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

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Real Risks of Leadership

Many leaders worry about how to be the best possible leader. They worry about how to keep track of technological developments and use them to their best advantage. They worry about how to stay ahead of and differentiate from competitors and they worry about how to continuously surprise clients with ever improving and innovative products and services. Organizing retreat sessions with the hottest guru, distributing the latest leadership book for all your employees to read, inviting highly regarded executive coaches to work with the leadership team, using motivational speakers to inspire your workforce, and conducting mission-and-value sessions to get your company to the next level –they can all be valuable and beneficial, especially in the short term.  But the real risk of leadership is not missing out on the latest leadership trends and re-inventing what’s long been discovered and done. The real risk of leadership is not failing on a powerful mission statement that guides the whole organization to greatness. Many leaders fear not being able to continuously compete, innovate, and out-maneuver the competition. I believe the real risks of leadership to be three fold, and in a slightly different area:
1.       Not being brave enough to be vulnerable and fallible.
2.       Not being smart enough to ask the right questions.
3.       Not being wise enough to use ancient wisdom and common sense.

I’ll elaborate on these three risks to explain my thinking.

Not being brave enough to be vulnerable and fallible
What first comes to mind is an inflated ego that thinks it knows it all, which keeps the person from seeing the value in other perspectives and it keeps the leader from continuously being curious, asking questions, and learning from others.  There is a mistaken and sometimes devastating belief that a CEO or any other leader has to know it all, fix it all, and pretend it all. Being too full of yourself and thinking you’re very smart refers to the tightrope exercise between confidence and self-knowledge for which you need a good sense of humor, curiosity and the skills for observation and introspection.
Brave also refers to the courage to let go of the past, of tradition, of the way things have always been done. If they’re honest, many people will recognize this fear of changing.  
If leaders have the courage to be vulnerable and fallible, put otherwise, if they have the courage to be human, leaders will be more influential the more comfortable they get with being uncomfortable. That tightrope between confidence and vulnerability, once again, which includes the courage to be accountable and hold others accountable -  a much neglected topic in theory and in practice.

Not being smart enough to ask the right questions
To be asking the right questions, you first and foremost need the above mentioned courage to be vulnerable and fallible and to be asking potentially painful questions like:
-          What are we avoiding in this company and why are we avoiding this?
-          What are we covering up for ourselves and for others?
-          What are we afraid to admit and talk about?
-          What is dysfunctional that we are pretending to be perfectly fine?
-          What are the topics that are off limits in this organization?
-          What truths are we not telling each other around here?

These questions are really accountability questions. One of my inspirations on accountability is John Miller. In his book “The Question Behind the Question - practicing personal accountability at work and in life” Miller argues that the lack of personal accountability is a problem that has resulted in an epidemic of blame, complaining, and procrastination. The trouble that plagues organizations cannot be solved by pointing fingers and blaming others. Negative, inappropriate questions like “Why are they doing this to us?” or “Why do we have to go through all this change?” and “Who dropped the ball?” represent a lack of personal accountability. The better questions are: “How can I help solve the problem?”

When you are faced with a frustration or challenge of some kind, you can choose to ask more accountable questions. Rather than “When are we going to get more help around here?” you can ask “What can I do to make a difference and contribute to the solution?” This is making better choices in the moment by asking better questions.  Sometimes people think they have no choice. They will say things like “I have to” or “I Can’t”. But we always have a choice. Always. And this is where another great mind that inspires me comes into play: the late psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl with his deep-seated conviction, which he actually ‘lived and behaved’, that you always have a choice, no matter what circumstance you are in. You always have a choice and Frankl speaks of the last freedom that no one can take away from you, not even in a concentration camp. It’s the choice of your attitude regarding whatever circumstance you find yourself in.  When I first read Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” I felt a heavy burden on my shoulders, and I actually still do. To be practicing and truly living this freedom of attitude towards the horrendous circumstances that Frankl was facing during the nazi terror is so powerful and strong that I tend to feel ashamed of all the times I felt sorry for myself. For all the times I thought and acted like a ‘victim’.  I always thought of myself as strong, positive, self-motivated, and a non-victim but that’s easy to think, feel, and be when you’re as lucky as I am and as most of us are. Have we stood a real test yet? I haven’t really, or maybe: I really haven’t. But I sure feel humbled and encouraged  by authors like Miller and leaders like Frankl and I know that facing up to the real me, including the times when I do think and act more like a victim as opposed to an accountable person, is part of being my own leader- the first leadership level we have to master. It’s part of having the courage to be human and fallible. Awareness and a yearning to keep growing is all it takes to get you one step closer to holding yourself (and others) accountable for whatever you face and cause in life.

Not being wise enough to use ancient wisdom and common sense
Look around you and listen to children,  to nature, to old people and their experiences, to the beliefs and practices of the Samurai, to the Tao Te Ching, to the beliefs and fears of employees at all levels, and to all other resources out there. It is not about acquiring more knowledge nor is it about creating even more choices. If the world or your organization was going to be saved by more knowledge it would have happened by now. It is about seeing what’s available, looking at it from different perspectives and with an inquisitive mind. It is about converting long discovered truths and powerful beliefs into the right attitude, focus, and choices and then living it by example.

The real risk of leadership, if you ask me: being blind with a set of great eyes.


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