The quest for leadership is an inner quest to discover who you are and what you care about, and it’s through this process of self-examination that you find the awareness needed to lead. It’s when we examine our lives that we are able to identify the changes we need to make to develop and humanise our leadership.
Twenty-eight years ago, renowned management and leadership expert Peter Drucker made a back-to-the-future prediction: “In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time, literally substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.” 1
Until we truly know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, what we want to do, and why we want to do it, we can only succeed in the most superficial sense of the word.
Given that you are reading this article, I assume the following: You are interested in leadership, you have read countless words about leadership and perhaps attended a course or conference on the topic, and you are a leader. There’s something you need to know: Most leadership books, leadership conferences, and workshops gloss over (or avoid altogether) the fact that leadership is personal, it is a life-long journey and it is very hard work.
Leadership is on everyone’s mind. Pick up the newspaper, watch the daily news, search the Internet; leadership (or lack thereof) is a hot topic everywhere. Today, political, private, and public-sector leadership is on everyone’s mind and has never played a more prominent role in international, national, and local conversations. Private sector leaders are often seen as financially motivated personally—some to the point of being corrupt. Public sector leaders are often portrayed as incompetent. Levels of trust in politicians and government are constantly under public and media scrutiny. Ideological debates about organisations often dominate newspaper pages, while concrete and proven strategies for improving organizational performance receive little or no attention. Leaders visit renowned centres of excellence around the world and return full of enthusiasm for change. Yet many organisational terrains are extremely rigid and presided over by powerful top-down players—a landscape where every inch of organisational boundary space is hotly contested.
We have library shelves stacked with research studies, books, articles, and papers on organisational leadership and transformation, and inboxes with course and workshop materials from the leadership development and transformation industry. We have boardrooms with transformative ideas. We have leadership-change conferences, and symposiums filled with brilliant minds. We receive improvement insights from front-line workers and customer experiences, sign contracts with consultants for analysis, and have tools to improve organisational performance.
So why is it so difficult to have performance improvement in spite of the availability of all this firepower, requisite skills, influence, and determination? Peter Bergen, in his article “Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail.” suggests: What makes leadership personal and hard work isn’t the theoretical; it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. To quote Aristotle, “To avoid discomfort, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” 2
On avoiding discomfort, Bergen offers: “The critical challenge of leadership is, mostly the challenge of emotional courage. Emotional courage means standing apart from others without separating yourself from them. It means speaking up when others are silent. And remaining steadfast, grounded, and measured in the face of uncertainty. It means responding to political opposition and games without getting sidetracked, distracted, or losing your focus. And staying in the discomfort without shutting off or becoming defensive.”3
Skill requires learning new competencies, with your mind training your body to become proficient at understanding that reflection fuels, people matter, and relationships make the difference. In 2006, Peter Senge, author and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, was asked a penetrating question about will and skill: “Are the basic fundamentals for sound leadership the same, and are we just responding to a different world or are we fundamentally shifting?” He responded: “For me, the fundamentals start with a set of deep capacities with which few in leadership positions today could claim to have developed: environmental intelligence, building relationships across boundaries and openness of mind, heart and will. To develop such capacities requires a lifelong commitment to grow as a human being in ways not well understood in contemporary culture. Yet, in other ways, these are fundamentals for leadership that have been understood for a very long time. Unfortunately, this ancient knowledge has been largely lost in the modern era of quick fix.” 4
Who wants to follow a copycat? Who wants to be a copycat? Be someone so unique that others around you want to follow you because you are real. You need to personalise leadership and be authentic. Don’t give and speak the leadership mumbo jumbo. Make it your own and express it in your own way. Many people go out of their way to try to be a leader, but they have no idea why; their leadership ideas are straight out of books, and they don’t know how to connect with people. They operate as leadership theorists.
Where are you experiencing leadership discomfort, risk, and uncertainty? Is your leadership journey connected with your interior self?
ADAPTATION of a leadership vignette titled ‘Leadership Is Personal’ in the book “#HUMANIZINGLEADERSHIP: Reflection Fuels, People Matter, Relationships Make the Difference.” by Hugh MacLeod. FriesenPress, 2019.
- Drucker, P. “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself.” Drucker Foundation Letter Essay, 2000.
- Aristotle Quote. Brainy Quotes.
- Bergen, P. “Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail.” Harvard Business Review, 2013
- Senge, P. “Systems Citizenship: The Leadership Mandate for this Millennium.” Future Leader Blog, 2006.