Five (or Six) Lenses of Leadership

At the begin­ning of a large work­shop, a woman raised her hand and said, “I have to admit that I get frus­trat­ed with con­ver­sa­tions about lead­er­ship. I have a lot of things to do and not much time. If I’m going to be asked to be a leader then please just tell me what that is and what I need to do – and I’ll do it!” The frus­tra­tion in her voice was gen­uine, and I felt sym­pa­thet­ic in a way. It would be so much eas­i­er if we could reduce lead­er­ship to a few “things to do,” but, of course, we can’t and so her state­ment was also iron­ic. The nature of lead­er­ship is the exact oppo­site of some­body else’s formula.

What we can do is set up an ongo­ing dia­logue about what lead­ing means to each of us. In doing so, we learn from each oth­er, deep­en­ing our per­son­al def­i­n­i­tions and under­stand­ings. Here is a sto­ry that illus­trates some of my own views. It is about five close­ly inter­twined top­ics bear­ing on lead­er­ship: self-knowl­edge, con­di­tion­ing, whole­ness, mean­ing and results. These are like five lens­es (plus one more) used to look at the same thing – which is the process of growth I believe we face in learn­ing to become lead­ers of our­selves and of others.


Here’s the story. 

A young man­ag­er still form­ing his “style” and approach to oth­ers was unsure if he should be hard or soft on those who worked for him. He was inclined to be sup­port­ive and humane, but had grown up in his pro­fes­sion under a par­tic­u­lar­ly harsh and author­i­tar­i­an “mentor,” and had been told, point blank, that being tough and even cru­el at times was the way to get the best from oth­ers. Less demand­ing lead­ers, he had been advised, would be naïve and more eas­i­ly tak­en advan­tage of. It was clear the “men­tor” had done some dam­age to the young man­ag­er. He no longer trust­ed his own judg­ment and instincts.

Giv­en this back­ground, it is not sur­pris­ing that the young man­ag­er might have prob­lems admin­is­ter­ing vaca­tions, since vaca­tions rep­re­sent­ed for him tak­ing one’s nose off the grind­stone, a sign of lazi­ness and poten­tial incom­pe­tence. He expressed through his tone and atti­tude an ambiva­lence about tak­ing any time off what­so­ev­er. He had told staff that you “didn’t just take a vacation.” There ought to be a “good rea­son” for tak­ing one. And when some­one did decide to take time away, it was up to that per­son to ensure that the work of the orga­ni­za­tion would not suf­fer in the slight­est and that all dead­lines would be met just as if the staff mem­ber were still there. This cre­at­ed stress and guilt for staff about tak­ing a vaca­tion for two rea­sons: a dis­ap­prov­ing boss and because it meant gain­ing the coop­er­a­tion of already over­loaded peers who would have to com­plete­ly cov­er for the time away.

Luck­i­ly, this was an issue where some anony­mous feed­back to the young man­ag­er from his employ­ees about his views toward vaca­tion proved quite help­ful. It did not take him long to see that the pres­sure he placed on him­self for achieve­ment and accom­plish­ment was direct­ly impair­ing his rela­tion­ships with oth­ers, includ­ing how he went about enforc­ing his poli­cies and expec­ta­tions for them. This was an impor­tant break­through. He real­ized that he was in fact talk­ing non­sense to him­self and to oth­ers. “A good rea­son” for a vaca­tion is that you feel you want and need one, peri­od, and as long as it can be planned not to cause a major dis­rup­tion, should be approved. 

This, it seems to me, is what much of self-knowl­edge is like: chang­ing your mind about some­thing that has been gov­erned by unex­am­ined per­son­al assump­tions, beliefs, thoughts and reac­tions. It’s about break­ing through the con­di­tion­ing of past expe­ri­ences and the rules for liv­ing we have adopt­ed, rules that have become habit­u­al and sec­ond nature as an atti­tude toward self, oth­ers and life. In this case those rules were about achieve­ment and accom­plish­ment and how hard one­self and oth­ers must work in order to make a mean­ing­ful contribution. 

What directs such dis­cov­ery is not super­fi­cial. It is not, in this case, mere­ly about a per­son­nel pol­i­cy. It is more about the nat­ur­al urge to fill in blank places of one’s per­son­al­i­ty and “soul.” Because “soul” is a dif­fi­cult term for many to accept, I use anoth­er term, whole­ness, to explain what it is that calls to us and man­ages our process of inner recog­ni­tion, judg­ment, growth and ful­fill­ment so that we stop “talking non­sense” to our­selves. Self-knowl­edge is a dis­cov­ery on the way to per­son­al whole­ness that is so strong it lit­er­al­ly leads to new or revised action and results. The sto­ry unfolds dif­fer­ent­ly from where it might have gone had the blind spot persisted.


In the exam­ple of this leader, he soon became espe­cial­ly sen­si­tive to one of his staff mem­bers who felt dis­tressed about not ever being able to get away from her job long enough to go vis­it her fam­i­ly in Asia. Giv­en his self-reflec­tions, he sat down with her and explained his chang­ing per­spec­tive on vaca­tions. Instead of lec­tur­ing her about her need for a good rea­son, he sim­ply encour­aged her to make some prepa­ra­tions and go. He promised she would not be pun­ished for tak­ing time off as she had feared. 

So she did just that – with her fam­i­ly decid­ing to gath­er at an island resort for a reunion. Dur­ing the short time she was there, her father unex­pect­ed­ly became ill and died. Although this was very sad, she was able to be with him and she was able to say good­bye. It was clear, in ret­ro­spect, that there was a very “good rea­son” for her vaca­tion, just not one that she or any­one could have anticipated.

