This is a longer post.

Be” First, Then Decide What to “Do”

Dur­ing my career as a lead­er­ship con­sul­tant and coach I’ve lis­tened many times as a client leader has admit­ted some self-per­ceived fail­ing. Jerome’s heart­felt “confession” was one of these moments. He sheep­ish­ly told me there was some­one who report­ed to him who intim­i­dat­ed him, a man­ag­er who seemed to be “much faster intel­lec­tu­al­ly” and “more aggres­sive” than he was. Jerome said it caused him to retreat from the man­ag­er and “to reduce his own influence.” “I can’t ask him to change course on any­thing with­out a debate that turns into a fight,” Jerome told me, “and he is much bet­ter at fight­ing than I am. I can’t match wits with him and win.”

Jerome knew with­draw­al was not the right approach, and so this per­ceived intel­li­gence and aggres­sion gap caused him pain. Jerome, after all, had years of expe­ri­ence as a man­ag­er and was not typ­i­cal­ly inse­cure, nor par­tic­u­lar­ly con­trol­ling. To the con­trary, he much pre­ferred using per­sua­sion over posi­tion pow­er to accom­plish team goals. But this also could lead to prob­lems. If some­one wasn’t open to influ­ence through per­sua­sion, he was stuck.

I saw Jerome’s acknowl­edge­ment of his dilem­ma as a sign of courage rather than weak­ness. After all, in our Amer­i­can cul­ture this inabil­i­ty to “match wits and win” all too often is an unspo­ken require­ment of lead­ing. His open­ness flew in the face of that cul­ture because of his emo­tion­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. I remem­ber him emphat­i­cal­ly ask­ing at the end of his descrip­tion of his oppo­nent, “But what should I do with some­one who is smarter, emo­tion­al­ly stronger and faster than I am? How on earth can I man­age him?”

My impres­sion is that this par­tic­u­lar feel­ing of inad­e­qua­cy around not being able to match wits is more com­mon than peo­ple would like to think, and the truth is Jerome’s ques­tion isn’t all that easy to answer in a gener­ic way. It’s big­ger than sim­ply offer­ing tech­niques to deal with bul­lies. It goes deep­er into the per­cep­tions and self-beliefs of the leader and calls up an even more basic ques­tion of what lead­er­ship is. I’m not talk­ing about a stan­dard dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion that lists activ­i­ties like cre­at­ing a vision and moti­vat­ing peo­ple to meet it. Rather, I’m point­ing to the deep­er dive need­ed to find a hard-won per­son­al answer, the kind that as a prod­uct of expe­ri­ence includes suc­cess­es and mis­takes and an ongo­ing dis­ci­pline of reflec­tive self-obser­va­tion. It is a person’s search for a soul­ful, liv­ing def­i­n­i­tion of lead­er­ship that is unique, prac­ti­cal and wise.

To me, this search for a more indi­vid­ual, liv­ing def­i­n­i­tion of lead­er­ship is where truer forms of influ­ence and impact have always begun. If this is so then there are as many kinds of search­es relat­ed to defin­ing our lead­er­ship as there are peo­ple able to acknowl­edge and face their prob­lems. For example:

A leader strug­gles with know­ing what he wants from his high lev­el admin­is­tra­tive job. He is so caught up in the per­fec­tion­is­tic shoulds of his role, ful­fill­ing his boss’s and his cus­tomer­s’ desires that there is no time for him to look after his own needs. In our coach­ing work togeth­er he repeat­ed­ly defers and deflects oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn more about what he desires for him­self, and so he stays stuck in a state of qua­si burnout, unsure how to keep up with the end­less oblig­a­tions to oth­ers that he con­sis­tent­ly places first.

Anoth­er client leader strug­gles with tak­ing on an expand­ed role in a new orga­ni­za­tion after leav­ing a job where he was caught up in finan­cial scan­dals and dis­grace. He wants to know how to go about this new begin­ning with ener­gy, able to meet and con­fi­dent­ly guide a new team. Yet, he has not yet deter­mined the mes­sage hid­den inside what he calls his “fall” and wor­ries it will affect his per­for­mance. He must find a new def­i­n­i­tion of lead­ing but, giv­en his besmirched past he is unclear where to look for it.

