Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership

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Powerlessness, Greatness and Choice – what every leader needs to remember

leaderHave you ever felt frustrated or powerless at work? A friend of mine recently admitted, “I am at odds at work.  How much commitment do I really want to give to a company that seems compelled to undermine its own success?  Any commitment I do make seems like an exercise in futility.”

The question was not trite. The question stemmed from frustration. My friend is a remarkably gifted leader recruited to the company for which he now works to change to a struggling department. However, he feels stymied in the continued development of his department. The impulses of his Vice President derail planned action thus limiting the traction needed to produce consistent positive results.  Unsurprisingly this is a common experience for many managers and directors.

Last week I heard Jim Collins speak – he always encourages and challenges me.  I was reminded of something he wrote,

Most businesses also have a desperate need for greater discipline.  Mediocre companies rarely display the relentless culture of discipline – disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action – that we find in truly great companies.  A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness….we need a new language…reject the naive imposition of the language of business…embrace the language of discipline.[1]

The concept of being great hits me every time I read it. The question I ask myself is, “do I have the discipline and perspective needed to contribute to a truly great enterprise?”  Further more do I contribute to a culture of discipline? The challenge here is to buck any trend toward mediocrity by building a culture of discipline around my responsibilities.

Collins’ research concluded that building a great company occurs in four stages. Think about these stages as I have outlined them in Table 1 and consider; (1) how you contribute to these stages; (2) how do you encourage others to step into this mind-set; (3) whether you are hirable today as one who contributes to these stages and (4) if you are not hirable today in a great company what do you need to change?

One of the most important insights Collins presents in his monograph on the social sector is the insight that Level 5 leaders often exist within diffuse power structures and can be effective in creating pockets of greatness.  Collins identified two kinds of power i.e., executive and legislative.

In executive leadership enough concentrated power exists to simply make right decisions. Executive power makes right decisions no matter how painful they may be. However, many Level 5 leaders do not have this kind of concentrated power. Many leaders in the middle are not the CEO but work somewhere in the mishmash of organizational structure and political reality.

Legislative leadership on the other hand possesses enough structural power to create the conditions for right decisions via persuasion, political currency, and shared interests.  Many leaders have legislative power within their departments or divisions and can take the responsibility to move toward greatness not-with-standing the pressures that push the rest of the organization toward mediocrity.

Table 1: Inputs of Greatness[2]

Inputs of Greatness Defined Actions I can take
Stage 1: Disciplined people
Level 5 Leadership Exhibits personal humility i.e., they are ambitious for a cause and  the organization and professional will i.e., fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition
First who, then what First, get the right people into the right places and the wrong people out and then think about what you need to do i.e., the “what”
Stage 2: Disciplined thought
Confront brutal facts Identify and remove those barriers to being great live the Stockdale paradox i.e., confidence you will ultimately succeed while also identifying all the barriers to that success.
The hedgehog concept Attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, then exercise relentless discipline to exit those things that fail the test – (1) what are you deeply passionate about? (2) What drives your economic engine? (3) What can you be best in the world at?
Stage 3: Disciplined action
Culture of Discipline Accepting one’s responsibility (larger than a job) to consistently work to greatness.
The Flywheel Relentless action toward the goal that builds momentum on small successes
Stage 4: Building Greatness to last
Clock Building not time telling Great organizations prosper through multiple generations of leaders – build mechanisms that stimulate greatness
Preserve the core/stimulate progress Great organizations run on a fundamental duality: (1) a timeless set of core values and reason for being and (2) a creative compulsion for change and progress.

What kind of leadership power do you have?  Are you willing to take responsibility to exercise your power in building a great department or division? If you are unwilling to take responsibility what does this say about you as a person and a leader?

One of the things I find consistently true in leadership is that the very act of leading forces me to engage in an assessment about whom I am as a person and whether I can live with myself as that person. My friend’s question shook me up.  It made me think. Taking responsibility to exercise greatness in my corner of influence is not an option – it is the only rational course by which I can make a lasting contribution to the good.  How about you?

[1] Jim Collins. Good to Great and the Social Sectors (Boulder, CO: Jim Collins, 2005), 1-2.

