Stepping up and into the crucible of leadership is not the occasion for a leader to start learning about himself. In fact, when the moment comes for us to step up, we must be leadership ready. Above all, this means that we must know ourselves, especially how we will respond to unanticipated, “black swan” events. Readers will learn how to prepare themselves for that crucial moment in this article.
My wife’s choir was recently rehearsing a few Leonard Cohen songs. Between rehearsals, Elizabeth would wander around the house singing these songs, which included Anthem, one of my favourites. The chorus is like a meditation:
“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack—a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I make my living advising CEOs and senior leaders on how to be more effective in their leadership style and conduct. If there is one message I would like to instil in these leaders, it is that phrase from Leonard Cohen’s song.
Why would I want to tell leaders to, “Forget your perfect offering”? Cohen’s particular idea of perfection refers to situations in which we present a well-prepared, rational point of view based on what we have learned from others as the appropriate response to a specific situation. But when we’re constantly putting forward our “perfect offering,” we can easily become someone we are not. We become separated from our true nature and come across as too formal, distant, and inauthentic.
I recently found myself in two conversations over some senior executives’ assessment and development plans. These were three-way conversations between the CEO, the senior VP, and me, the coach. The CEO was gently critiquing his direct reports, suggesting they were too “robotic” or “clinical” in presentations and interactions with their teams. Both leaders were encouraging direct reports to be more authentic: “Just be yourself, Jim.” “Your presentation was all there….there were no holes in it at all, but we don’t know who YOU are.” The comments implied that the presentation was too much there; too much of the need to make the presentation perfect was showing but there was not enough of “Jim” in it. The point is that it’s not the search for perfection that influences conduct and enables a leader to connect. Rather, the connection is made when the head, the heart and the gut are all at work and poured – as one — into the delivery. And moreover, all three need to be both prepared and not prepared.
In the corporate world, competitive pressures encourage younger, aspiring managers to mimic the leadership behaviour of others, usually their direct superior, while adhering to the company line. Thus, they become good performers. But they often lack the self-awareness and courage to project their own values, personality traits, and specific points of view in their leadership interactions. They aspire to, and become accomplished at, meeting and displaying various external standards of perfection or excellence. These young and ambitious managers have largely been promoted because they have been among the best at “getting results” – results others wanted and expected of them. There has been little or no value placed on how they achieved results. But it is the “how” that involves bringing their complete selves into the interactions. At some point, young leaders must abandon trying to meet external standards and express their own, deeply-felt leadership viewpoints. They must access their unique mix of gifts and talents, and give voice to them in creative responses to business situations.
Maturing as a leader involves responding to an internal calling — the urge to give away our innate gifts, “our offering” to life situations. Too often and for too long we deny that we have these gifts, or else, we don’t trust or value them. Moreover, we not only deny our personal gifts, we also block the inner calling to give them away, to pass them on to others.
Trusting your unique gifts
“Leadership perfected” needn’t be a concept or standard that is preconceived, well-rehearsed, or even risk free. Such an approach excludes any scope for a creative response to new situations. Instead, think of leadership perfected as an ever-evolving response to what is required in the moment. To be truly effective and to resonate with an audience, a leadership response can’t come from a notion of how we think we should act. Rather, the response must come from the immediacy of oneself in the moment. In this alternative view of perfection, it is more about how well we understand and respond to a situation, rather than how well prepared we are in advance for how we think the situation will play out. To use a military analogy, the latter approach would be like a general who used strategies based on what worked in the last war.
In a corporate world conditioned to high performance through study and hard work, or “the way the boss did it,” believing that spontaneity and improvisation in the moment make for effective leadership could seem counterintuitive. But the creativity that emerges when we respond to situations from the immediacy of ourselves requires a high level of self-awareness, trust, and comfort in who we are and what we perhaps unconsciously know. It is what leaders need to respond to many diverse situations. This personal tool kit is our mix of mostly hardwired gifts, talents, and stored knowledge that we integrate, refine, and express intuitively. Great leaders are masters of self-regulation in the moment, because they know themselves well enough to monitor and regulate those gifts spontaneously. This is a very different notion of perfection than the one that sees leaders script what they should say and do ahead of time, or act in a certain way, based on external standards and expectations.
