What is Leadership?

user Darren Gold
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I recently spoke with a client about launching a broad organizational change effort involving a series of transformational leadership development experiences. As we were speaking, he paused and asked me how I defined leadership.

He had essentially three questions. First, why do we need leaders and what role do they need to play in the organization? Second, how do we develop leaders to be more effective? And finally, what are the conditions that allow leaders to grow and become better at what they do?

As a Partner at The Trium Group, I spend a lot of time wrestling with these questions. I promised him I would get back to him after giving the questions some further thought. Here’s what I ultimately shared with him.

Why do we need leaders and what role do they need to play in the organization? This question can be answered in a number of ways, but I think it’s helpful to cite one critical role — namely, that the primary role of a leader is to declare a future that moves and inspires individuals within an organization to take actions in the present consistent with the realization of that future. This role speaks to my belief in the generative power of declarative language and to the importance of shared context in creating the conditions for people to take action that results in desired performance. One of the most famous examples is JFK’s 1961 speech asserting that we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. This declaration created a new future for people to live into and mobilized an entire nation to take action that, until that time, they had not yet been taking. As Steve Zaffron writes in The Three Laws of Performance:

We’re talking about rewriting what people know will happen. Rewrite this [default] future, and people’s actions naturally shift: from disengaged to proactive, from resigned to inspired, from frustrated to innovative. If we could rewrite the future across a critical mass of people, we could transform a tired company into an innovator, a burned-out culture into one of inspiration, a command-and-control structure into a system in which everyone pulls for each other’s success.”

Joseph Jaworski, a Strategic Partner of The Trium Group, arguably puts it best in his book Synchronicity:

The conventional view of leadership emphasizes positional power and conspicuous accomplishment. But true leadership is about creating a domain in which we continually learn and become more capable of participating in our unfolding future. A true leader thus sets the stage on which predictable miracles, synchronistic in nature, can — and do— occur. The capacity to discover and participate in our unfolding future has more to do with our being — our total orientation of character and consciousness — than with what we do. Leadership is about creating, day by day, a domain in which we and those around us are able to participate in shaping the future. This, then, is the deeper territory of leadership — collectively “listening” to what is wanting to emerge in the world, and then having the courage to do what is required.”

How do we develop leaders to be more effective? The answer to this question requires that we draw a distinction between horizontal development – where traditional learning and development typically focuses – and vertical development. For leaders to effectively lead in a world of increasing complexity, we must focus on vertical development — namely, the development of mental complexity or how we see ourselves and the world. The case for vertical development rests on the following five critical propositions:

Proposition #1: We are leading in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Proposition #2: Effective leadership requires that our mental complexity — that is, how we construct and make meaning of ourselves and the world — increases, at a minimum, at the same rate as the complexity of our environment increases.

Proposition #3: Leaders can and do progress through stages of development, marked by levels of increasing mental complexity.

Proposition #4: Leaders at higher stages of vertical development are more effective.

Proposition #5: To compete and win, organizations must invest in the vertical development of its leaders. No organization can exist at a higher level of development than the development of its leaders.

In essence, we can’t expect leaders to be effective if we aren’t giving them the resources and opportunities to engage in structured, deep self-exploration that results in ongoing personal evolution and vertical development.

What are the conditions that enable leaders to grow and become better at what they do? This is about creating a domain in which leaders see leadership as a craft or a discipline. It involves what Peter Senge calls personal mastery, which he describes in The Fifth Discipline:

When personal mastery becomes a discipline — an activity we integrate into our personal lives — it embodies two underlying movements. The first is continually clarifying what is important to us.… The second is continually learning how to see current reality more clearly.”

Two things are essential for personal mastery. First, leaders must be committed to mastering leadership in the same way that elite athletes and performers are committed to practicing their craft. Kobe Bryant’s legendary discipline is a good example. There is one particular account by a trainer that I love about a 4:00am practice that lasted for 7 hours before his regular practice with Team USA began.

Robert Strozzi-Heckler in his book The Leadership Dojo makes the argument for approaching leadership as one would the mastery of any craft:

Leadership is a skill and art that can be trained through recurrent practices, just as one learns how to swing a golf club, ski, or hit a tennis ball. It’s possible to strengthen a muscle such as a bicep; it is equally possible to train the muscles of integrity, confidence, collaboration, courage, and empathy. We can build muscles in every dimension of our lives, including the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The catch is to practice and go beyond our comfort zones.”

In addition to the leader’s personal commitment to leadership as a craft, the organization must also be structured in a way that supports this personal mastery. There are numerous constructs of such organizations – Senge’s “learning organization” or Kegan & Lahey’s “deliberately developmental organization” are just a couple of examples. The key is to create an environment and culture that intentionally rewards and prioritizes an approach to leadership that is reminiscent of the training of a professional athlete or virtuoso performer. Organizations that are crafting their cultures in such a way will succeed in the long term. Those that don’t, deny their people one of the true gifts of organizational life – the opportunity to reach one’s highest human potential – and endanger the organization’s overall long-term viability.

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