Leadership and Influence

A Daunting Task  . . .

The primary responsibility for every leader is to create other leaders!

I can clearly recall how I felt when I first learned this – perplexed! There was no intuitive appreciation of what this meant, what behaviors it would entail or how I would really know that I was meeting the standard. Yet I knew that it was more than a platitude.

So, I began to investigate how great leaders accomplished this; I absorbed biographies, heroic literature and case studies, analyzed theories and models, and pursued dialogues with others who might be interested – all with little success. The idea made absolute sense but there was too much ‘noise’ and not enough ‘signal’ when it came to learning how to fulfill the expectation.

As I developed my own definition of leadership I gained some insights; a leader is one who focuses the desire for change that’s resident in others and who then facilitates the creation of a sustainable new reality. This describes the actions of a leader in bringing change to light but what about the residual impact on others. The definition says very little about what emerges other than the immediate change benefit; obviously residual benefits were occurring, if indeed they did occur, at a much deeper level.

Many people will benefit from leadership, being ‘focused and facilitated’ by others, but remain untouched by the actual process; they will not be stimulated to extend it to the larger and/or subsequent advantage of others, and so they’ll not accrue leadership abilities for themselves.

It wasn’t until I had a blinding insight that I finally realized where leadership resides in people. I’d always assumed it had much to do with genetics which were subsequently enhanced by experiences – the old nature versus nurture theme. My insight was that leadership initiatives depend mainly on how one looks at a situation and interprets events – one’s perspectives and perceptions – more so than on character or temperament or on what one might actually know or have learned.

Situational Intelligence . . .

It sounds very simple, until you begin to probe. As I started to take notice of when, why and how people would take leadership initiatives, I immediately realized that there were two factors working in concert, the rational appreciation of what was demanded by the circumstances and, perhaps more significantly, how the individual felt about the role or opportunities that were presented.

The first aspect is relatively straight-forward but, by comparison, the second – the emotional ‘bite’ – was tremendously complex. The first was usually made apparent by an immediate verbal or non-verbal response and it was usually open and transparent; the second was a miss-match of emotions that only surfaced – if they ever did – as a fleeting shadow behind the eyes.

You don’t have to be a neuro-scientist to recognize that the emotional response is far more powerful than the rational one. When confronted with a leadership opportunity many people will acknowledge what should be done but they’ll find a thousand reasons why it shouldn’t be them that initiates the needed actions.

My next question then is whether or not we, as individuals, have any conscious abilities to manage or control these compelling emotional brakes. This is where my earlier research into the literature of leadership paid off. There are innumerable stories and accounts of where individuals rose above and beyond their emotional reticence to demonstrate great leadership.

So, it can be done – but how?

For a long time this question eluded me and I would believe most others. It was only the more recent break-throughs in neuroscience that began to shed light on the matter. Among these revelations, the concept of neuro-plasticity, the ability of the brain to perform physical makeovers, that told us how we have gained the well-earned reputation of being the most adaptable creature ever in creation.

The Amazing Brain . . .

There’s an old axiom that ‘form follows function’; this means physical conformance is dictated by experience and usage. New behaviors are difficult and uncomfortable and they feel unwieldy and strange. With repetition though, they will become more comfortable to the point that they can eventually become habits – second nature.

What has happened here is that physical and chemical structures in the brain have reconfigured themselves to conform to the ‘new’ experience which is now no longer new. We have adapted the way our brain actually works. This is not unusual, in fact according to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich (1992), the brain was constructed to change, and to learn is to change how you think.

The brain seeks to ‘hard-wire’ as much as it can simply because this will demand less energy to operate – and the brain is an energy hog! Once these hard-wired structures are in place it is very difficult to displace them but there’s always room for new structures along side the older ones. The brain is forever constructing new wiring to accommodate our unfolding experiences.