Although the concept and language of “making an offering” may not have currency in business language, it is in fact what we do without thinking whenever we’re fully engaged and committed. When we address a situation in a spontaneous or deliberate way, by offering the benefits of our gifts as applied to vision and leadership, we are in fact offering up ourselves. People who are truly creating and responding out of the immediacy of themselves would testify to the vulnerability and uncertainty experienced in such moments. Ironically, we can be our unique selves in such moments of vulnerability and uncertainty, because such moments mark the point where we’ve exhausted what we’ve learned from others, and where we must start to express what is authentically and uniquely ourselves. Words like “intuition,” “faith,” and “creativity” speak to our ability to step out from the known; this is how we bring something new and spontaneous to the situation. This, in turn, allows for the crack that lets in the light. It is in such moments that we are truly creative.
Leading in a VUCA world
From the perspective of creativity, “the crack that lets in the light” has huge possibilities for interpretation and meaning. Our willingness to be authentic, and to trust our intuition and stored knowledge in the moment, creates space – a “crack” or an opening for inspiration that can be channelled, which in turn is facilitated and necessitated by a VUCA world. VUCA is a term currently in vogue with the U.S. military and stands for a world full of Volatility, Unpredictability, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Today, VUCA is highly manifest in business leadership. In such a world, a perfect offering, as Cohen meant it, is out-dated as soon as it is created.
The “crack” has many meanings — a powerful symbol of undoing, irregularity, or randomness. It is something that occurs despite our best efforts, our most laid-out plans. We can also think of the crack as something “unscheduled.” It can also be something as mundane as an uninvited guest or as profound as a life-disrupting (and thus, life-changing) event.
The pre-VUCA era was characterized by many years of relative stability and predictable economic growth. Most of our leaders grew up in a world where certainty was prized and where uncertainty was rare. Leadership provided the answers with assuredness. No one liked to be surprised. Remember the slogan from the Holiday Inn commercial: “The best surprise is no surprise at all.” In today’s VUCA world, that is no longer the responsible view. A good leader expects surprises, and becomes an expert at anticipating, adjusting to, and accommodating “cracks.”
The “crack” can therefore represent life and circumstances as they actually unfold; something that we do not control. It is something that disrupts our internal mental model of how the universe works. It is the outlier, the “Black Swan” – something existing in the tail of our “normal” distribution. It forces us to redefine our conception of “normal” or “perfect.”
The crack lets light in simply because the crack opens us and exposes us to a larger reality existing outside the confines of our “mental model” of order and regularity. What is “light” but awareness and insight – our “Aha!” moments?
Light is not something we can factor in, since the power of light, in this context, is its surprise factor. What we can do, however, is anticipate its inevitability, prepare ourselves for its likelihood, through paying exquisite attention to our situation and then adjusting to it, revising our preconceptions, and then self-regulating our behaviour and response. The light and the crack are therefore coexistent, for without the crack, there is no illumination.
The challenge, and therefore the true test of character, lies not in our presumed perfect plans, our apparently perfect life, or our unblemished career trajectory. Rather, the challenge lies in how we respond to unscheduled events — the cracks — that interfere with our conceptions of the perfect offering, or the perfect life. The healer must empathize with the wounded, in order to become a better healer. The leader must become lost at times, in order to become a visionary leader.
First, know yourself
How do we prepare ourselves as leaders to see and respond to the light that the crack enables? We begin by taking stock of ourselves, knowing how our particular mix of gifts, talents and flaws is made up. We need to take time out to witness, appreciate, and laugh at our vanity, our interpersonal derailers, as well as understand and celebrate our emotional competence. In essence, we need to “reboot.” It is only when we can step outside of and observe ourselves as others see us, that we can free ourselves of being foot soldiers to conformity. After we’ve done that – and ironically, only after we’ve done that — can we be ourselves and re-brand and re-offer our unique set of talents. This is the job of the executive coach, to help in this process and journey.
Leadership perfected is now reframed, because it is now offered from the uniqueness of who we are – a self-perception that can accommodate and appreciate our individuality blended with our shared foolishness, our yearning for perfection with our collective inertia and fear of change. Previously, our leadership offering was based on an artificial and superficial strength, others’ expectations, and, more than likely, arrogance. But now, thanks to the light that the crack made possible, we can offer our gifts from a place of humility and wholeness, which really is nothing more than our awareness of our commonality, as simultaneously gifted and foolish creatures.
This is where true leadership is born, out of our vulnerability. For as Lao Tzu says,
One who knows his lot to be the lot of all other men
Is a safe man to guide them.