where the staff care so deeply about one another that a sense of care and compassion radiates out of every conversation and every corridor? But had we ever thought about it before Emma spoke? No.
– Emma received feedback.
Her vision moves and inspires people and is wanted. Even though she is very senior, these things still matter – to all of us. We all want to know if our visions are well received. Often the bolder they are, the more nervous we are about sharing them. But we won’t find out if we keep them private.
– Emma gained insights that she’d not had before.
She realised that the reason she had stayed in the sector despite it being hard, challenging and sometimes brutal, was not because she was scared to leave. Or because she just needed the money. It was because there is something important, she has to do there. And she hadn’t done it yet! The connection between her vision and her suffering was suddenly apparent and direct. Very often the thing which makes professionals and leaders suffer most is connected to the thing they are called to bring into the world for the benefit of others. We don’t tend to see it that way – until we share our story and speak our dream out loud.
– Emma was able to share her dream in a situation where it could be valued and heard.
We don’t do enough of this – in our lives and certainly not in our organisations. As a leader or manager, try opening up a space where others can do that. Actually, ask them ‘in your wildest dreams what would you most like to be doing or creating in 3 years from now?’ If you can suspend judgement and practical critique, and are able to really listen well, you will be astounded at what comes out. And you’ll probably be motivated then to help it happen.
The caveat is this. Organisations can be tough, brutal and seemingly unfeeling places at times. It is important to speak your dream. But it is also important to do this initially in a context where you will be well heard, not judged and given space. So, before you do this in a team meeting or with your boss, do it with a close colleague or two. Or with a coach or mentor who is invested in bringing out the very best of you. Do find courage to speak your dream out loud – really it will change your world. But initially at least find a supportive and appreciative context where you can begin.
Speaking your own dream:
“I have a dream that one day …” Dr Martin Luther King, 1963.
As you’ve been reading, I wonder what dream or vision related to your own work and leadership has come to mind? Is there something glimmering there, trying to make itself known to you? If there is, please give it space, don’t push it away. It may well seem ridiculous or impossible or idealistic. No one ever created anything worthwhile and new that didn’t seem like that at first.
And now make a commitment.
Who will you share this with? What will be your first step in speaking this dream out loud?
Good luck. The world absolutely needs what you are secretly dreaming in your heart right now. To speak it will change something – in you, in others, and in time in the world.
Let me know how you get on. I’d love to hear back.