To a better understanding: The leadership odyssey explored

Introspection and reflection have never been appreciated for their ability to steady a leader’s hand. In the past few years, however, practitioners and consultants have come to appreciate the importance of looking within. This article seeks to guide the reader to an understanding of  the power, potential and value of reflection as a key to maximizing their odyssey and being better prepared to thrive in an ever-complex world of leadership.

 

Leadership as a journey

 

Few may compare their leadership journey to that of Odysseus and his ten-year homeward wanderings after the fall of Troy—The Odyssey.  However, most leaders will acknowledge that their journey has to-date been full of experiences, marked by challenges as well as intellectual and affective activities clarify…what intellectual activities; a more commercial term for “affective activities”, which have created the opportunity for developing a new understanding and appreciation of life, humanity, their organization and of their own self.

The key to garnering the most out of one’s “odyssey” is the willingness to explore the experiences and challenges, to turn the events into learning [i] and then to actively convert learning’s into an opportunity to grow and discover oneself.

The question is then how to best explore?  How to leverage the learning’s and the experiences?  In life and especially in the life of those who choose to lead, there inevitably will be adventures, painful events, joys, sorrows, victories and defeats.  To do more than survive and with the intent to thrive from the inevitable challenges leaders face, they must consciously make the choice to reflect—to delve deeply into their experiences to extract the greatest value possible and ensure their odyssey becomes an epic they are proud to share.

This article seeks to guide the reader into understanding the power, potential and value of reflection as a key to maximizing their odyssey and being better prepared to thrive in an ever complex world of leadership.

Daudelin (1996, 39[ii]) provides a definition of reflection that explicitly captures its relation to learning, “Reflection is the process of stepping back from an experience to ponder, carefully and persistently, its meaning to the self through the development of inferences; learning is the creation of meaning from past or current events that serves as a guide for future behaviour.” This definition suggests that reflection is integral to learning, when learning is defined as making sense of past experience in order to affect and understand future experience.

The art of “reflection” appears to be at risk of extinction however, in a world of instant communication and just in time  delivery.  The question for modern-day leaders is to consider the consequence of losing the capacity for reflection.  After all, when flying by the seat of one’s pants is the norm, and having the time to think through the next decision, let alone get a bathroom break is an anomaly in the hallowed halls of leadership… how can one truly strive to improve the very essence of who they are?  

Without taking the time to reflect, to reach down deep and to understand and address their strengths and weaknesses, the moment that defines a leader in the newspaper, in a blog, in the immortal annals of the web… and more importantly in the memories of those they lead and those whom they are accountable … may not be the moment they would choose or the ones they are most proud off.

 

Exploring Your Odyssey

Leadership is an odyssey, and the fact is that today’s leaders could gain much from a reinvigorated interest in, and a commitment to, further exploring their own odyssey—to choose to reflect on all the aspects of who they are—the good, the bad and the ugly.  Without doing so, leaders play a game of chance… and risk not being prepared for all that leadership may throw their way. 

In the spirit of “The Odyssey”, and in the spirit of learning from those who have come before, leaders should recall the days of ancient Greece, when the country was not defaulting on loans, but systematically taking over the known world.

The  era of Ancient Greece was a time when mankind was discovering the need for, and value of, self awareness, when lessons were shared through stories and embodied in myth, and the reflections of great men about the nature and the essence of being human, of being leaders and heroes, were immortalized in legend.  Leaders of today, in the little time they have, can speed up their learning by tapping into some of the examples in this rich period in history.


The consequence of not reflecting

“Reflection is the process of stepping back from an experience to ponder, carefully and persistently, its meaning to the self through the development of inferences; learning is the creation of meaning from past or current events that serves as a guide for future behaviour.” 1

This definition suggests that reflection is integral to learning, when learning is defined as making sense of past experience in order to affect and understand future experience.

Without taking the time to reflect, to reach down deep and to understand and address their strengths and weaknesses, the moment that defines a leader — in a newspaper or blog or on     the web… and more importantly in the memories of those they lead and those to whom they are accountable– may not be the moment a leader would choose or those of which he or she is most proud.

Achilles’ fatal flaw

The legend of Achilles as half human, half god—much like, some may say, leaders of today juggling the demands thrown their way—offers a starting point for considering the value of reflection.