[2] Collins 2005:34-35.


Sitting in the Cocoon of Transformation – Feedback that Changes Destiny

cocoonThe statement stung.  “Ray,” Don said, “this will be the hardest thing you have ever done.”  By itself the statement could sound noble. But it was ignoble.  Don had just told me that developing other leaders would be the hardest thing I had ever accomplished because I was accustom to the privilege and power of being the top dog.

Don zeroed in, “Ray, you will always find it easier to do it yourself because you are pretty competent.  But until you allow yourself the discomfort of feeling less than competent you won’t learn the skills, time applications and work values needed to become a more effective developer of others.”

I protested, “I developed leaders all the time, I empowered them, directed them toward success, helped them do what they thought they could not.”

“You have done that pretty effectively in small organizations over which you exerted absolute control. What about organizations in which you are simply a cog among other cogs? How will you influence the development of others when you don’t control the environment?  That is what you need to learn.” Don said.

Upon reflection I had to admit that I had little experience working in larger complex systems over which I exerted little or no control.  I did need to learn how to apply the skills I had developed in small organizations to social and operation networks of complex organizations. Complex organizations are characterized in sub-surface allegiances and alliances carved out by power brokers. In smaller organizations I simply powered over these allegiances and alliances.

Following my encounter with Don, I found my self embroiled in painfully challenging conversations that refused to simply act on my great advice.  In fact they rejected my advice altogether.  Slowly, I began to see that I need to learn new approaches to developing others. I learned the power of asking questions to help others get at their own assumptions and unseen biases.  I learned the power of dialogue that helped me engage the effort to align my experience and knowledge to the needs experienced by the individual I was hoping to influence.  I learned that there were multiple skills and approaches to leadership development that were dictated by the circumstance, the leader and the history of the organization in which I was working.

Don challenged the embedded models of leadership that I had never critically assessed.  By “embedded models” I mean those leadership behaviors, speech patterns and assumptions I had “caught” from watching others and used to gain success.  I assumed, wrongly, that the skills and insights that made me successful in one venue would make me successful in all venues.  Not only is this assumption misguided but it reinforced behavior that did not stand the test of either theological reflection or the crucible of experience.  In my worse nightmare I discovered that how I acted as a leader sometimes contradicted both the message I intended to announce and the work I was trying to complete.

This growing self awareness describes the essence of adaptive change – in order to engage in this kind of change one must be willing to face the difficult facts of their actual situation.  I resisted what Don had to say because he showed me things about myself that I did not want to see.  But my resistance was rooted in another motive besides denial – I was afraid.  I was afraid that I would loose my sense of competence.  What is more I was afraid I would never regain it.  Resistance to change is usually never rooted in the change itself, it is rooted in the sense of loss that accompanies the change.  If the loss looms large enough it eclipses the gains.

After my conversation with Don I went through a series of events in which I lost my job, my role, and my sense of accomplishment.  I went through a time of embarrassment and shame – borrowing a descriptor I learned from my friends from Asia, I lost face.  What I did not see at the time was that like a caterpillar’s descent into a cocoon I faced a deconstruction of my self-image so that a different expression of who I am could emerge.

It has been years since Don first challenged me by his statement.  Developing leaders is still the hardest thing I do.  But now when Don and I get together we often laugh about how comical my stunned response was to his pointed observation.  I am thankful that he respected me enough to challenge me with his observation. I am grateful that he never withdrew from me in my turmoil.  The question that emerged for me through the experience is simple, will I really listen to the feedback that can change my work for the better? Will I maintain a learning posture so that the work of transformation continues to shape me into a more effective leader? Will I act in ways that consistently align to my announced intention and work I want to complete?

If you find yourself in a time of descent into the cocoon of transformation it is important to remember one important lesson. Whether or not you emerge on the other side of the experience stronger or weaker, ready or defeated is all up to you. Will you embrace the change, see the potential and let go of bitterness and resentment that seek to limit and define you?  Will you forgive?  Yes, forgiveness is a critical leadership development choice. Without it the muddle of the cocoon will never develop into the clarity and focus of powerful leadership.