Recent history tells us that leaders can be developed but even before development begins, leaders must become self- aware and take the road to inner growth. In this article the author argues that the effective leaders of tomorrow are individuals who have a better understanding of themselves and their own identity. These leaders recognize that their own unique capabilities and passions are an essential part of responding to the call of leadership. People need to feel special and the leader who recognizes and meets that need will create the means for their organization to succeed.
Developing self-awareness is the first step in becoming a leader. But how can we become self-aware, and what further steps can we take to become a leader? This author has sound advice.
For most people, becoming an effective leader is hard, daunting work. And for most, it takes much more than learning the latest theories or management skills; it is about transforming ourselves. Top leaders must embark on an inner journey of self-growth to achieve outstanding results for themselves and their organization. Yet leaders seldom have a road map for their own performance and growth, one that enables them to act with greater personal engagement, deeper commitment to the success of others, and readiness to contribute to the broader goals of the organization. Organizations should be prepared to support this rite of passage if they truly want to commit to developing leaders.
Hay Group, with Harvard University’s Richard Hackman and Dartmouth College’s Ruth Wageman, has been studying executive teams at major international organizations since 1998. Our research with Hackman and Wageman shows there are proven and unexpected ways that CEOs can create and run highly effective executive teams. We found that the leaders of successful teams created five conditions:
Direction: a clear and compelling direction for the team and organization
Structure: a focused team with established procedures and norms of conduct
People: technically competent and emotionally intelligent members
Support: members are properly trained and their efforts are adequately rewarded
Development: team performance is reviewed and members learn from their successes and failures.
But the presence of these conditions is very dependent on a leader’s mental and emotional maturity. Our research shows that effective top team leaders possess aptitudes such as personal honesty and integrity, consensus- building, a keen interest in the long-term development of others, a capacity to manage their emotions, and an ability to communicate a compelling vision to others. Before they can help their teams become more effective, before they set the tone for direction and relationships, leaders must first understand themselves. As many successful leaders told us, they had to first embark on their own inner journey of development before they could create the conditions necessary for top team effectiveness.
SOCIALIZED POWER: THE KEY TO LEADERSHIP EFFECTIVENESS
Many organizations have lost or forsaken the initiation process for their top leaders—there is often no road map to chart the journey to key leadership roles. Organizations often thrust managers into senior leadership with the expectation that they will figure it out for themselves, not recognizing the significant thinking and emotional shifts that are required of top leaders. The rituals, guideposts and rites of passage that serve as a road map for the often difficult transitions to senior leadership roles, are gone. Rites of passage signal that it is time to change our thinking, relationships and behaviour, as we take on new roles in the community. Without clear points of passage, the distinction between child and adult, follower and leader, become vague, often resulting in feelings of alienation, cynicism and rebellion. Organizations too often end up with leaders who continue to act out of self-interest, and think and feel like individual contributors.
The children’s story by C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, illustrates this beautifully in a simple parable. The make-believe land of Narnia is ruled by the Ice Queen, who appears to have a permanent grip on power. Aslan, the rightful king, represents vision, allegiance and self-sacrifice. This story illustrates the difference between personal power—a need for status, recognition, acquiring “things” and socialized power—and the desire to have a positive influence on others and make a difference in the world. Our research shows socialized power is critical to effective top leadership. But how does one develop it?
THE LEADER’S JOURNEY
The journey is the way in which leaders develop socialized power and find new ways to lead and achieve better results for their organization. It is an ancient theme of self-growth. It has been described as a passage from the secure and familiar into the unfamiliar and mysterious, and back again. Typically, it contains the following stages:
Losing the way Julie was a highly successful partner in a professional services firm. She was respected for her expertise, and had a presence and authority that could impress any senior board. Over the years she had accumulated a sizable position in stock options and could look forward to a very comfortable retirement. So why, at the age of 45, did Julie decide to leave her organization? For many of the Julie’s in this world, there is often a growing sense that something is missing, but it is not clear what. They are no longer doing the kinds of things that once provided a sense of joy and excitement. Those inner voices have been long stilled or forgotten in the daily pressures of running to the next meeting. Symbolically, their heads have become detached from their hearts.
Sometimes the call begins with the leader assuming that something or someone is going to save them—a turnaround in demand of semiconductors or an improvement in the value of the dollar. The system is in control. In early coaching sessions, Alex spent most of the time complaining about everything his boss was doing wrong. But just like in difficult marriages, improvement in the relationship begins when each partner stops projecting their image of an ideal mate onto the other person and begins making the hard changes themselves. Likewise, leaders make real progress in their relationships when they stop blaming their boss, peers or direct reports for all their shortcomings (real or imagined) and begin taking responsibility for improving things, given the limitations of others. For Alex, it was facing the fact that his boss was not likely to change any time soon, and that if he was to succeed, he would have to find ways to change himself. This is the first step in taking personal responsibility for the journey.