When Achilles was born, his mother, in an effort to make him immortal, took Achilles to the River Styx and dipped him into the magic waters, holding him by one heel. It was this heel, untouched by the waters of the Styx, that became the one vulnerable point on Achilles’ body.[iii]

When he grew up, Achilles heard a prophecy. He could choose to live quietly and without fame or honour, but live a long time and die in his own bed, an old man with only the love of his family. Or, he could choose to be famous in his lifetime and remembered for all time. If he chose the latter, however, he would have to pay the ultimate price. He would have to die young. 

Achilles went on to be the hero of many battles, and of course, the Trojan War.  Ironically and perhaps sadly, it was the lacklustre and unlikely hero of the battle — Paris, Prince of Troy, who struck an arrow into Achilles’ heel, the near-immortal one’s weak spot.

The part of the legend that is less familiar in the modern age is this: In the Odyssey, Homer wrote that when Odysseus later visited the land of the dead and saw the spirit of Achilles in the underworld, he asked him what it was like, being dead. Achilles answered that he would rather be a landless field hand, and alive, than be the king of the dead.  In the end, and in retrospect, Achilles perhaps recognized, as many of us have taken from the story, that it was his pride –not his heel — that was his greatest weakness, his fatal flaw.[iv]

A few lessons from Achilles’ tale for leaders and their Odyssey:

  • Leaders of today aren’t perfect — they should figure out their fatal flaw and take action to correct it.
  • If a leader doesn’t know or accept his/her fatal flaw, be warned.  Ignorance is no bliss.  In the end, without such knowledge, leaders will be unable to defend themselves when the unexpected happens. 
  • Leaders today are not immortal.  To learn to pace is critical; meteoric rises are most often followed by equally dramatic falls. 
  • Achilles’ tale illustrates the fact that the greatest threat to a leader can come from unexpected sources or situations, not the boardroom.
  • You can’t take something back. Be thoughtful before you make the big decisions.  Once a decision has been made, there’s no turning back. You will be left to face the consequences.

Now, let’s explore the lesson that hubris hurts everyone.

Hubris hurts everyone

Another legend that can spark our urge to learn is the story of a particular man, a leader of men whose lack of self awareness led to disaster.  In Greek mythology, Ajax is described as a small man, but one who moved swiftly and had great skill with a spear. He fought valiantly as well in the Trojan War and was momentarily crowned a hero.   But after the great battle, he ended up angering the goddess Athena by assaulting the maiden Cassandra and dragging her from the temple.  [v]

Athena was angry and saw to it that Ajax’s entire fleet was shipwrecked during its voyage back home.  The story continues that Ajax alone had the immense good luck to be rescued by Poseidon, the sea god. But, instead of thanking Poseidon, Ajax gloated about his invincibility. Supremely arrogant, he pronounced himself victorious against the will of a goddess.  To the Greeks, this was undisguised hubris. Poseidon, thoroughly unimpressed, reacted by drowning Ajax and sending him to a watery grave along with his men.For ancient Greeks, hubris was unnecessary and unforgivable.  They believed unchecked arrogance led to irrational acts, acts that ultimately drag not only the hero (or the leader) toward tragedy but that would affect society as a whole.  Is there a lesson for us? 

Lessons for Today’s Leaders

When today’s leaders display hubris, they imperil not only their own lives, but those of everyone dependent on them. Just consider Kenneth Lay at Enron and John Meriwether at Long-Term Capital Management. Should we remind ourselves, as did the ancient Greeks, that hubris causes irreversible damage??  

What about greed or the hunger for power.  What about looking the other way to keep the right people happy?   Think “fatal flaw.” And what about not being willing to shake things up for fear of being shaken out?  What happens when a leader believes he or she is untouchable, or that the end justifies any means? Does such behaviour also have the potential to drown leaders and their organizations?

