New Models of Leadership?

“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.

I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies.  New models of leadership, huh?  (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.)  Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”.  Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible.  Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do.  What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?

courtesy World Economic Forum

This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model.  It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world.  When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond?  As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon.  This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive.  Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.

There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them.  Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things.  There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others.  You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are.  You will become different as a result of the other.

In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends.  Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me.  We will all find various models or tools of more or less use.  We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance.  One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.

Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?”  In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities.  This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities.  All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of.  There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer.  That’s leadership.  There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again.  That’s leadership.

A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive.  In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery.  Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes.  Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic.  Who are you really, underneath all that make-up?  Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.

“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge

Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you.  I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion.  Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.

I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans.  I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”.  I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be.  It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything.  Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others.  We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values.  Adopt, adapt and improve.  We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.

When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible.  The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems.  Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders.  As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills.  These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills.  They are inextricably linked.  If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer.  None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body.  Same thing applies.  No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.

If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:

It’s divergent.  All the answers don’t become apparent all at once.  It’s unpredictable.  If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration.  For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion.  Breathing helps.  I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill.  Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all).  Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.

It’s messy.  If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety.  Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are.  It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says.  I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one.  Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly.  Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.

It’s developmental.  If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3”, you will probably need to let that go.  Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that.  It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”:  a meander from one interesting thing to another.  The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards.  You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction.  Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one.  Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow.  I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing.  You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.

Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling.  I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves.  They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others.  I could hear that they “got it” intellectually.  When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?”  They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before.  Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper.  Brave soul.  We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).

Using your powers for good?  How would you know?  Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT).  I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.”  Really?  If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business?  Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.

Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate?  How would you know?

Do you think you know yourself?  How would you know?


23 thoughts on “New Models of Leadership?

  1. Hi John,

    A wonderful post, as always. Rich and deep and anyplace is a good place to venture.

    Your points about leadership remind me of how linear the entire concept still is for most people. Quite the opposite of the chaos AND flow (to use your apt description) necessary to live in this emerging world.

    Your salient question of “what do I need to be more authentic – real” is the essence of the question for everyone, but especially for leaders. This is a very scary proposition for most individuals because living in the world authentically is risky. Takes courage, as you say, real courage. And doing that – is divergent, messy and developmental. Most cultures don’t teach that – they discourage it every step of the way.

    Love the post – and the cartoon – and the rich image of looking down from the balcony in Mumbai and watching the river of people going by. This perfectly captures the essence of where we are, every minute of every day, the question is how do we step in?


    1. Thanks Louise. This is a theme I’m very passionate about, mainly because I see the positive impact self-awareness has on people who muster their courage to embark on the journey. We can’t know that truly until we take the leap ourselves and it’s important if we are to craft the kind of relationship with the world that will keep it alive. Good to have fellow travellers as yourself!

  2. Another inspiring post, John. Thank you. Especially liked this question: “How can I become more authentic?” which really gets to the heart of any human interaction, not just leadership (a term I am very wary of these days, believing that we all have the capacity to lead, and all should, in the right context. When everyone is a leader, the term loses is meaning altogether).

    I also loved the image of the meandering journey from “EH??” to “Be”. Utterly wonderful!

    This is one of my favorite posts in a long time. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Tobias. I’m with you regarding the use of the term leadership. If we can continue to broaden it from “people who manage people” to “people all over the place” we will build a freer and more empowered society. I believe we all have the potential to touch hearts and minds which, in essence, is what leadership is about.

  3. Great post and love the non linear approach to leadership. The analogy for me that makes sense in a non linear approach is a puzzle build. We know the picture required from the front of the box. And there fore each piece has value in trying to build the puzzle as quickly as possible and allowing middle pieces to still be uncovered ans placed without exactly knowing exactly what they might connect to.

    1. Nice analogy Adam. The thing that I like is when you say “each piece has value” because in a systems thinking view of development, everything adds to the whole, even the scary bits about ourselves or the “ugly” bits about ourselves.

