Vanguard Leadership (or The Importance of Being our own Best Friend)

Is there room in the world for a CEO who wears their heart on their sleeve?

Absolutely, undoubtedly, unequivocally, yes!  Such a leader is a vanguard leader.  We were recently in conversation with a CEO who wondered aloud if there is a place for someone like him; someone who, in my estimation, expresses how he feels, lets other know how they impact on him, curiously seeks feedback on his own performance (with a view to acting on it) and strives to do what needs to be done in a way that is aligned with a personal value system orientated to fairness, meaningful work and concern for the well-being of others.  This man is, in my view, in the vanguard of how a CEO should be.  (He’s also a real person!)  I can understand why he might occasionally doubt himself because he likely looks around at other people called “CEO” and doesn’t see himself mirrored back.  The times, however, they are a-changing.

Lots is written about the kind of leaders we require for the 21st century.  I have no desire to replicate what is out there, however what I see in this man who “wears his heart on his sleeve” is an amalgam of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership and I believe it is worth setting these out.  I believe the three are essential in order to surmount the challenges with which the current age presents us.  The terrain the modern leader needs to navigate is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA).   How can we best develop ourselves as leaders to navigate this well, so that we leave our workplaces, the people within them and the world in a better place than when we found it?

Responsible leadership, to my mind, is about being responsive to what is around you; thinking about the wider system.  As Christopher Avery sets out, being responsible goes further than being accountable.  Being accountable, as Christopher says, is backward-looking, in that we can account for our actions.  Being responsible is forward-looking, in that we seek to take account of a wider system.  When we read about responsible leadership or corporate responsibility, we think of triple bottom lines or sustainability: how will our actions affect others now and into the future?  In other words, we are responding to an assessment of the bigger picture; what ripples will our actions (and non-actions) create.  This is vital if we intend to bequeath a planet worth inhabiting for future generations.  While I’m a little loathe to throw morals into the mix, I’d say that a responsible leader is one who would align themselves with a “Do no harm” kind of morality into their work.  Extending this, a responsible, vanguard leader is a systems steward.  A vanguard leader understands that a truly effective business will come about when the organisation (the system) is healthy.  Sick cultures enact sick behaviours.   The systems steward will be responsible for ensuring that there are healthy policies and procedures, a healthy flow of information, a healthy openness to innovation, healthy relationships, a healthy culture of learning, development and continuous improvement.  Being responsible for the hygiene of the wider system will ensure longevity and ‘good growth’.

Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being responsible.  It is absolutely about being a systems thinker; taking action when the wider system is taken into account and stewarding their business towards health.

Authentic leadership, for me, is bringing your whole self to work.  As Bill George and others say in Discovering your Authentic Leadership, you need to be who you are, not emulate someone else.  Authentic leaders know who they are because they are on a lifetime journey of self-discovery.  Discovering our authentic leadership requires a commitment to discovering who we are.

Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being authentic.  It is absolutely about knowing who we are, letting people know who we are and not simply being the angry, unhappy guy or gal who gets s**t done.

Congruent leadership is based on personal values, beliefs and principles.  Congruent leaders also place a high value on building and maintaining good relationships with others.   Congruent leaders are guided by a higher purpose.  They become conscious of the value systems out of which they operate and work to align these with their words and their actions.  Such folks are also open to discovering their blind spots, areas where their values, actions and words are not aligned, and to making the appropriate adjustments so that they can operate in a principled manner.

Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being congruent.  It is absolutely being aware of our values and principles, communicating those and behaving in ways which are aligned with them.

Vanguard leadership is the confluence of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership.  This is the promised land.  We are on the way, but in our wider society we are not there yet.  Some leaders, like that CEO I mentioned, are well on the way, however.  For folks like this, it can be a little isolating.

When we look around and find ourselves a little alone, how can we sustain ourselves?

If we are in the vanguard, we are at the forefront of a movement.  As I said, the times, they are a-changing and I confidently predict that 100 years from now, this kind of leader will be ubiquitous.  If, in our current era, however, we are striking out into new territory, this means we may have times when we doubt ourselves, feel isolated or wonder if we are deluding ourselves.  If you are a leader who enacts responsibility, authenticity and congruence in your working life, what would be useful in order to sustain yourself if there are relatively few living and breathing models of vanguard leadership?   In the world we have inherited from the Industrial Age, we are conditioned to look for gaps, rather than strengths.  That conditioning starts early on at school.  The workplaces we enter reinforce this deficit mentality through the performance management systems we apply to ourselves and others.  Even if we don’t want to focus our energies on what is dysfunctional, we are seemingly compelled to look at what’s not working, rather than what is.  If we unconsciously take this approach with ourselves, especially when we look around and find few people like us, it can dent our confidence.  We can begin to assume we are less capable and less effective than we actually are.  We may distrust or disbelieve positive feedback or fail to see the positive impact we have on others and the wider system.  We can also devalue ourselves; finding ourselves attributing less value to the qualities inherent in a vanguard leader than to those qualities in what we might believe a “real CEO” to possess.  This seems quite natural to me, given our conditioning.  We need to develop a self consciousness in order to remain strong.