All this dri­ves some­thing else. The out­come of this par­tic­u­lar process holds an impor­tant mean­ing for the man­ag­er and staff mem­ber. The fact that the out­come – the father’s death and the daughter’s chance to say good­bye — appears direct­ly linked to the leader’s insight about pres­sure cre­ates a mean­ing­ful coin­ci­dence, a form of syn­chronic­i­ty as defined by Carl Jung that lends pow­er, legit­i­ma­cy and even inti­ma­cy to the leader’s inner work. It seems to con­firm, as if from a uni­ver­sal source, that this is the right direc­tion for the leader to go, toward soft­en­ing rather than becom­ing more demand­ing and harsh. We are invit­ed into this mean­ing, so close­ly relat­ed to grief, to mor­tal­i­ty, to how short life is and the real val­ue of our accom­plish­ments, even as we know that a mean­ing­ful coin­ci­dence may be only hap­pen­stance. Still, the qual­i­ty of syn­chronic­i­ty con­firms the val­ue of the sto­ry in intan­gi­ble and provoca­tive ways. It’s not about work — it’s about life.

Final­ly, we can take this exam­ple one step fur­ther, to also ask about results. I’m not talk­ing about quan­tifi­able results in the sense of the staff member’s pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. The results I’m talk­ing about here can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from the peo­ple and their rela­tion­ship with one anoth­er. What do you imag­ine about this story’s impacts — both on the young man­ag­er and the staff mem­ber — in terms of their capac­i­ty to col­lab­o­rate, to be cre­ative, to learn togeth­er, to oper­ate with dis­ci­pline and atten­tive­ness and care for their work as a joint enter­prise? What will be dif­fer­ent about the respect the staff mem­ber feels for the leader? For the leader’s empa­thy for oth­ers, for his mea­sure­ment of his own life and work against a scale out­side of self-dri­ven accom­plish­ment? The leader’s insight leads to a sur­prise, first in con­scious­ness and growth, then action, then mean­ing and results.

Too often we try to encap­su­late such learn­ing. We make it lin­ear rather than organ­ic. We take all the sur­prise out of it. We want the for­mu­la, not the bless­ing. We think it has some­thing to do with flat­ter struc­tures or what­ev­er the most recent fad is – for exam­ple, the the grab bag now called “employee engage­men­t” — or maybe some valu­able new dis­cov­ery in neu­ro­science. Those expla­na­tions may be com­fort­ing­ly ratio­nal but all too eas­i­ly dis­place the essen­tial expe­ri­ence. This is not a one-way trans­ac­tion with the world, a cue card, a blog post pur­port­ing to define the five steps to enlight­en­ment. What we have, I think, are just some lens­es to look through, know­ing sure­ly there are more. They are, I believe, all ways to see the small, shared, sub­lime trans­for­ma­tions, part of a mys­tery that can’t be pre­dictably repeat­ed, just invited.

Which is often, if you have the right kind of open­ness, more than plen­ty and just enough.


RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, occa­sion­al Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of the front page.

Pin­ter­est users, you can pin pic­tures from this weblog via this Board.


  • Won­der­ful to see your post. I had just been think­ing of you the oth­er day and won­der­ing how you were doing.(OK, I should have gone to your stream, but you know how things can get some­times) so this is anoth­er very “Serendip­i­tous” thing to have happen.
    Excel­lent post by the way as we are all too often too hard on our­selves as you say, to fill in the emp­ty spaces and there­fore too hard on employees/friends/family.
    Always good to take an intro­spec­tive check with you as the guide.

  • Dear Mar­garet–

    So nice to hear from you, too. I’ve been hard at work with clients. Lots going on. It was great to take time today to do some writ­ing. And, yes, that “hard on our­selves part because of the emp­ty spaces” can be tricky to nav­i­gate. We all need our rest, our inspi­ra­tion, and our time in “flow.”

    Thanks again for stop­ping by and leav­ing a comment!

    All the best

  • Dan, an inspir­ing thought piece.

  • Thank you so much, Zara! It may not get me more clients, but what the heck, it’s what I feel.

  • That’s a nice sto­ry of the junior employ­ee ask­ing for a leave to take a per­son­al vaca­tion back home. The response of the Man­ag­er who hes­i­tates in the begin­ning cit­ing log­ic and rea­son and lat­er giv­ing in.
    One needs to be open and aware at high­er man­age­ment posi­tions. There is a mean­ing and pur­pose to our action and the results we get. If there is gen­uine need and gen­uine action and if we are tru­ly open and hum­ble, we will see the synchronicity.
    Increas­ing­ly, we are liv­ing in a ratio­nale results dri­ven cor­po­rate world. As you right­ly said, the lead­er’s insight first leads to sur­prise in con­scious­ness and growth, then actions and then results. Agree with you, learn­ing needs to organ­ic and not encap­su­lat­ed or in a lin­ear fashion.
    Loved read­ing through your arti­cle. V nice. Well writ­ten. Good lan­guage. I hap­pen to bump into your site from anoth­er site. I have learnt some­thing today. I will vis­it again. Cheers, Ramkumar

  • Dear Ramku­mar~

    Thank you very much for read­ing my arti­cle and tak­ing the time to com­ment. I like your thought: “If there is gen­uine need and gen­uine action and if we are tru­ly open and hum­ble, we will see the syn­chronic­i­ty.” That express­es per­fect­ly the actions and expe­ri­ence of the man­ag­er in this case. I think he did not so much “give in” to the employ­ee who wished a vaca­tion; at least he did not give in to her so much as he gave in to him­self — using anoth­er, bet­ter kind of log­ic and good sense.

    Again, thank you so much for drop­ping by!

    All the best

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.