Yet anoth­er leader wants to under­stand the neg­a­tive feed­back about her that has been passed along to her boss by one of her own report­ing man­agers. The leader is in the push-pull of her own tem­pera­ment: on one hand sin­cere­ly want­i­ng to under­stand the feed­back and on anoth­er crit­i­cal of the man­ag­er who bypassed her and report­ed the neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion up the chain. She must find a way through the rocky pas­sage of her own con­flict­ed emo­tions. She, too, must find and live a new def­i­n­i­tion of her leadership.

Caught in these dilem­mas of every­day per­son­al expe­ri­ence, we may not notice that these chal­lenges are our great­est teach­ers pre­cise­ly because they are about lead­ing our­selves – and they are often uncom­fort­able. Like the client who doesn’t feel smart enough, we want to know what to do to get out of that dis­com­fort as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. We want reli­able meth­ods and mod­els, recipes, mea­sure­ments and check-lists. We want clear ways to escape from murky sit­u­a­tions, wield­ing a sharp knife to cut through every Gor­dian knot. We want exper­tise and how-to’s, a set of clear steps. (Isn’t there a sem­i­nar or workshop?)

Yet that’s not like­ly. There’s nev­er going to be per­fect, all-encom­pass­ing answer to the ques­tion posed to me one day by a par­tic­i­pant in a large train­ing ses­sion. Ear­ly in the con­ver­sa­tion, she raised her hand and said she “just want­ed to know what she was sup­posed to do as a leader.” “I’m sor­ry to be blunt about this,” she said. ”But just tell me what it is and I’ll do it! Can we get to that soon­er rather than lat­er, not take a whole day of my time to get to it?” As if there could ever be a final for­mu­la, a set of known activ­i­ties and atti­tudes that might qualify.

Oth­ers laughed ner­vous­ly wait­ing for my reply to the blunt par­tic­i­pant. I chose to tell her that day that her hunt would have lit­tle val­ue unless she slowed down to pur­sue it more per­son­al­ly, not ask­ing, “What do I do” but ask­ing instead, “What is my lead­er­ship about,” and in the end, “What am I about?” Ques­tions no one could ever answer but her.

Anoth­er exam­ple of this all too com­mon “just tell me what to do” demand for a for­mu­la is when peo­ple – again often at work­shops — have want­ed to know how to deal with this or that type of per­son. For exam­ple, the chal­leng­ing staff mem­ber who is sar­cas­tic, who seems to under­mine the pow­er of the boss through a tough edge of ques­tion­ing cyn­i­cism. Peo­ple want to know the tricks for deal­ing with some­one like this. They want to know what to say to shut this per­son down or turn them around, as if this asso­ciate is a Rubik’s Cube that needs to be twist­ed in a par­tic­u­lar way. They want a mag­ic phrase or rit­u­al; in effect, a tech­nique to com­pete with and then gain con­trol of the “negative” person.

How many times I’ve had to learn not to try to pro­vide a for­mu­la or tech­nique! (If I do, inevitably the ques­tion­er responds, “I’ve already tried that and it doesn’t work!”) I’ve learned to ask instead about being, often qui­et­ly, to bal­ance par­tic­i­pants’ obvi­ous eager­ness for answers. “Within the lim­its of your integrity,” I ask, “who will you need to be to effec­tive­ly work with this person?”

The answers then must reflect the per­son who is ask­ing, the per­son of the leader, not the trans­ac­tion­al nature of what a leader does. When peo­ple get that shift, they often know the answer to their ques­tion. “I would need to be more assertive” or “I would need to be patient,” or “I would need to lis­ten and connect,” or “I would need to befriend him.” The answers that emerge mean that who­ev­er I am, I now must live my lead­er­ship out­side my cur­rent set of assump­tions and com­fort zone, becom­ing and being a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than I was yes­ter­day. It’s not about chang­ing or grow­ing the oth­er per­son. It’s about grow­ing me. And in turn “growing me” means I need to under­stand as much as pos­si­ble about my own life his­to­ry, behav­ioral pref­er­ences includ­ing past and present rela­tion­ships, my own acquired beliefs and val­ues, my dom­i­nant bias­es and tem­pera­ment, my sub­jec­tive world, my being.

Daffodil in Wine Glass

The moment we focus on being rather than doing, this Oth­er Per­son becomes our Bud­dha and there­fore our teacher. We can’t get far­ther down the road with­out pos­i­tive­ly fac­ing this per­son and this sit­u­a­tion. Jerome’s ques­tion about “what do I do” sud­den­ly trans­mutes into who do I need to be to work with this per­son effec­tive­ly? The answer may be sim­ple or com­plex to him, but it prob­a­bly involves per­son­al change, stand­ing up in his own skin, and some risk. Per­haps, Jerome will decide that he needs to get real with this man­ag­er, which means to him that he must reduce his timid­i­ty and defen­sive­ness and be will­ing to authen­ti­cal­ly fight it out with his smarter, more aggres­sive man­ag­er. Per­haps it will be some­thing else a lit­tle less demand­ing. But one way or anoth­er, he then has an idea how to pro­ceed for him­self. It’s not everybody’s path, but it is his and he will learn from it. The les­son is clear: artic­u­late who you feel you want or need to be first, then decide what to do.

In effect, our desires for more trans­ac­tion­al and imper­son­al forms of learn­ing keep us dis­tant from the emo­tion­al­ly engag­ing lead­er­ship prob­lems we need to per­son­al­ly address. This dis­tance may seem desir­able because of the illu­sion that lead­ers are peo­ple with­out such emo­tion­al prob­lems. There­fore, if we don’t know how to solve them quick­ly, then – so goes the unspo­ken def­i­n­i­tion of lead­er­ship — we are not doing our jobs; we are not the accom­plished peo­ple we are sup­posed to be. This may well be anoth­er ver­sion of the old stereo­type of the omni­scient, all-pow­er­ful, teflon leader rear­ing its head. Using the vocab­u­lary of Harvard’s Ron Heifetz, this is the leader we like to imag­ine who can solve all tech­ni­cal prob­lems. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it turns out, this is also the intel­lect-focused leader who does not adapt well to non-tech­ni­cal chal­lenges that nat­u­ral­ly demand tol­er­ance for a pas­sage through insecurity.

Even more unfor­tu­nate­ly, when we dis­cov­er that easy, con­crete answers to com­pli­cat­ed per­son­al lead­er­ship dilem­mas are not forth­com­ing — when we dis­cov­er that we don’t know what we don’t know — we all too eas­i­ly close our­selves up in denial or escapism. We don’t want to feel the guilt, shame, embar­rass­ment and dis­ap­point­ment of not liv­ing up to a rose-cov­ered, illu­so­ry sense of what lead­er­ship is sup­posed to be, of what we are sup­posed to be. We don’t, again using Heifetz’s lan­guage, use an adap­tive approach – which is nat­u­ral­ly more hum­ble and open. Of course, in sep­a­rat­ing our­selves from our emo­tions we also sep­a­rate our­selves from the deep­er emo­tion­al learn­ing that is avail­able. And too often, we turn to blam­ing oth­ers and ratio­nal­iz­ing for con­so­la­tion as we try to stay in our heads rather than ven­tur­ing too far into the more dan­ger­ous forests of an open heart.

As an exam­ple of this deper­son­al­ized, per­fec­tion­is­tic view of lead­er­ship, I remem­ber a group dis­cus­sion on Linkedin that asked mem­bers to describe the dif­fer­ence between lead­er­ship and man­age­ment. There were lit­er­al­ly a thou­sand com­ments from thought­ful peo­ple attempt­ing to dis­tin­guish the two in a mean­ing­ful way. “Management is about doing things right; lead­er­ship is about doing the right thing,” etc, etc, and again and again. It seemed to me that com­menters were com­pet­ing to express just the right nuance and find the per­fect last word. I couldn’t agree more with con­sul­tant and writer, Jesse Lyn Ston­er, who calls dis­cus­sions of this kind a “boring debate.” The con­ver­sa­tion on Linkedin became no more than a long record of many indi­vid­u­al­s’ reduc­tive think­ing. It seems to me that many would much pre­fer know­ing what lead­er­ship is con­cep­tu­al­ly to being faced with learn­ing about the unknown parts of themselves.

A place to begin our work – and a coun­ter­point to the Linkedin dis­cus­sion — is to con­sid­er our dai­ly, lived expe­ri­ences and adap­tive chal­lenges – stuff that’s hap­pen­ing right now, that’s prob­lem­at­ic and per­son­al. And espe­cial­ly the stuff that involves com­pli­cat­ed pow­er dynam­ics and group encounters.

Here’s a sto­ry that exem­pli­fies the chal­lenge. It’s about a hos­pi­tal a few years ago that was deal­ing with a declin­ing cen­sus – mean­ing that the num­ber of beds filled on a dai­ly basis had been going down slow­ly but con­tin­u­ous­ly for some time. Every month the senior team got togeth­er to talk about the cen­sus. The CFO would bring a pre­dic­tion of fur­ther decline in the num­bers for the next month that would be hot­ly debat­ed and ulti­mate­ly reject­ed by the team. Yet month after month the CFO’s pre­dic­tions were borne out and often the cen­sus was even low­er than he’d anticipated.

The team argued more about whether to be pes­simistic or opti­mistic than the real num­bers and the con­tin­u­ing neg­a­tive trend line. What mat­tered more to the mem­bers was the con­flict in the team between the “doom and gloom” fac­tion, so named, and the peo­ple who thought the cen­sus prob­lem was only a tem­po­rary slip for the orga­ni­za­tion. Even­tu­al­ly, after months of the senior team mem­bers argu­ing among them­selves, the Board had to inter­vene because the hos­pi­tal was clear­ly rac­ing toward the edge of a finan­cial cliff. The senior team end­ed up ter­mi­nat­ing a third of the organization’s man­agers and many oth­er staff, a dire result that might have been pre­vent­ed had the team dealt with real­i­ty ear­li­er. And what was that real­i­ty? That the team mem­bers had a prob­lem they didn’t know how to solve and so got into a con­tin­u­ing dis­pute about whether the prob­lem even existed.

This is why the leader who con­fessed he wasn’t as smart as one of his man­agers was coura­geous in doing so. Had the hos­pi­tal lead­ers humbly – vul­ner­a­bly –acknowl­edged they were fac­ing a prob­lem they didn’t know how to solve instead of argu­ing with each oth­er about the problem’s exis­tence, they would have been much bet­ter equipped not only to address their sit­u­a­tion but also to grow in their lead­er­ship. When they could not fig­ure out what to do they deflect­ed, stopped learn­ing, and stopped lead­ing. And this seems to me to be the direct prod­uct of a mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of lead­er­ship as being pri­mar­i­ly about know­ing what to do – which tweaked their col­lec­tive ego — rather than about who and how to be in a time of ambi­gu­i­ty and crisis.

What’s abun­dant­ly clear with the hos­pi­tal team is that no one led. Lead­ing would have required mas­tery of a high­er lev­el capac­i­ty to call out the fail­ing dynam­ics of the team. It was like they were stuck in the ruts of a Linkedin dis­cus­sion about lead­er­ship vs. man­age­ment — while the build­ing around them was burn­ing to the ground. No one asked, “Who do we need to be to address this sit­u­a­tion (of inter­nal dis­cord) giv­en the cliff we may be approaching?” You may well ask, where was the CEO? Wouldn’t fram­ing that ques­tion have been his job? But if you do linger in this crit­i­cism, I sug­gest you may have missed the point. It’s anybody’s and everybody’s job, and all the time.

This is also why, when I think of lead­er­ship I don’t find myself con­sid­er­ing much about for­mal author­i­ty, over­all struc­ture, role clar­i­ty or orga­ni­za­tion­al the­o­ry, about the next fad­dish dis­ci­pline, such as Agile or Lean, or the polit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties that often dom­i­nate orga­ni­za­tion­al life. More often, my thoughts about lead­ing turn to the unac­knowl­edged prob­lems and the unac­knowl­edged peo­ple and the open-end­ed, vital mys­tery of what it means to be of influ­ence, to be peo­ple whose self-knowl­edge and rela­tion­ships, capac­i­ty for dis­cern­ment – whose psy­cho­log­i­cal whole­ness — is vital to the for­ward motion and cul­ture of an enter­prise. My thoughts turn to the “anybody,” at any lev­el, in any role who sees when the emper­or has no clothes and is will­ing to reveal the facts of what’s hap­pen­ing, includ­ing rev­e­la­tions about one’s own col­lu­sion in the denial or the fan­ta­sy; the “anybody” who by virtue of being can bring us together.