  4. Hi John,
    I can actually relate to this post about Leadership. While not in a “leadership” role, I do lead in many areas of my life. This has taken time and, only happened after I let go of the idea that only ‘Leaders’ could lead. There are so many ideas in this blog that resonate with me – this question “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” has been very important in my journey. Will be keeping this post in my back pocket to reinforce myself. Thanks!

    1. That’s the one Diana. I look forward to a time when we focus less on “leaders” as those who lead in organisations and more on people all over the place taking centre stage in their lives, being more autonomous and freer. Glad this article has been of value to you.

  5. Ah, John, I just love this post. Very rich. And you throw out that really magnificent question at the end, “How would you know?” regarding our self-assessments. Indeed, how would we, ultimately? Others help us with the patterns, but their views too, are never perfect. We make approximations and keep learning.

    Your challenging and humbling question reminds me of the Johari Window, which contrasts what others know about us with what we know of ourselves and also challenges us with the category called, “Unknown.” Unknown refers to what neither we nor others know about us. It is pure, latent possibility that calls out how we never come to the end of the self-discoveries. What we have are only the constant clues in the fabric of what happens to us and how we respond, how our relationships unfold, in moment to moment revelations of new capacities we didn’t think we had — or new limits, and maybe, too, through our dreams and deepest intuitions. Any truly useful model of leadership, to me, must have such an open door, one that can never be locked and bolted so that at least what we know is that we’re never finished.

    Any leadership theory is a procrustean bed. But it is better if it honors what Wallace Stevens expressed in his poem, “Of Mere Being” — how those fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

    1. Dan, firstly, thanks for linking to Stevens’ poem and your reminder that any leadership theory can only ever be a close approximation to the realities of life. Descriptive, not prescriptive. I first encountered the Johari window in my early 20s and the model has stuck with me ever since; a thing I sometimes turn to when I think I know the answer and get frustrated when what I think is truth is, in fact, just plain wrong. In my quiet moments, I’m most courageous to ask myself, “…and how would I know…?” ; trying hard to bring that to the rest of my life. This is one of the things that brings me most joy in life; that I never really know. I was talking with some actors the other evening and one, who has been doing it for 30 years, says she loves it because it’s always learning. Same goes for me.

  6. Dear John
    What a great post I really enjoyed it; full of insight and depth. In this day and age with so much jargon it appears to be so difficult to attain leadership with almost each year a new initiative. I’m with you in regards to what is leadership and I reiterate from above…
    ‘There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership’ In my view this supports the notion of self! as a fundamental element regardless of title. There can of course be no substitute for Skills, Values and Experiences as they establish the difference between good, great and exceptional leadership.

    I have often quipped on Twitter that to become a leader all you need do is master the 5,482? tips and models and abracadabra you are a leader. How daunting is that. I agree with you that being self aware is critical for whatever model you may choose to adopt. From this awareness comes management of self which in turn provides the foundation for social awareness and the management of relationships…all of which cements the emotional needs required for leadership. You cannot deny yourself this, to do so curtails your leadership.

    I believe that since the beginning of time leaders will and always will chose to…
    1. make time for others
    2. not dwell too much on yesterday
    3. challenge themselves
    4. allow others to grow
    5. set an example
    6. know their limitations
    7. bond and integrate their teams.
    From my perspective…this is a leadership model that will serve you well forever. It is something I recall and refer to on a regular basis.

    Please remember though there is no substitute for Skills, Values and Experiences.

    Best Regards Raymond

    1. Thank you for adding, Raymond and for your very thoughtful comments. I’m with you that there is no substitute for skills, values and experiences and any leader worth their salt will bring those to the job in spades. I don’t suppose any good leader will have got to their position unless they have taken the time to know themselves and to be aware of (and value) those skills, values and experiences. I think it was Gardner who wrote that the interpersonal intelligence grows in tandem with and inextricably linked with intra-personal skills, so knowing the self must develop alongside being a good “people person”. As your quip observes, there is no easy, step-by-step way to do this, neither is it magic. I like the seven principles that you set out. I prefer to go with principles rather than steps because principles stand the test of time and provide us a compass with which to navigate the lifelong journey of learning. Warm regards, John.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to respond John. Can we keep in touch through a mutual follow on Twitter @mycaski Regards Raymond

        Sent from my iPhone


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