The Real Secret to Extraordinary Leadership

user Darren Gold
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“It’s all invented,” declare Benjamin and Roz Zander in one of my favorite books The Art of Possibility. In these three words, the Zanders speak to a universal human phenomenon – that we ascribe meaning to everything, and, in so doing, shape our own experiences and construct our own realities. Yet the wisdom of this simple statement often remains elusive until we understand that most of this meaning-making occurs below the level of consciousness. Much of my own development and the work that I do with business leaders involves bringing awareness to the all-consuming human activity of ascribing meaning. Once we begin to notice how much of our reality is the product of meaning-making, we gain access to the possibility of being able to move from a state of automaticity to a state of choice. And with choice or agency comes the ability to powerfully shape our lives.

Each of us goes through life with a set of beliefs, assumptions, expectations, moods, and interpretations of ourselves, others, and the world. This aggregate collection of beliefs is constantly (and mostly unconsciously) being updated, revised, and added to, and powerfully shapes, colors, and filters how we make meaning of ourselves, others, and the situations we encounter. Many of the beliefs we hold make sense and serve us well. They allow us to efficiently make quick judgments or to react instinctively to protect ourselves. In some cases, however, our beliefs limit our potential, our effectiveness, and our ability to be fulfilled and thrive. This is so because the interpretations we bring to a situation create a context for that situation, and the context determines the actions that are available to us. Our beliefs and interpretations often create a context for a situation such that the only actions that occur to us are ones that are incapable of producing the results we desire.

Let me explain by using an example involving a senior executive I worked with. This leader was incredibly bright, competent, and respected. He held his team to a set of very high expectations and was clear about what those expectations were. He intellectually understood the importance of developing his team, yet he couldn’t seem to find sufficient time to do so or to do so effectively. As a result, members of his team either met his high standards and succeeded, or didn’t and exited the organization. The result was very mixed success in being able to build a stable and diverse team of high performers.

As we attempted to deconstruct what was preventing him from investing in the development of his team, he became aware of a core belief that he had not realized he held – namely, his belief that people really don’t change. It was thus not surprising that he had been engaging in weak attempts to mentor and that he was unconsciously seeking data to confirm the belief that people are incapable of changing. He was thus trapped in a vicious cycle of half-hearted development attempts, early validation that the development was not producing results, and premature cessation of his mentoring efforts.

In this leader’s case, the first step was awareness. Without awareness, change was not possible. He needed to see clearly that he actually held the belief that people don’t change. However, even with awareness, we rarely submit our beliefs to an honest and thoughtful examination. Instead, we often cling on to our core beliefs tightly allowing little space to exist between ourselves and the thoughts we have. Indeed, we identify so closely to the beliefs we hold that we fail to see any separation between self and belief at all. In the example of this particular leader, he prided himself on being able to make the hard calls on people. His belief had in effect become an important part of his identity – one that he was unconsciously committed to protecting.

Our work began by him becoming conscious that the belief existed and by seeing the connection between the belief and the actions that were available to him. In holding tightly to this belief, he realized the actions he had been engaging in were the only actions available for him to take. We then began to examine the belief: how did he act when he believed the thought that people don’t really change? Where could he find evidence that the opposite belief was true – that people can and do change? This process began to soften his attachment to the belief and create some space between the belief and his identity. In that space, he began to consider what other actions existed that were previously not even visible to him. In some respects, our work gave him permission to invent a new context for developing people. Who would he be as a leader if he allowed for the possibility that people can change? And, more powerfully, who could he become if he invented the possibility that he himself could change?

One additional, powerful result of our work was that the executive began to understand that his “reality” was, in fact, internally constructed. He became more open to the possibility of other “realities.” He gained a new comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, and was able to be with his team in a manner that was more expansive and empathic. He was much more open to question his beliefs, even those he had held onto tightly for a long time and that had previously guided him throughout his career. When we become conscious of our deeply held beliefs and interpretations, and we begin to honestly examine them, we gain access to what I call “leadership space” – a space in which we are more free to reflect and choose, and to do so in a way that leads to desired performance. This executive’s leadership space opened dramatically and his ability to lead his team blossomed.

At the Trium Group, we work with the top leaders of many of the world’s leading organizations. The work that we do with leaders requires a deep self-awareness of the core beliefs and assumptions that a leader holds and a thoughtful examination of those beliefs. In this awareness, leaders begin to see the connection between their beliefs – their internally constructed realities – and the potential action set available to them. This requires real work. Any examination of deeply held beliefs will be felt as a threat to one’s identity. To take on this work thus requires real courage and discipline on the part of a leader. The reward, however, is huge. It is access to a leadership space which provides significantly greater freedom to act from a place of authentic wisdom and a more powerful sense of agency. Indeed, the secret to leadership is in the awareness – when we are aware we can choose, and when we choose, we can, indeed, invent it all.

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