The most dynamic leaders I know are also the most interesting people. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so. Developing leaders is a multifaceted process that has much more to do with helping leaders develop who they are than it does developing a technical understanding of leadership. Growth as a leader is multifaceted because people do not develop along a linear path of skill sets that build capacity. Instead leaders simultaneously develop technical skills, interpersonal styles and conceptual ability in a complex interaction between their internal sense of purpose, the context in which they lead (i.e., the relational dynamics of the organization) and the varying demands of the market place for product.
Identifying the factors of development along linear paths, as I have done in the diagram above, helps define the components of a leader's development and illustrates that simply learning new skills is not the most significant aspect of leadership. The failure of many leadership development programs is that they focus solely on attempts to develop the skills and ability of leaders without addressing the far more important aspects of the leader's identity as rooted in his or her personality and their spirituality (consciousness i.e., how they perceive reality).
Real success in leadership is not so much a technical skill as it is the ability to read the emotional environment and reassure people in the face of anxiety. Leaders who are most effective in reading the emotional environment of their organization and offering reassurance stand out – they exude confidence (not hubris) that reassure others and moves the conversation from anxiety to possibility. They have a secure identity. They have a differentiated sense of self.
If the leader understands his/her differentiation from the group then they are able to act without being affected by the group's (institution's) own emotional processes. Without a clearly differentiated sense of self the leader fails to develop clear values, a unique vision or a defined moral foundation. Instead the undifferentiated person looses the nerve to be his or her own self in the face of the emotional reaction of the group to both internal and external events. The leadership challenge inherent in being a differentiated person is succinctly described by Friedman:
A leader must separate his or her own emotional being from that of his or her followers while still remaining connected. Vision is basically an emotional rather than a cerebral phenomenon, depending more on a leader's capacity to deal with anxiety than his or her professional training or degree.[i]
A differentiated person possesses clarity about their life goals and clarity about their own capacity potential. A differentiated person is unruffled by the reactivity of others. A differentiated person or leader is able to express his/her self without blaming. This person takes responsibility for their own destiny and emotional health.
Without a differentiated sense of self leaders become caught up in the organization’s emotional processes. As a result often agitate anxiety instead of steering the group through it. When a leader agitates his or her organization’s anxiety then behaviors such as reactivity, herding (quest for uniformity versus individuality in which the organization adapts to its least mature member), blaming, a quick-fix mentality and a lack of leadership occur.
I met Steve Moreau some time after he stepped into a CEO role in 2005. The way he presented himself impressed me. He consistently emphasized three core values: excellence, engagement and execution. He emanated conviction, energy and commitment. He did not seem to be merely mouthing a formula or the tag line of the latest business book. Steve capably lead the hospital he lead from loosing money to being one of the top 100 acute care hospitals in the nation and he did it in two years. How? Rather than blame his staff for poor engagement, or blame the situation Steve initiated change in how he and the organization related – he did not allow the least emotional mature members of the staff to decide the emotional climate of the hospital. He brought in coaches to work with his executive team and key managers to help them define their own individuality and he affirmed that individuality by rewarding performance and creativity.
How are you doing as a leader? Are you unruffled by the emotional reactivity of others? Do you hold others accountable for their own emotional wake? Do you insist that the least mature of your staff to grow? If you are then you most likely face the sabotage and resistance real leadership generates but you also experience progress and breakthroughs in how people on your team assess their situation and possibilities. Are you a differentiated person? If not, it is time to hire a coach or find a mentor capable of helping you change the way you see yourself and overcome the imaginative barriers that keep you from risking new thinking. If you are stalled as a leader you may be lost as a person. Don’t attend another seminar boasting 12 great breakthrough strategies – do the hard work of knowing yourself.
[i] Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix [Kindle Version], 430 of 5400. Retrieved from Amazon.com.