What Makes Great Leadership?

A leader is most effective when people barely know he exists. 

When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,

his troops will feel they did it themselves – Lao Tzu

Last Saturday I glanced at Saturdays Canberra Times newspaper and read about the 40 miners from the Marikana Mine owned by Lonmin, a London based company, who were shot and killed by South African police.

Before last week I would have glanced and kept going, but I stopped and read the entire article.  I have just been reading a new book, The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, in which one of the case studies described is about the turn-around at Lonmin in 2004 when the then new CEO, Brad Mills, took over the helm.  (Synchronicity at play!) The book case studies the change process at Lonmin which was acknowledged as monumental, a shining contribution to the healing of South Africa.  Mills was CEO from 2004 – 2008.  What astounded me is that four years on from Mills’ departure the world sees a horrific massacre by South African Police as a way to deal with the striking miners.  The police spokesperson stated that “there was no alternative”.  WOW – