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.
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.
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