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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Leadership: Realism, Courage, and Plain Hard Work

There is an interesting new study out by Development Dimension International, a global talent management organization working with organizations worldwide. DDI has a history of research into best practices and trends in talent management and their new study finds that managers don’t know what it takes to succeed and they aren’t ready for what the job throws at them. Hard to believe? Not applicable to your situation? Could it be that these findings relate to leadership, to your organization, to you? I might be stirring up a hornet’s nest here, but I believe there is still too much not-knowing, not-realizing, and blind spots to be looked at by leaders, and I’m not referring to blindness in regards to content expertise. Hornet nest or not, read on and draw your own conclusions.
For the full report and all their findings you can visit DDI’s website. I’d like to mention the last of their four major findings: 87% of leaders rate their leadership skills highly, but nearly the same number, 89%, have at least one leadership “blind spot,” an area where they think they are better than they actually are. I’m sure you’ve met these people, whether leaders or not.
The blind-spot finding reminds me of a book I read several years ago called “Leadership and Self-Deception” by the Arbinger Institute. It covers the related and interesting topic of self-deception: how people, including (or especially?)  managers and leaders, have a problem – the biggest one being that they are not aware they have a problem which leaves them clueless, just like the managers in the DDI study can be labeled clueless.
An example of self-deception: You might feel that no one is in a tougher situation than you are right now with tight budgets, struggling new products, dwindling markets, and crazy competition.  But you work long hours and you deny yourself the necessary time with your family. You tolerate short nights and bad meals and you do the very best you can, or so you think. You might interpret all this as showing commitment and the closest thing to excellence under difficult circumstances. You might not realize that you’re distracted by how great you (think you) are or by how much you sacrifice for your boss and for the company. You might not be aware that you are demonstrating a significantly decreased amount of spirit, energy, and effectiveness. So what’s the biggest problem of it all? You don’t see it, so you don’t know what the problem really is let alone that you can start tackling the problem. Your vision is blurred. You are capable of seeing things only or predominantly from your own limited perspective. You might feel sorry for yourself as well as underappreciated. You might be putting the blame for disappointing results on other people or circumstances thereby putting your accountability and ownership up for sale. This consistent and persistent blurred vision and blindness is called self-deception.

I like to relate this self-deception to three theories. First the theory of Argyris and Schon who talk about the split between what a person does and what she or he says to do. There seem to be two ‘theories’ involved. The one is a theory that reflects what we people, managers, leaders say we do when we speak of our actions to others. This they call the Espoused Theory: the words we use to convey what we do, or what we would like others to think we do. The second one is the theory that is implicit in what we actually do – the Theory in Use. It governs actual behavior. The main point of it all: too often there’s a huge gap between what we say (and generally believe) we do and what we actually do. No small problem if you ask me, considering the fact that we’d like leaders to be truthful, to be leading by example and  all the other expectations we have of leaders.  

Second, I like to bring in attribution theory, described as the explanations that people tend to make to explain success or failure. These attributions can be analyzed in terms of three sets of characteristics:
1.      The cause of the success or failure may be internal or external: we may succeed or fail because of factors that we believe have their origin within us or because of factors that originate in our environment.
  1. The cause of the success or failure may be either stable or unstable. If we believe the cause is stable, then the outcome is likely to be the same if we perform the same behavior on another occasion. If it is unstable, the outcome is likely to be different on another occasion.
  2. The cause of the success or failure may be either controllable or uncontrollable. A controllable factor is one which we believe we ourselves can alter if we wish to do so. An uncontrollable factor is one that we do not believe we can easily alter.
An important assumption of attribution theory is that people will interpret their environment and thereby attribute their successes and failures in such a way as to maintain a positive self-image. In general, this means that you are likely to attribute your success to your own efforts or abilities, but when you fail you will want to attribute that failure to factors over which you have no control, such as bad luck, unpredictable developments in the market etc. Basically, in this line of thinking success is due to effort and ability and failure is due to bad luck and circumstances. So much for accountability and ownership so valued at all levels in the organization, not less at the leadership level.  
Third and last: the workings of perception, one of the oldest fields in psychology and a topic much discussed within philosophy. There is much to say about perception but I’ll keep it limited to the following: all perception is subjective and at the same time perception is reality (and appears as objective) for the person holding the perception. How does it work? You see what you want to see and what is already familiar to you. You interpret whatever you see in a way that it fits your previously held beliefs and your self-image, at least most of the time. Your overall goal is to support your beliefs and vision, to justify your thinking and actions, and to support your self-image or the image that you are trying so hard to build. In this process, it’s both your perception and interpretation that is subjective as a well as what you decide to devote your attention to. We tend to see what fits in with what we already believe, think, feel, that’s what we focus on. Could inventors be one example of a group that diverts from this process, since they see what’s generally overlooked? They actively seek for new perspectives, new ways, new combinations. They take the path that no one has walked yet or they walk the well trodden path in a totally different way. Just one more perspective, related to perception and our brain. Antonio Damasio, professor and internationally recognized leader in neuroscience, states that the left part of our brain has the tendency to create verbal stories that do not necessarily agree with reality.
Seems to me that it’s all coming together. In earlier posts on this blog I wrote about leadership and courage, about the crucial process of awareness which relates directly to perception.  I wrote about the importance of authenticity, perseverance and resilience in leaders, and about the powerful tool of reflection. I believe these ingredients to be crucial in preventing or at least decreasing self-deception and a blurred, limited vision.
So I’d like to ask my readers, especially (aspiring) leaders, just like I ask myself: How courageous are you as a leader when it comes to actively seeking ways to decrease your self-deception? Do you solicit peer feedback from other leaders about how they perceive you? Do you really listen to what they have to say and do you ask questions about views that are not exactly flattering for you? Do you contemplate what’s being presented to you? At the same time, how often is it that you candidly provide a peer leader with feedback on how you perceive her or his beliefs, actions, results, and attitude? And how often is it that you actively seek the opinion and vision of someone who is not in your “inner circle” of likeminded leaders with similar beliefs and style? If we actively solicit feedback from others at all, we generally tend to seek out likeminded souls, again, to see our beliefs confirmed and to maintain a positive self-image – which leaves our blind spots untouched.
I do not wish to add to the many lists with qualities that a great leader should possess. Many of these lists hold truths, I, however, merely advocate for leaders to develop personal and interpersonal awareness and courage. A gutsy leader in the not so traditional sense of the word. And I’m happy to know there are such leaders. I just wished there were more of them because it is my belief that there is an emergency exit out of self-deception traps, out of limited and boxed-in thinking, and out of single-lane perspectives: looking with new eyes, having honest conversations, approaching people who seem to think and act differently, and asking and providing candid feedback on issues that really matter even if it results in information that you’d rather not hear or provide. Even if it leads to difficult conversations. And that’s what I call realism, courage, and plain hard work. It is not complicated but it can be challenging.

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