Is there anything new under the leadership sun?
With the wealth of information available to us about leadership—the sheer numbers of which have been well-covered in other L2L blog posts and myriad other sources—it would seem easy to answer this question in the affirmative.
In fact, this post is yet another example and becomes inexorably part of the statistic.
Recognizing that, in writing this, it is impossible to avoid falling into that trap, I still want to caution all of us not to jump too easily toward an answer we believe is nothing more than a blinding flash of the obvious. We also shouldn’t assume away the question as rhetorical or disregard the question as some sort of trick.
Grappling with the Answer
Leadership certainly appears to be among the most overused terms of the 21st Century, so much so that it begins to suffer the death of a thousand qualifications—rendering the term almost meaningless. As I’ve written elsewhere:
This isn’t all that surprising. With the rarity of real leaders, the preponderance of imaginary leaders-in-position and the sheer amount of new information mentioned earlier, most now tune out at a mere mention of the word Leadership.”
We can get so overwhelmed in trying to understand what leadership “is” or “looks like” that we either get lost in the shuffle or simply start shuffling along with the lost. The natural but dangerous side effect of this is that we never begin defining, describing, or developing it on a personal level. Continuing a thought from the previous quote:
[We’ve] already heard it all and have “had it up to here” with all the talk about leadership, so little effort is ever applied to defining it personally and little consensus is ever reached on how it should be defined organizationally.”
Yet, as you search farther backward to examine the etymology of leadership or further inward to get at the essence of leadership, it really comes down to a personal recognition of two things:
- The limitless capacity of “born-in” potential as human becomings
- The limiting tendency of “made-in” performance as human beings
We are all born with unlimited potential for learning, changing, growing, and leading, but there are myriad tendencies that inhibit our capacity for improving performance. These include our orientations toward awareness, acceptance, action, and achievement. But the most interesting thing about the debate around whether leaders are born or made is that they both relate to a person, not to an impersonal idea or abstract concept.
In fact, when questions of leadership are raised, they are either raised by a person or about a person. And the questions are considered legitimate only because people have intrinsic value. And herein lays the secret…the hidden TRUTH to anything new in leadership.
Building Your Platform
If you really want to create something new when it comes to leadership, try building (or refurbishing) your own leadership platform.
In fact, I’ve become convinced that the only way something new in leadership can truly emerge is when individuals—unique in time past, present, and future—start answering the questions they are asking. If we really want to understand what Leadership looks like, we need to look in the mirror.
We need to honestly describe or define who we are as a leader, and be open to accept feedback from what others observe and feel when they evaluate our leadership. This is not easy, however, because as Ravi Zacharias puts it, in any interplay between a person and information, the first test is not the veracity of the information, but the truthfulness of the person.
Avoiding the Pitfalls
It’s easy to think that the “person” mentioned in the last statement is the one providing the feedback. While it may be true that some will not provide honest feedback due to their own hang-up’s, I’ve found that most will give you straight talk, but only if they believe you:
- Are genuinely interested in them and what they have to say,
- Have demonstrated that you are serious about getting better at who you are and what you do as a leader, and
- Will never hide, hurl, blame or retaliate—otherwise known as defensive misattribution of failure—when the uncomfortable information is presented, will give you straight talk
Indeed! There are a lot of conditions to whether or not you’ll get at the “new information” about your leadership that is yet to be written or revealed. But there is an even bigger danger lurking in the shadows, poised to jump out and stop-you-up-short when it comes to truly learning, changing, or growing as a leader: defensive misattribution of success.
The defensive misattribution of success occurs when personal leadership success (e.g., how I got this job in the first place or why I’m the boss and you’re not) is attributed inappropriately to the very behaviors that are causing incredible damage through the persecution of people, process and profit, ultimately deteriorating long-term organizational performance.
Understanding the Implications
Robert Cooke and Janet Szumal, Human Synergistics International, include a great organization-level expansion and exposition for this unfortunate reality in their Chapter 9 contribution to the Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate (Ashkanasy, Vilderom, Peterson; 2000).
They contend that the defensive misattribution of success occurs when organizational success is attributed to a Defensive culture when instead it is substantial resources and/or minimal demands that account for the success currently enjoyed by the organization.
Organizations with strong franchises, munificent environments, extensive patents and copyrights, and/or massive financial resources are likely to perform adequately, at least in the short term and possibly even over the long term, if environmental pressures for innovation, adaptation, or flexibility remain minimal.”
In such cases, they say that managers can “get away with” creating an Aggressive/Defensive and/or Passive/Defensive organizational culture. Worse yet, it is almost guaranteed—thanks to attribution theory and self-serving biases—that these managers will credit the Defensive culture that they created (or inadvertently allowed to emerge) as being the source of their organization’s effectiveness.
Sadly, this holds back anything new when it comes to the real creative potential of leadership and keeps the organization locked in yesterday. Cooke and Szumal conclude this section of the book as follows:
Although the impact of culture may be overshadowed by the impacts of resources and demands, Constructive norms would nevertheless enhance the performance of these organizations, increase their adaptability, and protect them from being blind-sided by forceful and unanticipated environmental changes.”
Breaking Free to Newness
The good news for all of us is that there is a way out. There is a means by which we can find newness in leadership. It is a simple but difficult journey for all who endeavor, but it will produce the kind of performance that all of us are after. All that is required is you, the truth, and nothing but your leadership. Are you ready?
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