Remembering who I am
Recognizing our own unique capabilities and passions is an essential part of responding to the call. Early in the journey, many leaders recognized that they have unique capabilities, but often they have forgotten what they are. Not knowing our own past (or forgetting it) is a common theme. The young King Arthur did not know he was born to the royal family, nor did Harry Potter know his true parents were wizards. They had to find out where they came from.
Discovering who we once were, and what gave us a sense of passion, is an essential part of answering the call. Robert, a highly successful marketing vice-president, thought about the times in his career when he felt “the most alive.” To his surprise, he remembered the deep satisfaction he felt as a volunteer in a hospital crisis center many years before. A key talent was his ability to help others through challenging times. He realized this was a skill he should be using more often with his direct reports. Discovering (or in some cases rediscovering) those unique qualities gives us legitimacy to be a leader of others. This is why 360º feedback is so critical in the early stages, and in particular, why focusing on our strengths, as opposed to simply gaps, is key.
Once the leader answers the call, there is often a period of preparation. All great leaders possess the competencies of self-reflection and insight, and the ability to recognize and control their emotions. Winston Churchill was known for taking long walks in the woods. Likewise, many executives become reflective when they get assessment feedback— challenging their deeply held assumptions and values. Being open to feedback, and willing to listen to its messages, also helps build self-insight and the capacity for greater tolerance of both the strengths and weaknesses of others. This is a learned skill, and it equips the leader with perhaps the most critical requirement for self-growth—the ability to learn from experience. These are all essential skills that a leader must develop before the difficult part of the journey begins.
Ritualizing behaviour, or creating new habits, is also an important part of the preparation stage. In tribal societies, rituals helped initiates prepare for a difficult or significant task. It is all about drill and practice—rewiring our neural pathways. These help “fix” new behaviours or attitudes, so they become more automatic or reflexive. We may not fully understand the reasons behind the actions, but we are asked to practise them nonetheless. The action must come first; the belief, so to speak, follows. One top leader was asked to practise asking a list of specific questions that would get at the needs and concerns of her team. She reported it felt awkward at first, but it had a totally unexpected impact on the group. The team, which expected her to tell it the right answer, was willing to engage in a very productive, mutual problem-solving exercise. She felt tremendous relief and, in the process, began to lay the groundwork for a more effective, interdependent relationship with her team. “I learned that I don’t always need to go in prepared with the right answer,” she said. “I need to go in prepared to listen.”
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
Up until now, the journey has been about the decision to grow as a leader. Crossing the threshold is about taking the risk—moving from the known to the unknown. Each person’s threshold is unique and depends on his or her comfort zone. For one executive, it meant giving up the security of a senior position at the head of a human resources team in the public service, and taking up a new role in finance, for which he had no previous experience. Crossing the threshold is all about giving up some part of one’s identity. And always, crossing is emotional. In literature, fierce beasts and flaming swords often guard the threshold. These are all metaphors for the fear and self-doubt that keep one from crossing over.
As well, being able to see the benefits of self-development— better relationships with a boss, less anxiety, improved business results—can help reduce the insecurity of taking a risk and stepping over the threshold. It signals the next stage of the inward journey.
The very act of crossing a threshold attracts those who can help. Reflecting on their own journey, many leaders have said that someone or something always came to their aid when they passed the bounds of their known experience and were both open and vulnerable. The role of the helper is to provide practical tools, perspective and reassurance. These help the leader interpret events that are happening both internally and externally. Helpers are those who have been through the journey of self-growth themselves and know, at emotional and cognitive levels, what the leader is going through. Some examples of helpers from literature and film include:
Obi-Wan Kinobi from Star Wars
Virgil, the poet in Dante’s Divine Comedy
Gordon Bombay, the coach in the film Mighty Ducks
Hagrid and Hermione, in the Harry Potter books
One often needs several helpers, each of whom has a distinct but different quality; perhaps someone who appeals to our emotional/intuitive side and someone who appeals to our rational/cognitive side. In modern guise, helpers take the form of trusted colleagues, teachers, long-time friends and executive coaches.
THE ROAD OF TRIALS
The most intense and dramatic part of the journey begins here. It has been called the road of trials because, in essence, leaders are tested on their ability to stand up to the task they are being asked to accomplish. Each task is progressive— each more difficult and demanding than the one before. Successful leaders seek out, or are often thrust into, progressively more difficult challenges as their scope and responsibility increase. These tasks serve an important psychological function. With each test successfully passed, new behaviours and new ways of thinking and feeling are embedded into one’s psyche and pattern, often without conscious knowledge. These tasks propel us into action, and it is through repeated action that thinking, emotions and values begin to change. With each personal success, each setback and the seemingly endless, repetitive days of endurance, our passion for a higher set of values is forged in the furnace of action and experience.
