Isn’t it superb that leadership is a life long process?!! And guess what’s likely the single most important passage in that process of leadership development? I’m 100% behind Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner when they write: “Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” (See the full, marvelous quotation in the first footnote below.) But here’s what’s too terribly absent from the leadership literature: We are almost never told that the greatest leadership challenges lie within. Or, after reading this today, tell me I’m wrong.
We all come factory equipped by nature and nurture. And two of our inbuilt “systems” impede our highest level of leadership performance. One of these systems is the inevitably partial way in which we see the world – partial, in both senses of that word. Each of us only sees a part of it all. Yet on top of that partial condition, we favor that part, i.e., I am partial toward my way. A part of my wife’s way, for instance, is to be fanatically results-oriented, while a part of my way, by great contrast, is to be people-oriented and process-oriented (Myers Briggs aficionados see Note 2 below.) Each way captures an important part of leadership, but being overly partial to one or the other creates dangerous blindsides. I may not get stuff done, while Jennifer may get it done but in a way that’s too quick and won’t stick. Of course, we’re each partial to our ways. Indeed, Jennifer would rightly say that in my heights of hidden(?) arrogance I spent years trying to get her to be more like me.
This partial way can be affected by many of the pieces of our cultural baggage: our religious upbringing (or lack thereof), our economic and political upbringing, our clan, family heritage, birth order, etc., all contribute to our unique partiality. Great leaders find that the older they get the more they realize how little they really know, and how the things they used to think they knew, had more to do with the particular (note the “part” at the beginning of the word “particular”) filters they possessed, than with the reality that they thought they saw with distinct clarity through those filters. So, one great challenge for you, leader, is to learn to see your own filter, and to value the myriad other views that help you see the full set of external challenges and opportunities and options.
I said there were two different systems that created the inner challenges for leaders, and while the particulars come in tens if not hundreds of combinations and permutations, the other internal system is utterly simple, universal and even more pervasive. It’s the mind’s captivation by a four letter word that starts with “F.” It’s fear. Not scary movie fear. Not childish fear. But deep, hidden fear . . . that we’re not good enough . . . that we’re imposters . . . that people don’t like us . . . that we’re going to get fired . . . that we’ll lose control. . . that . . .that. . . that . . .
Seriously. The older I get the more I realize that fear can run my life, that unobserved, fear will run my life. It can result in workaholism to compete and prove myself, as I fear I’ve “lost” the competition with other writers, parents, speakers, siblings – heck even my own wife. (That’s scary: how can I compete with her! 😉 ) Take the most banal example, but one relevant for “driving” leaders. I was realizing over the past week of 100s of miles driving a car in a strange new place that I was hearing mere navigational questions from my passengers as challenges or doubts about whether I was really in control, or was lost (a great primal fear). And, now there’s some classic male baggage for you!
If I could do ONE thing, just ONE thing to help toxic bosses, awful parents, egotistic politicians, I’ll bet you, and I know me, it would be this: awaken us to expect and accept that there is a very small person inside, who has the ability to hold our mind and ensuing actions, captive. Get really open to how our partial beliefs, partial knowledge, and partiality can ally with fear to make us do really small and often hurtful things to the work and the people that really matter to us. I dare you (inciting fear?) to show me there is anything that’s a greater challenge – and opportunity – than our partiality and fear; as we strive to
Lead with our best Self.
Note 1: Here’s the full quote from Kouzes and Posner’s classic, The Leadership Challenge: “Name any great leader, performer, scientist, athlete, activist, citizen. Chances are that the crucible of that person’s crowning achievement was some distressing crisis, wrenching change, tragic misfortune, or risky venture. Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” My note: notice how fear is implicated in each of the four “challenges” the authors cite: “distressing crisis, wrenching change, tragic misfortune, or risky venture.” The encounter is not only with the external “crisis, change, misfortune, venture,” but also involves an encounter with the inner demons.
Note 2: Those who know Myers-Briggs know that we can turn our particular “preferences” e.g., for extraversion over introversion or for thinking over feeling into biases. My combination of preferences for introversion, intuition, feeling and perception all incline me toward people, the internal, and process. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s preferences for extraversion, thinking and judging drive her toward external systems, results, and change in the outside world. Each is hugely valuable, but alone they are dangerous. The combination, as in so many partnerships makes for challenge and misunderstanding yet also the possibility for breakthrough insight and great complementarity.