Unravelling the art of leadership



Recently I was asked by one of my coachees from a client organisation why we focus so much of our attention on the Boards within organisations. And that got me reflecting on the work that we do and our philosophy. Like Robin Sharma we believe that we all have the capacity to be leaders now so does that value statement lead to a contradiction if most of our work is with senior teams?

I think not and let me explain why that is. First leadership is more of an art than a science and second whilst what we share is very much the new paradigm stuff in business, it works because we meet people where they are. This gives us accelerative results because we build trust and rapport and from that place we can take our clients on a journey. That is the short answer but to really get to grips with this we need to dig deeper to explore what leadership is all about. This may involve busting a few myths along the way! Let’s start with what we know.

    Organisational structure

Within the current paradigm, many organisations are hierarchies shaped like a pyramid with a few people at the very top and many more at the base of the structure. Decisions are made by a corporate team and implemented by a management team. The ethos is such that many down the pecking order are waiting to be told what to do or at the very least be given a sense of the direction of the business. In said scenario the power appears to lie with a few at the top.

As Lord Acton wrote:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.

I am sure you have met those senior leaders who see themselves as so important that much is not worthy of notice. Then there is the belief that no one else has quite the level of understanding that they have so they must maintain control of every facet of what’s happening within their area. They want their people to take charge and yet woe betide them if they make a mistake. This fear then leads to an unhealthy dependency on the person with the power just to ensure that they remain in favour. Gripping onto power so tightly and exerting such levels of control is something we often see. These leaders are so caught up in the doing that they cannot see the value of who they are being or the reflection time required to recognise this.

    So how can you create a culture of trust that empowers employees and encourages them to step up and make decisions?

For that to happen you need wise leadership. As Professor Hari Tsoukas said

A condition for a leader to act wisely is to strive to maintain the tension between knowing and doubting.

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is for leaders to say I don’t know? So often their egos won’t let them divulge that and yet when they do what a relief. We all sigh because they appear to be human after all and it means it is ok to make mistakes ourselves! Getting the balance between knowing and doubting is akin to walking the high wire; just like the acrobat you have to adjust your posture constantly.

    Why are wise leaders so rare like hen’s teeth you might say?

Wisdom is distilled or an attribute in well-integrated, mature personalities that comes from self-development and self-transcendence. Explaining this further I will use the example of Nelson Mandela. After 27 years in prison, the instinctive reaction would have been to restore justice in South Africa through taking revenge on his oppressors. Instead he took the long view and considered what was in the best interests for his country. He opted for forgiveness and reconciliation. One can only imagine what discipline that required and for me this is an example of full self-transcendence.

Here’s an example closer to home. When my youngest was seven, her teacher commented on her leadership skills. In part because she was stunned that she had any. She had been asked to lead a task in the class with a group of her peers. She was really good at listening to everyone’s perspective and then guiding them through with a light touch. Rather akin to Eisenhower’s description on the art of leadership in that she got them to do something because they wanted to do it. Here’s the irony though. She was so good at leading a group because she had no desire to have the power.

That just leaves self-development, which could be described as using reflection to mine every experience for learning whilst having a healthy awareness of the prejudices, and biases that you bring into every situation. I would go further and add emotional intelligence in the form of empathy. Interestingly in recent research as discussed in the Harvard Business Review, empathy came up as the number one competency in the top five for business leaders.

    Why is empathy so critical?

Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives. As the old rigid hierarchies crumble in the new paradigm and we move towards increased self-employment (up to 48% in the UK) and self-organising principles in organisations then relationships and the ability to influence others becomes vital to success.

Here at Art of Leadership, we work with top teams to help them transition from doing to being. As they imbue the qualities that they want to see in their organisation so the shift starts to happen. In effect organisations don’t change, people do but often they need to be coached in the art of the possible. We come in adopting Marcus Aurelius’ mantra Waste no more time arguing about what a wise leader is. Be one. If this intrigues you then get in touch, we’d love to help.