You can read several excellent books on parenting, but until you have experienced the effects of sleep deprivation and the joy of holding a warm baby at 3 a.m. for the fifth day in a row, you don’t really know what it is to be a parent. Likewise, people do not become top leaders without experiencing the stress and exhilaration of leading many different teams to achieve long-term objectives over a period of years.
FACING THE ABYSS
At some stage in the journey, there is a final test to overcome and the greatest self-knowledge to be gained. It has been referred to as the abyss, and it is all about facing a challenge that appears insurmountable. But you have to keep going. Paradoxically, facing that challenge builds our greatest strengths—like courage and forgiveness. It is the place where we come face to face with ourselves and, in many ways, our demons. It is the greatest challenge that leaders face on the journey.
For many leaders, the abyss is about confronting those things in their past that they have not outgrown, or facing up to their nemesis. Symbolically, they must “slay the dragon” before they can move on to the final stage of their journey. At pivotal moments in their careers, some leaders come face to face with feelings that have shadowed them all their lives, including:
Fear of failure
Not being heard
Being left out
Pause for a moment to consider the abyss you have faced in your own life journey. To be successful, leaders must be willing to work through all of the defences they have put in place to protect their self-image and guard against those negative feelings. They learn to anticipate how situations will impact them emotionally, and prepare themselves with different ways of responding. These are some of the things top leaders say have helped them through their most challenging moments. The abyss is always the point in the journey where emotions take over, and where, to gain control, we must let go in order to find ourselves again.
TRANSFORMATION AND RETURN
Having made it through the abyss, much like other rites of passage, leaders metaphorically “return” to the place where they started. Frodo, the unlikely hero in Lord of the Rings, returns to his beloved Shire at the end of his long adventure. In the play, Shirley Valentine, a disillusioned housewife returns to her family after a “journey” to a Greek island. But they come back bearing a gift— their enhanced capacity as a mature individual and leader. They bring new knowledge and skill, more compassion and a commitment to the growth of others. They have a better understanding of themselves and a stronger sense of their own identity—what they value and what gives them meaning and purpose. Many people report a greater sense of inner peace and perspective. “I’m not as frustrated as I used to be,” said Bethany, a senior executive. “Before, I felt there was a tremendous urgency—the sand was running out. Now, I watch the sand run out in a different way.” Some leaders may even take very different roles than they had before, becoming mentors or coaches, enabling others, rather than trying to do it all themselves. And they are clearer about their direction and what matters in their lives. They know what needs to be done.
The journey gives leaders more freedom on the inside. They can choose how to respond more capably to their feelings and experience a wider range of emotions. Most importantly, leaders who have navigated their own journeys of self-growth successfully bring a broader perspective to their teams and organizations. They have “been there” and they have stories to tell.
NEW PERSPECTIVE ON TOP LEADERSHIP
When we stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, we get a perspective on life, a perspective that enables better choices and useful possibilities. We look across the abyss and see the enormity of time revealed through layers of ageless rock, and get a sense of something that exists beyond your temporal existence. It takes your breath away. That is what the journey gives to leaders. They are able to take others to the edge and show them the vista. Leaders do for others what they have been able to do for themselves. In this way, effective leaders have much in common with great storytellers, teachers and artists. They elevate the perspective of others, provide reassurance, purpose and hope and, in so doing, help them face their fears and take action.
As a consequence, people get to solutions quicker. Less energy is devoted to protecting one’s turf (and self-interest) and more to the goals and strategy of the organization. These leaders are also able to demonstrate more emotionally intelligent behaviours—insight, self-control, empathy, developing others, and communicating with passion and purpose. They help their teams manage ambiguity and encourage more meaningful dialogue on the things that matter. They establish norms of behaviour, so conflict is minimized. This leads to improved team performance and business results. In short, these leaders achieve the conditions necessary for top team effectiveness—clear direction, emotional intelligence, support and development—by first transforming themselves. And if leaders can see their career as a journey, with initiations along the way, they may be more mature and ready to lead others.
The leader’s journey appeals to the heroic in us all. As children, we had a need to feel special and unique. As adults, we also have needs to be recognized and make meaningful contributions. And when organizations fail to support these needs, the system is at risk. It is this need for heroism that lies at the heart of leadership. Leaders speak to people’s need for heroism— to feel special and unique, to create lasting meaning, to feel part of a community, to accomplish something important. Leaders, through their own journeys, the stories they tell, the systems they put in place, are creating the means for their teams and organizations to feel that heroism.