Look no further than recent headlines, where several CEOs have been de-throned or forced to “de-robe” for not paying attention to their fatal flaws… the downside of  being themselves. Just consider Tony Hayward’s ungracious, ill-advised and non-leaderly blunder —pontificating about his own lost personal life during a national and arguably global crisis.  There was Time Inc.’s Jack Griffin who was forced out after less than six months on the job due to a widespread feeling that his arrogant and brusque management style conflicted with the company’s corporate culture. 5   And of course, among the many lessons from the News Corp. scandal…Rupert Murdoch exemplified a leader who, because of the magnitude of his organization, approached his critics as though they had no right to question him or his actions.    Labelled an “Empire CEO,” Murdoch exemplifies the leader who becomes so comfortable in their own world that they lose their connection to reality and truly believe that they are untouchable and invincible.

Let’s look at world events, where we see characters like Berlusconi, Khadafy, and Hussein.   These are men whose sense of personal importance and grandeur has left indelible scars on the people they ruled and on the history … and future of their countries.

Forget politics… there are plenty of lessons from leaders in all walks of life, in all form of business succumbing to their fatal flaw and choosing to put “me before we.” 

Look at a popular sports icon —  Joe Paterno — who after decades of being worshipped was held accountable for not leading when it really mattered… not what happened on the football field or during a game but in a change room. He had the chance to truly make a difference, to use his power and authority to help, to stand up and lead despite the potential cost to him and his organization of doing the right thing. 

Now imagine that someone had asked the late Mr. Paterno what he would have done had he been advised, say about a year ago, of an alleged child molestation situation.  Do you think he would have said, “I’ll keep it quiet to protect the institution, protect the Penn State brand, and protect my buddy, myself?”  Of course not.  We all know the “right” answer in a case like this. In fact most of us know the right answer when presented with a case in a class or a boardroom, in a controlled environment.  But as a leader, the point to keep in mind is that you can find yourself in unexpected, unreal situations,  situations that are sometimes so intense, fast paced or complex that without even thinking we succumb to our fatal flaw (s). We act according to our nature and our instinct.  We are, after all, human.

The leaders I’ve mentioned have lost their lives, their jobs, their credibility and most importantly,  the honour and the trust others placed in them to lead.  This quote from a sports journalist  writing about the Penn State situation and the individuals who played a role in “keeping things quiet” says so much about what leaders have to lose…

 “…he may have fulfilled his legal obligation by passing what he saw on to his boss, but he’ll never be able to look his own players or recruits in the eye again and honestly say he’s always looking out for their best interests.”

Leaders are Human

The harsh reality is that, in most cases, a leader’s demise is not the result of a force of nature or a particular corporate culture.  The ultimate fall from grace does not come at the hands of a foe or dark power. Rather a leader’s fall comes at his or her own hands. Their fall is due to their principle weakness, their fatal flaw — their Achilles heel. It comes because leaders didn’t have the time or take the time to learn the about the most important thing — themselves.

Leaders must consider that while they may accomplish the super human, the reality is that they are only human.  And, under pressure, leaders must know what they are capable of doing. Those who chose to lead chose to be under a microscope, to be questioned and challenged in public, to be a target of those who have other ideas and other plans for them, for their organizations.


Personalize the Discussion

Have you ever taken the time to ask the people closest to you how you react when confronted?  How you act and treat people when you are mad?  Do you know what you look like when “you lose it?”

Do you know what you look like, act like when you are frustrated, when you’ve lost respect or interest?   Do you know what you look like or behave like when you are caught off guard and confused? Lied to?

How about when you are out of control?  It may not happen often… but in the world of YouTube… it needs to happen just once.

It’s not about bringing a 360 feedback form to your dinner table or the lunch room. It’s about taking the time to reflect on yourself, talking to people who want you to succeed, the people who will be brutally honest, asking them face-to-face and engaging in what could be a defining conversation in your leadership journey… in your Odyssey.

 

Take a Look

To perform a simple exercise, pick up a mirror and take a look at yourself.  Take a pencil and write down the word or words that define your fatal flaw?  Do  you know what your fatal flaw is?  Can you name it?  Do you want to?  Hubris, ego, greed, fear of failure, insecurity, sensitivity or the lack of it, pride, conflict— do you love it too much, hide from it?   Can you confront your flaw?  Are you confident that one day, in one way, it won’t confront you?

A Fix?

