Great Leaders Recognize The Road Signs of Development
When leaders face boundaries in their development they may not realize at first that they face a boundary at all. The realization unfolds as actions and decisions that once were effective no longer work. Success in working through boundaries requires that the leader to recognize the presence of a boundary and make a commitment to shift from the old to the new. Without this mental shift the odds of ending up in a major pitfall are significant.
Leaders develop through boundary events that occur in course of life. Boundary events are either powerfully formative or devastatingly destructive. It is not the experience itself that determines the outcome in leaders lives. Individual choices determine the outcomes of these boundary experiences. Outcomes are not inherent in the experience itself.
Boundary Events are Predictable
Boundary events are experiences (1) such as trials or tests that corner the person and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them and (2) a point at which a leader faces the necessity of moving to depth in: skills, perspective or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness.
As illustrated below leaders face significant boundaries at various periods of time in their career and personal life. Boundary experiences are like warning signs indicating a change ahead. Leaders ignore these signs at their own peril. The degree to which a person fails to embrace boundary experiences they increase their internal dissonance, slow their growth and plateau in their development (as illustrated in Figure 1 in the four negative deltas indicating stalled growth).
Figure 1 illustrates development over a lifetime and the significant boundaries associated with early career (1); mid-career adjustments (2) e.g., when career expectations are typically reevaluated; late-career (3); and post-retirement (4) when people typically ponder how their legacy will impact future generations and how they come to terms with their own mortality.
Notice in Figure 1 that the development of new skill is only part of the aspect of development in a leader. It is easy in our western society with its emphasis on qualitative definitions of reality to forget that development as a person and especially development as a leader is not mono-faceted but multi-faceted.
Figure 1 illustrates the “drag” that occurs on development (z-axis). When leaders fail to acknowledge or address internal issues related to identity and spirituality dissonance grows louder. When internal dissonance is high, such as in the middle of a boundary experience, then one’s confidence and sense of purpose diminish (a negative force) and contribution/confidence sags.
Notice that in some boundary experiences it takes time to adjust to new situations or positions or relationships before a sense of contribution grows again (see delta 3 in Figure 1). In situations where learning and adjustment take longer than is comfortable it is even more important to recognize and accept the boundary event as a catalyzing event and look for ways to define its meaning. Embracing the event or circumstance is the prerequisite to deep change.
Figure 1: Boundary Factors in Development
Three Common Boundaries
There are three common road signs to which leaders must pay attention. These boundary experiences are critical shaping events.
New Experience – defined as being thrust into new terrain such as an overseas assignment, unexpected turn of events in business or family life, new social or organizational role. Overcoming disorientation the disorientation common in new experiences to weave it into one’s own experiential tapestry is the challenge. Be aware of the frame through which you view new experiences. Your first impressions will most likely be wrong. Ask questions. Learn to rely on others, gain common ground by telling stories and encouraging others to share their views. Remember that such events conspire to make you a leader more than any inherent talent or unique ability you have.
Setback – loss or failure that is profoundly disruptive and bewildering. In a setback, internal dissonance amplifies when what was permanent is transient what was believed is questioned. The challenge in setbacks is to see one’s situation in a fundamentally new and more comprehensive way. Seeing this bigger picture is as liberating as seeing only the experience itself is debilitating. A comprehensive perspective introduces new opportunities and options previously hidden by the individual’s comfort myopia (the shortsightedness that assigns success or sense of well-being a permanent status in life) . In today’s difficult economic environment setbacks are common. What is not as common is watching people use setbacks to define a new sense of meaning and purpose and skill.
Deferral – an unanticipated hiatus during which routines are set aside, sometimes forcibly, and replaced with a regimented structure or no structure at all. Deferrals challenge leaders to clarify or create their personal mission and purpose; to cement their foundational beliefs and values. These beliefs and values are critical to shaping organizational culture, creating powerful delegation and unleashing innovation.
The Significance of Seeing and Embracing Boundaries
The significance of identifying boundaries is twofold. First, the experience of a boundary event or episode is normal and is not a sign of fate aligned against the person. I occasionally meet people so narcissistic they believe that everything and everyone is against them – effective leaders do not have time for such self-absorption.
Second, boundaries tend to cluster around specific periods of development. New territory boundaries cluster in early career, reversals tend to cluster in mid-carrier and suspension seem to cluster around later career. Even though this clustering pattern is clear it is not absolute – all three boundary experiences can present at any time. But recognizing the clustering pattern does help leaders (1) recognize boundaries and mitigate panic/anxiety and (2) expect their arrival to capitalize on the learning experience faster.
The question then is how do you handle your transitions and boundary times? Do new experiences, setbacks or deferred hopes collapse your personal sense of purpose and emotional resilience? Or do you use these boundary times to engage learning and development to see new things about yourself and your situation? It takes courage to face change regardless of whether the change is “good” or “bad”.
Growth occurs in the exercise of new skills and perspectives. What makes a person successful in one role is not what is required in a new role – whether the role is a new job, a new relationship or a new life stage. The simple fact is that leaders fail not because of what they can or cannot do (ability) but because of what they do or do not let go of. Six specific actions help:
- Establish a clear break point: discipline yourself to make a mental transition in terms of the old – take up the new. For example in a new job make a mental transition from old to new – take time to celebrate your move.
- Relearn how to learn: exposure to new demands typically results in feelings of incompetence and vulnerability. While these emotions are normal to learning they become problematic when they unconsciously cause you to gravitate toward areas you feel competent (usually a step backwards from where you should be functioning). Learning strategies that go wrong result in behaviors that are; defensive, screen out criticism and blame-shift. If you see these characteristics in your relationships read the road signs! Be committed to a learning process.
- Hit the ground running: the transition to something new begins the moment you understand you are in a period of transition. Work to define the significance of your transition and where you are going then you will gain some traction in the new role or new way of thinking. Then plan what you want to carry out by specific milestones. The simple act of planning helps people keep a clear head.
- Assess your vulnerabilities: transitions associated with a promotion occur because those that hire you thought you had the skills to succeed. You probably do. Avoid the temptation to work at the level below what you were hired to be. Do this by assessing your preferences and comparing these to the demands of your new role. Ask your mentor(s) to help you avoid the temptation to go back to more familiar behavior.
- Watch out for your strengths: strengths have attendant pitfalls. Watch out for these as much as you watch out for your weaknesses. Your strengths could lead you down the fatal path of micromanagement or other behaviors that demoralize your relationships. (Use assessments. Birkman Method assessment is an excellent tool to understand your perceptual strengths and show blind spots or the impact of stress on the way others experience your behavior.)
- Find a coach: as illustrated in my story, leader’s do not have a magic insight into reality that functions independent of others. Janice’s insistence we ask for directions helped transition our situation from being lost to getting back on track. Listen to great leaders long enough and you will hear them talk about the impact their coaches or mentors have had on them in the course of their career. Why is coaching so formative? Coaching is an intentional and facilitated conversation. It encourages rigor in the way leaders organize thinking, visioning, planning and expectations. Coaching challenges the limits of competence and learning horizons.
Great leaders are masters at asking for direction, watching the signs along the way and making decisions about where they want to end up. They recognize when internal dissonance indicates they face a boundary in their development. They recognize that facing boundaries is predictable and they prepare for to face boundary times by keeping close mentoring and coaching relationships.
What clearly differentiates the great from the mediocre is a commitment to leverage every boundary experience (either positive or negative) as a learning opportunity. Do you recognize the boundaries you face? Are you learning or are you resisting? Your answer determines your destination.