As Daniel Goleman writes in “The New Leaders” (2002), emphasis on our gaps often arouses the right prefrontal cortex of our brains.  This gives rise to feelings of anxiety and defensiveness which typically demotivate and interrupt self-directed learning and the likelihood of change and development.  The effect of this is that the very qualities that identify a vanguard leader get lost in the process.

So it is essential that if we are in the vanguard, we develop a strong self-companion Role.  One of my favourite expressions comes from a friend in Scotland.  If I was doing something silly, she’d joke, “Have a word with yourself.”  Even though she was teasing me, she probably has no idea how useful I have found this advice over the years. From a Role Theory perspective, developing a good self-companion means just that, having an intimate relationship with ourselves; being able to have a conversation with the aspect of ourselves that says, “Keep going, you’re on the right track.  Others don’t get it yet, but you are really onto something here.”  Now, once again, I’m loathe to bring morals into the conversation, but I think it’s important to place a caveat on this.  I’m pretty sure Hitler and Stalin had a similar Role within them.  An truly effective self-companion, however, will not urge us to barbarity.  Bear in mind, we are a complex system of inter-related and inter-connected Roles.  The self-companion will be the one that interacts with the rest of us and spurs us on.  By the “rest of us”, I mean the other roles I saw present in that CEO I mentioned at the beginning of this article: strongly orientated to thinking bigger, strongly orientated to the well-being of others, strongly orientated to leaving a legacy of health, roles I can hardly imagine Hitler or Stalin possessing in any great measure.  I’m fascinated by those two despots and how they did what they did, but in all the documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve never observed anything remotely like humility, openness to feedback or care for humanity in their Role systems.

We can consciously warm ourselves up to the thinking, feeling and behaving necessary to fully integrate a strong sense of self-worth.  If this Role is embryonic in us, we need to be quite conscious of growing it, much the same way we needed to be conscious of learning to drive until it became second nature.  We had to actively think, “Clutch, gear, release clutch while depressing accelerator…..”  Similarly, we may have to be awake to growing the habit of being a good self-companion.  What self-talk or affirmation would be useful to build ourselves up?  What emotional state would be most useful to warm up to?  Think of a time when you were full of self-confidence; how can you transfer some of that goodness to your current situation?

“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose words and actions show that he knows where he is going.”
Napoleon Hill

It is just as vital to find peers.  In your head, heart and gut, you know you are doing right by yourself and others, but sometimes we also need to see ourselves mirrored by our peers.  If you are at the forefront, you are, by definition, ahead of the pack.  In one sense, you are peerless.  Not entirely, though.  There are others out there.  We need to apply ourselves to finding these folk.  When we do something that seems a little different or we feel that we don’t quite measure up to what a “real CEO” is, we need to find others who are similarly “weird”.  Seek out others who are supportive, encouraging, caring and interested.

Referencing Goleman again, study after study has demonstrated that positive groups make positive change.  Senior executives reported feeling that many people around them had an investment in them staying the same, not growing and developing.  Finding a trusted peer group of other vanguard leaders, whether that is through a local Vistage group that is resonant with our desire to cultivate new leadership styles or a virtual peer group of leaders interested in being responsible, authentic and congruent, will keep us on track and reduce the isolation of being a little “weird”.  A peer group is a powerful motivator.

Any thoughts on this?  Comments, insights and conversation most welcome.

 

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11 thoughts on “Vanguard Leadership (or The Importance of Being our own Best Friend)

  1. Great Post. I believe a great culture (more than strategy) is critical for success now and moving forward. The kind of leadership you are talking about is absolutely essential for leading companies to better places.

    Another even deeper insight that you share is that leaders need a strong sense of self-worth or to use another phrase self-kindness. As someone developing self-kindness, I have noticed it missing from much of the general population and leadership in particular. The perfectionist behaviour that gets people ahead needs to be re-channeled to personal growth for the leadership we need to develop. Or focus on the next generation.

    – Michael

  2. John — Brilliantly put. I think your question about how a vanguard leader maintains self and group support is excellent. It reminds me of a client CEO I once worked with. I also had some contact with other CEO’s in his industry and wow was my client different — very much like the person you describe at the front end of this post. I know my client enjoyed a small executive peer group (TEC), but he did not seem to need that type of group so much as simply connections with other thoughtful, growth oriented folks. He was open to learning from anyone and getting support from anyone, which begs the question of how much isolation among top executives is self-imposed. My client was very humble and generous, and he had many devoted followers. To a degree, it always seemed to me that his support came from exactly this quality of not seeing his role as so different that it required a different kind of bonding or connection. I’ve always admired that and been his fan, like so many others.

    1. I know what you mean Dan. I’m also a fan of that CEO I wrote about. Like you, I’ve been lucky to associate with a few CEOs and leaders like that and they’re incredibly inspiring. They seem to have a default setting of “Relationships with others are my lifeblood.”

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