Let’s put this in another way: when you change the way you think, you learn and learning is a natural process. Thinking is a critical process which involves both perspectives and perceptions – the way we see the world around us and the values that we attach to whatever it is we see. Therefore, if I want to influence the way you behave as a leader, I need to challenge the way you think so that you will change your existing perspectives and perceptions.

I am not attempting to take anything away from you in this process but rather to add new possibilities, fresh perspectives and thus realign perceptions. I cannot create changes in your mind, only you can do that.

The point is you have to do the thinking that will lead to the development of new structures – perspectives and perceptions.

Donna’s Dilemma . . .

Donna leads the project management teams in a rapidly expanding, highly successful IT Services Group. Technically, she is the best in class and her business acumen is superior to most. She supervises the operations in from three to ten concurrent projects, each of which is pivotal to the organization’s impact and image in a volatile industry – the consequences of even one failure or shortfall could be catastrophic.

After many months of ‘walking the brink’, ‘staring into the abyss’ and haunted, sleepless nights, she called me for a sanity check. "Why am I doing this?” she cried, and she was at the point of tears. "I’m losing my grip, my peace of mind and, if I’m not careful, I’ll be losing my husband and family.

Her stress signals were easy to see and they all signalled disaster; she was in ‘overload’. The stressors or causations were not as evident, so I probed. The bottom line was that Donna was trying to be a super-manager – to protect her team leaders by doing everything she could to shield them from possible failure. The sheer volume of issues that she was attempting to juggle was enormous; it was like keeping thirty or more plates spinning on flexible poles, running from one to another to recharge them before disaster struck and the plates toppled.

So far no plates had fallen but since her superiors saw her as super-successful they were blithely adding more and more workload, seemingly unaware of the crisis that loomed. Donna was paying a terrible price for her success and simply didn’t know how to get off the roundabout.

We had a conversation over lunch. She quickly recognized that her current focus on problems and details was the pathway to disaster and not the route to survival; it wasn’t quite as obvious to her though that she had to create a transformation in the way others were thinking and that a solutions focus was the place to start.

I exposed her to "Quiet Leadership” and a six-step approach to transforming performance developed by Dr David Rock, an Australian executive coach who has recently moved his practice to the US. This highly effective strategy is easy to master and produces instant results. It took Donna less than a weekend to read the book and to adapt the process to her work situation: the outcomes were spectacular – in her own words, "like a dimensional shift”.

In summary, the six steps are:

  1. Think about Thinking – learn what to do to get others to think for themselves
  2. Listen for Potential – identify where people are heading; maintain the clarity of distance
  3. Speak with Intent – craft the quality of the words you use to communicate
  4. Dance towards Insight – use a dialogue process – permission > placement > questioning > clarifying
  5. CREATE New Thinking – Current Reality, Explore Alternatives, Tap Their Energy
  6. Follow Up – use the FEELING model to link actions to habits.

None of this is rocket science but Rock’s genius is in his insightful combination of events that align the unit behaviours into a compelling system. Donna applied this system to her role as Director, Project Management and it unquestionably saved her sanity and took her to substantially higher levels of contribution.

The Bottom Line . . .

What’s in a system?

In learning and applying David Rock’s Six Steps, Donna actually did several things in a winning combination. She stopped super-managing and started to lead her people; she learned to communicate more effectively by stimulating other people’s thinking and emotions; she harnessed the power of every one else’s hearts and minds instead of just using her own; and she engaged her people by creating successes within them instead of layering on her own.

On top of this she increased longer-term effectiveness and efficiencies so that her role was easier; she built constructive coaching relationships with her staff members that encouraged their development; she used synergies of effort to a far greater extent than ever before, thereby encouraging a winning team mentality; and finally she contributed significantly greater results to the organization.

Donna called me last month to tell me that she’s just been made Vice President and that wasn’t the best news – two of her direct reports had made Director level.

She is a true leader – one who creates other leaders.

What are you waiting for?

I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.