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.

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Aspects of Leadership Development

How do leaders develop? Since research has completely discredited the idea that leaders are born (or become leaders by some innate characteristic or right) and that class room input is not that useful since most of the content delivered in classrooms rarely makes it into practice then how is it that leaders emerge from among us?

I observe that in the best case we recognize leaders through the convergence of three factors that ebb and flow like a tide sometimes raising in synergistic force that propels a person to a unique influence in the lives of others and that sometimes ebbs causing influence to recede and a time of exposure and reflection emerge when new insights are germinated and given a chance to alter the landscape of the personal experience and insight. As I see it character, acquired skill and circumstance (what some call opportunity) converge and dissipate constantly in life providing the situation in which influence, recognition and results align to render the recognition that one is a leader.

Convergence is the best case because I have to admit that plenty of historical examples exist of leaders who emerge simply because those around them abdicated their personal responsibility to these three factors – as Lipman-Blumen observes, toxic leaders are made by their followers in just the same way good leaders are recognized and empowered by their followers.

Of the three factors I see character as the most significant. It is certainly the one thing over which the potential leader has the greatest control. How one chooses to invest their time, energies, emotion and mental capabilities determines whether a potential leader will (1) recognize the opportunity to lead; (2) have the insight, knowledge and tenacity needed to engage the task; and (3) possess the capability of winning the right to gain other’s attention and trust. By character I mean those virtues that are recognized as beneficial for the social good. Lists of virtues are as abundant as the writers who think about them.

For brevity I prefer to use the four cardinal virtues of Greek thinking because they serve so well as expansive categories:

• temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē) – self-discipline, strength of will or strength of mind

• prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis) – discretion, good sense, forethought or acumen

• fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia) – courage, staying power, grit, resilience

• justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) – evenhandedness, impartiality

A person of character demonstrates the temperance needed to be prepared, the prudence needed to read the situation and others with relative accuracy, the fortitude needed to step up to meet challenge or change with courage and the justice needed to provide a common hope which is the foundation for action in the vision of a mutually beneficial and preferred future. Reliance on virtues suggests that leadership possesses a strong moral center from which ethical decisions are made and choices are evaluated.

Acquired skill is a function of learning. Learning is sometimes described as experience and it makes sense to assume that someone who has engaged a task, situation, life or people for a longer period of time should also have acquired unique insights that provide wisdom for navigating challenging and unknown situations in life.

However not everyone with time served in life possesses experience or learning. It is quite possible to flow through life without any of the critical reflection, synthesis or curiosity needed to catalog insights or information into retrievable and applicable knowledge or wisdom. Without critical reflection that tests one’s assumptions or observations insights either degenerate to hasty generalizations or evaporate for lack of effort to retain their significance. Those recognized as having made a difference in the lives of others and their organizations seem to be people who make a habit of the rigor of learning from all their experiences – good or ill. They possess a curiosity that seeks to understand so they investigate and they test their insights in real life. They become more proficient, more insightful, and more capable by continual reflection and practice.

Circumstance is a word that holds a greater sense of recurring potential than does the word opportunity for me. Perhaps that is because when people talk about opportunity relative to leadership they seem to talk more about privilege than recognition of chance occasion to risk stepping out in practice of what one has learned. For example when one ascribes their lack of accomplishment relative to another as a problem stemming from their never being granted an opportunity it is often followed by an embittered commentary on how the other was granted every chance to succeed. I have no doubt that privilege (opportunity stemming from affinity to someone in power) occurs regularly. However I find that leaders can see far more opportunities arise because the situation or circumstance in front of them provides the arena they need to put their acquired skills, abilities and insights to work among those who want help in making sense of what they face. The need to put skill, ability and insight to work does seem to open new doors of opportunity. It appears that Jesus’ statement that those who are faithful in little are indeed given much.

How is it that emerging leaders recognize these opportunities? Often they don’t at least not in the way that is later described when those around them write reflectively about what occurred. I find that leaders step up to what we call opportunity in hindsight because their sense of justice, temperance, prudence or fortitude was summoned to action because they saw a chance to make a difference by applying what they had learned through life. This is what I call the convergence of character, skill and circumstance.

This pattern of convergence seems to hold true in my experience which is of course still being tested in life. The pattern causes me to reflect on my own habits, perspectives and attitudes. It causes me to ask myself to what degree I pursue contribution to others as well as success (my own sense of accomplishment). It summons me to ask the degree to which I exercise my own virtues, learning and vision. It also allows me to determine what opportunities I will invest myself in and which ones I will turn down. Virtue leads me to seek a return on my time and energy not just for my own inurnment but also for the benefit of those I serve as a leader.