The Well-defined Leader
Who is the leader who is able to lead effectively? It is what we call the well-defined leader. We know from Jim Collins’ work that s/he is a person with two qualities: humility + focus, a combination of character + action. But can we dig deeper than this? Can we peer inside of these Level 5 leaders to see what actually makes them tick?
This leader is internally aligned (what s/he says is what s/he does). She subsequently is a non-anxious presence within the organization. As a result, she is able to lead effectively.
Did you notice the word alignment in there? It’s there because alignment is critical to leadership success, and I’ll tell you why. Those who lead who are internally aligned with their own values (actions match words), and thus are able to align the organization around its values, mission and vision, are the truly effective leaders. And yet, so few leaders across the organizational world seem to possess this essential quality.
Getting aligned, getting my words to match my actions, sounds easy? It’s not. In fact, our interior lives tend to be so complex and scrambled that few people have a good grasp of what actually unfolds in their brains. As a result, our actions, words, and underlying values are usually out of alignment one with another. As a result, our unfolding lives are incongruent and misaligned. And thus we lose credibility with those around us.
How do we deal with this? Our minds have elaborate ways of disguising the truth, even from ourselves. In many ways it becomes our life work to understand ourselves and our inconsistencies, and seek to smooth out the rough edges and unscramble the mixed messages – to align who we authentically are with how we portray ourselves to the world.
So what does the aligned, well-defined leader look like?
Well-Defined Leader/Poorly-defined Leader:
The thinking part of self rules over the emotional self, thus preventing or minimizing the creation of or reaction to anxiety and stress in the organization. The emotional part of self rules over the thinking self, thus generating and reacting much more to the anxiety and stress in the organization.
Is able to absorb a large amount of stress and can also be around other excited individuals without themselves becoming emotionally excited, thus diffusing the situation. Susceptible to a great deal of emotional stimulation, themselves becoming excited and adding to the stress they experience rather than diffusing it.
Demonstrates a great deal of self-knowledge. As they pay close attention to their self and reactivity at every level possible, they are able to develop a degree of mastery over self and relationships. Demonstrates much less self-knowledge. Hence has difficulty with decision-making. Because they have less choice between thinking and feeling, more of their choices are emotionally driven.
Has firm, appropriate personal boundaries. Boundaries are either too porous or too rigid.
Has clarity about self and his/her own life goals. Is unclear about who s/he is and unclear about his/her life goals.
Able to hold one’s ground in conflict, keeping an eye on the mission. Sacrifices own position to manage anxiety.
Focuses on strengths, both for herself and for her people. Focuses on pathology in those around her.
Considers self when problems arise. Diagnoses others when problems arise.
Is challenged by difficult situations. Is quick to distance from difficult situations.
Responds effectively to resistance & sabotage, seeing it as necessary and instructive. Responds poorly to resistance & sabotage, allowing it to distract.
Has a challenging attitude that encourages responsibility. Focuses empathetically on helpless victims.
Able to disappoint those dependent on them. Is more likely to create dependent relationships and has difficulty disappointing those dependent on them.
Seeks enduring change. Seeks symptom relief.
Acknowledges and navigates competing values. Fails to acknowledge competing values defaulting to the expedient.
Welcomes conflict that is focused on the mission and introduces conflicting viewpoints. Insists on unanimity and agreement, and is threatened when conflict arises.
A wonderful idea, you might be saying to yourself, but one that is unachievable. I would argue that it is attainable, and learnable. In other words, these are not inborn traits, but behaviors and dispositions that anyone can learn.
The Self-Aware Leader
The most effective leaders, those who are most well-defined and internally aligned, are the leaders who are the most self-aware, simple as that. Oh, you say, I’m not into all of the soft psych stuff. Sufficient to say, if you aren’t aware of yourself, then parts of yourself buried deep in your brain will misalign you, controlling more of your thinking and responding more than you will ever care to know. In other words, you may think that your actions are perfectly aligned with what you say and what you value, but research points otherwise. In fact, our brains our wired to protect ourselves from the truth of this. So we stumble through life, misaligned, all the while assuming that all is perfectly well, and everyone celebrates us the way we celebrate ourselves.
Accurate self-awareness. Do you really understand yourself, and what makes you ‘tick?’ Have you discerned your internal competing values – those places where one good value directly opposes another good value?
Emotional self-control. Is your intellect in control of your emotions? Do you display appropriate emotions tailored to specific situations? When in conflict, do you stay mission-focused and not allowed your personal story and issues to interfere?
Awareness of others. Do you understand the individual strengths of the people around you? Do you understand what motivates them?
Organizational awareness. Do you understand the culture of the organization? Do you pick up on the ‘cues’ that are constantly transmitted all around you?
Influence. Do you persuade others by engaging them in discussion and appealing to their self-interest?
Developing others. Do you lead others with compassion and personally invest time and energy?
Teamwork & collaboration. Do you solicit input from everyone on the team? Do you align people around the mission of the organization?
Smart people, people with all kinds of degrees from all the best places, make terrible leaders. Not all of them, but many of them. And the reason this is so, is that these folks, though knowing all kinds of facts about many areas of life, lack any kind of self-awareness that allows them to manage themselves, leading to social awareness and the ability to manage relationships appropriately.
Researchers had managers in one group give negative feedback on performance to their direct reports, but had them give it with positive non-verbals – nods and smiles. Then these researchers had managers give feedback to subordinates that was positive about their performance, but with negative non-verbals – frowns and narrow eyes. Guess what? Both groups ignored the verbal evaluations, and only reacted to the non-verbals, the positive performers ended up feeling bad about what they’d done, and the bad performers felt good.
What this means for a leader is this: you can give content all day to those you lead. You can tell them what they’re doing well or poorly. But none of that counts. What really counts is the way you deliver it. And if you’re not aware of how you’re coming across, you could be giving all kinds of messages that you had no idea you were giving.
And that’s one major reason there’s so much bad leading and bad management out there in the world. Leaders often have no idea how they’re coming across to people; Why people do not want to work with them; Why they can get so little good performance out of their people.
You’re going to be leading these people. You have to be aware of yourself so that you can help them be aware of themselves. Let me give you a concrete example. Two leaders. Both are brilliant. Both have managed for years, even published articles on managing in prestigious management journals. Manager #1, Dave, is intense, task-focused, and impersonal. His tone is combative. He is a perfectionist and is rarely satisfied. Manager #2, Sue, is also demanding. But she is also approachable and is said to be playful in working with her people and customers.
So what was the results for these two managers? Dave constantly lost good talent. Guess where they tended to wind up? In Sue’s department. And when asked why, these folks said, ‘The environment in Sue’s department is so much better. I’d much rather work here.’ And when it came to leading, both Dave and Sue did that also. Dave rarely kept a direct report more than several months. Sue kept her direct reports for a long time, and those who moved on to bigger things kept in contact with her long after the leading relationship had ended.