In a July 11, 2011 article in CEO.com, “Finding and Fixing Your Achilles’ Heel,” author Cheryl Straus Einhorn describes 8 different types of CEOs and outlines their strengths and weaknesses like 2 sides of the same coin.  The author then focuses on what leaders and their advisers should be aware of, the positive and negative attributes of any top decision maker at an organization. She offers “fixes” for the various Achilles or fatal flaws.  Readers are encouraged to consider what they can glean for their own Odyssey

    1. The Iconoclast

      … the entrepreneur or visionary who is successful while breaking conventional rules.   Think Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The Achilles heel, some would say, is the risk of mixing up the cavalier and the creative.  The fatal flaw can lead to long- term failure without the discipline to sustain an organization.

    2. The Celebrity

      . The high-profile executive with a flashy personal style, which is often synonymous with an ability to self-destruct. Ego can bring fame, and blindly drive the individual and the organization downward. 

    3. The Cult CEO

      A leader who embodies the spirit—and therefore the brand—of the company he or she leads.  At the top of the list were Apple’s Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart.  Given their strength of personality, will and conviction, they can single-handedly deliver greatness — or crater their company.   

    4. The Daredevil

      : This is the leader who takes both personal and company risks that may seem audacious, and attract marvel and awe — but that go wrong or too far– and tarnishes the reputation of the individual and the company.  A good, high profile example is Eliot Spitzer, once thought of as New York’s most fearless enforcer.

    5. The Executor

      is the individual who puts business results before people.

    6. The Father figure

      . Think of the late Dave Thomas of Wendy’s and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. This type of leader is often also the company’s founder, and tends to lead in a paternalistic manner.  This is a strength and a weakness, which incorporates the  fatal flaw of being the “center” to such an extent that that succession is ignored.

    7. The Globalist

      runs a multinational company with operations in many countries.  These leaders often mismanage local issues and rarely acknowledge it — until it’s too late.   Power, Position, Pride.  
      Think Toyota — a company known for great customer service was slow to respond to charges of “dangerous” safety defects. CEO Akio Toyoda was charged with “dragging his feet” and being “safety deaf” by the U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood.
      British Petroleum’s CEO Tony Hayward proved to be the wrong spokesperson for the tragedy in the Gulf.   He lacked self-awareness, which he revealed by making statement such as, “Apollo 13 did not stop the space program.” Or, “The Air France flight that fell out of the sky off the coast of Brazil did not stop the aviation industry.”

    8. The Plain Vanilla CEO

      is the quintessential company man or woman, not flashy. Their avoidance of the media and anything glitzy is balanced by their unparalleled focus on what’s going on inside and delivering results. While there is little downside to having this kind of CEO, their Achilles heel can be exposed in times of crisis when their lack of external relationships and charisma leave the organization without a known and trusted spokesperson. The “fix” offered includes considering identifying a face in the organization that fills that role or training subject-matter experts. The other option is to get the CEO to acknowledge their weakness and have them invest in training and practice! The “fix” offered for this Achilles Heel could include having a Number 2 on the ground to address the issues and be the local face.   This is a tough message for the global leader, but a critical one delivered by those charged with overseeing the company’s responsibility for making sure that there is a Number 2.

Leaders choose to invest much in their attire, education and persona.  The greatest investment, however, is often overlooked — the investment in the essence of the person that is reflected in the mirror every day.  The reality is that if truthful, leaders will admit that some part or parts of that reflection may in fact give them reason for concern or pause.   Exploring one’s odyssey proactively, and with openness and candour, can be the difference maker, especially in a world where vulnerabilities become known around the globe in seconds. Taking the time to face and work on your Achilles Heel can be a make or break undertaking.

It takes a brave person, a true leader, to look in the mirror and say “That’s something I have to watch.” Or “That’s something I have to work on.”  AND then choose to commit and take the steps on the path to self awareness.

It’s Your Odyssey… make the choice to reflect and venture on the path toward self awareness.

 

1 Daudelin, M. W. 1996. “Learning from experience through reflection. Organizational Dynamics 24(3): 36-48.

2 http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/A-Am/Achilles.html

3 http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/trojanwarinlit/a/OdysseyXI.htm

4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajax_the_Lesser.

5. http://www.ceo.com/media_type/blogs/ceos-finding-and-fixing-your-achilles-heel/

  i) http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/A-Am/Achilles.html
  ii) http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/trojanwarinlit/a/OdysseyXI.htm
  iii)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajax_the_Lesser