Ulti­mate­ly, what I think about as being can’t be con­tained in any for­mu­la. Only lat­er, after the fact, after the meet­ing, after a deci­sion has been reached might some­one say, “she led” or “he led.” When peo­ple expe­ri­ence being, a shift of ener­gy nat­u­ral­ly occurs that attracts, gal­va­nizes, aligns and clarifies.
This is not, by the way, reduc­ing lead­er­ship to charis­ma, defined as a cer­tain inef­fa­ble charm that inspires the devo­tion of oth­ers. The “anybody” way is the polar oppo­site: the con­scious and inten­tion­al awak­en­ing of a per­son that may end up serv­ing as a mod­el for oth­ers. The charis­mat­ic leader is always sep­a­rate, dis­tant, unique and, by def­i­n­i­tion exudes some unat­tain­able qual­i­ty of con­fi­dence, often with the nar­cis­sis­tic pow­er mes­sage that “I am special.” By com­par­i­son a leader express­ing his or her being inspires us to become more of our­selves because of the nobil­i­ty of spir­it and sense of whole­ness being shared. The charis­mat­ic leader tempts us, seduces us. It’s as if lead­er­ship were an easy path to a palace where all our prob­lems are solved. But, of course, that’s not pos­si­ble. That’s what’s called a pro­jec­tion. By com­par­i­son, the leader who express­es that nobil­i­ty of spir­it calls us only to find our own way, our own deep accep­tance of ourselves.

A friend who is also in the busi­ness of lead­er­ship con­sult­ing said bril­liant­ly one day that “talking about ‘leadership’ in the end is just an excuse to talk about what’s important.” Implic­it in her words is this notion of being, and that we spend an awful lot of time talk­ing about what’s unim­por­tant and not get­ting to the real stuff, the places where mean­ing­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion hap­pens among peo­ple. When that does hap­pen, includ­ing hon­est explo­ration of prob­lems, undone tasks, bad rela­tion­ships and a host of oth­er top­ics, being is there, even as we may be scared by the con­flicts we are attempt­ing to resolve. Such con­flicts – our “dangerous oppor­tu­ni­ties” — might be as sim­ple as call­ing out the obvi­ous but unspo­ken dys­func­tion of a team meet­ing or tak­ing the risk to break the inter­per­son­al ice with some­one who’s been a foe, or ask­ing the sen­si­tive ques­tion that has been wait­ing for a brave soul to ask it. As a client once said to me when explain­ing this effect, “I know we’re talk­ing about the right stuff when my chest starts feel­ing like a block of wood,” mean­ing that she felt it became hard to be her­self and speak freely. The anti­dote is the under­stand­ing that being is the state of being unblocked – indeed, unblock­ing what we need to talk about and need to deal with, putting down the block in favor of what’s real.

All of this is to say that our best def­i­n­i­tions of lead­er­ship are not gener­ic, imper­son­al, abstract or trans­ac­tion­al ones, not “how to’s,” but per­son­al­ly trans­for­ma­tive ones; ones that are lived, not just writ­ten down some­place in the notes we once took at a work­shop or placed in the mar­gins of a book. Apro­pos of these things, the Per­sian poet, Rumi, wrote hun­dreds of years ago:

There are two kinds of intel­li­gence: one acquired,
as a child in school mem­o­rizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion and from the tra­di­tion­al sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intel­li­gence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your com­pe­tence in retaining
infor­ma­tion. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowl­edge, get­ting always more
marks on your pre­serv­ing tablets.

There is anoth­er kind of tablet, one
already com­plet­ed and pre­served inside you.
A spring over­flow­ing its spring­box. A freshness
in the cen­ter of the chest. This oth­er intelligence
does not turn yel­low or stag­nate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from out­side to inside
through the con­duits of plumbing-learning.

This sec­ond know­ing is a fountainhead
from with­in you, mov­ing out.”

We have these two forms of intel­li­gence to rely upon as Rumi elo­quent­ly defines them. So much of our mis­un­der­stand­ing of what lead­er­ship is comes from over-reliance on the idea that if we only knew enough we could solve every prob­lem. We would know what to do and do it our­selves or tell oth­ers how to do it. But the truth is far, far more com­plex. Our “plumbing-learning” isn’t near­ly enough to reveal the heart and soul of our own great­ness nor the gen­uine lead­er­ship the world needs us to express.

Daffodil Alone
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