By: Dr Eugene Fernandez
Lewis was walking past the office kitchen when he overheard a hushed conversation - off with his head I say, off with his head, it was the voice of Carol his executive assistant who sounded angry. He suddenly remembered their recent altercation over the board papers, though he dismissed this as their usual spat which Carol was tough enough to work through.
This obviously was a personal matter, which he was loath to inquire about, as it would open up a can of worms. Besides, the board papers were due and he had to prepare for the executive meeting outlining his focus on driving the KPI’s of his division. HHe also intended to spell out the barriers imposed by some of his peers that prevented his team from achieving their goals. All this had to be done prior to a residential Leadership program next week, which the CEO insisted he attend. He felt annoyed, as it was Carol’s task to ensure all of this was organized - grimacing he entered and shut the door to his office.
Lewis held the view that you had to drive hard for what you want and that it was better to be tough and fair than to be loved. He often commented to his team ‘ …we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.’ He didn’t stand still long enough to hear his team’s mumbled reply. ‘The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.’
The Achievement Overdrive
Lewis’s style is reflective of some leaders within organizations. In today’s busy and complex world, leaders can be mired in action and activity driven by a strong internal desire to achieve. Increasingly this drive for action and achievement, coupled with the pace of life, can preclude or limit time for reflection and developing relationships. This can, in turn, impact adversely on the quality of decisions made and on the lives of people at work. Since the mid-1990s the drive for achievement, labeled by David McClelland, an eminent Harvard psychologist, as one of the three key internal drivers or social motives, has been on the rise. The other two are, Affiliation and Power.
Leaders are driven to overachieve – sometimes at great cost and suffering to those around them, (remembering also that some leaders overachieve and produce good results). High-profile scandals and reduced trust in leadership and big corporations (Spreier, Fontaine et al. 2006) are seen as part of the cost of this unthinking drive.
A consequence of this drive for achievement is leaders working long hours at the cost of health, and family-life, and limited time for introspection and building relationships. Action, uninformed by reflection, perpetuates the problem and locks people and their organizations in a vicious cycle.
Leaders who do not review their behaviours can negatively impact on the organization and its systems. Langer (1989) argues there is a tendency for people to act without any ‘conscious volition’ and that many acts demonstrate a state of mindlessness in contrast to the mindfulness linked to reflecting on what we do.
Along with Mindfulness, leaders need to adopt and learn different styles that use what McClelland calls socialized power. Leaders need to also understand and become practiced at understanding the inner landscape, being mindful of their emotions and beliefs and the impact this has on their decisions. (Fernandez 2013)
The Leadership program was an opportunity for Lewis to calibrate and reflect on his strengths and weaknesses. He found it hard at first to slow down and to be part of the group, but gradually some of the messages began to sink in, he realized that the success he had to date within the organisation wasn’t necessarily going to get him to the next step.
The programs experiential nature was at first disconcerting as he was expecting to be told via lectures what a good leader was. However through discussion and dialogue the facilitators were able to role model and articulate other styles and views of leadership.
Being a Leader
Lewis realised that a leader did not necessarily have to be in front holding the flag and rallying the troops. Leadership could also be a collective and transformational process, (Raelin 2004, Bass and Riggio 2006) where everyone in a group takes responsibility to rotate and share the role, this was a collective view of leadership.
Each person is also a leader, exerting his or her own leadership preferences and traits within the team, this was a form of concurrent leadership and where every member considers the needs of others exemplified compassionate leadership. All this did not detract from his legitimate and obligatory role as a leader, but added the means by which to enact it.
He began to understand that accountability and responsibility are key aspects of both personal leadership and leadership that is vested in his role within the organisation. Leadership includes an understanding of the inner dimensions of the self along with an understanding of the behaviour of others. These dimensions and behaviours have a direct and critical impact (whether conscious or unconscious) on individuals, organizations and the world at large (Goleman 2002, Sinclair 2007).
Lewis’s understanding about taking personal responsibility was challenged when he received critical feedback from his 360. He confided with one of the participants after dinner, which affirmed that Lewis had a choice, to reject the feedback and go back to doing what he always did or to view the feedback as a gift and to commit to make the necessary changes.
‘Your Peers can derail your career’, a comment made by one of the facilitators got his attention, this coupled with his low inclusion scores (Schutz 2005) projected the impression that he was remote, in reality he rarely included them in any meeting or event and whilst voicing his interest in being involved, found excuses when invited. He planned to change this immediately by acknowledging the significance of their contribution.
He decided to develop strategies to work through his high need for control which was stifling the decision making of his direct reports and their willingness to be more innovative. At the same time he pushed back on any control being exerted by his superiors, which strained the relationship. He acknowledged that there was a need to look at the deeper reason and need that was driving this behaviour.
He realised that at times he used coercive means to stamp his authority and this had a tendency to inflame emotions rather than engage the heart. He got tacit compliance rather than real engagement. As Shakespeare’s Angus speaks about Macbeth, ‘Those he commands move only in command. Nothing in Love’
Engaging with the heart means connecting with where each person is. This requires being present to them as a person. It goes beyond just having a superficial and intellectual understanding of the person. It goes deeper and means caring about them through real empathy and compassion.
Research from Neuroscience highlights that Emotions such as empathy and compassion have a positive effect on neurological functioning and personal relationships, our perceptions of events also changes to one of enablement, creating a virtuous cycle (Cameron, Inzlicht et al. 2015) (Fernandez 2015).
The time away on the leadership program challenged many of his fundamental assumptions; he felt tired but renewed, his intention was to become more of a Resonant Leader (Boyatzis and McKee 2005) who could move people powerfully passionately and purposefully.
On his return to the office, he embraced Carol and thanked her for her support, he said. ‘I can’t go back to yesterday - because I was a different person then’.
Carol replied, ‘You’re not the same as you were before’ and she smiled so much that the ends of her mouth almost met behind her head.
Lewis thought ‘if she smiles any more, I don’t know what would happen to her head! I’m afraid it would come off!’ (Carroll 1865)
Bass, B. and R. Riggio (2006). Transformational Leadership. Mahwah, New Jersey, LEA Publishing.
Boyatzis, R. and A. McKee (2005). Resonant Leadership. Boston, Harvard Business Review Press.
Cameron, D., et al. (2015). Empathy is Actually a Choice. The New York Times: SR 12.
Carroll, L. (1865). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York, Macmillian.
Fernandez, E. (2013). “DOOR to Reflection.” Australian Institute of Training and Development(February): 4-6.
Fernandez, E. (2015). Is your specialisation hindering your potential ? 10 key strategies. Metanoa Blog. LinkedIn Pulse.
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science of results. London, Little Brown.
Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Woburn, MA, Addison-Wesley.
Raelin, J. (2004). “Preparing for Leaderful Practice.” American Society for Training and Development(March).
Schutz, W. (2005). The Human Element. San Francisco, Business Consultants Network, Inc.
Sinclair, A. (2007). Leadership for the disillusioned: Moving beyong myths and heroes to leading that liberates. Crows Nest, Sydney, Allen & Unwin.
Spreier, S., et al. (2006). “Leadership Run Amok - The destructive potential of overachievers.” Harvard Business Review 84(6): 72-82.
Dr. Eugene Fernandez has over 25 years experience in consulting, strategy, executive coaching, leadership development and facilitation, spanning various industries and sectors globally. Contact via www.metanoa.com.au
This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine December 2015 Vol 42 No 6, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.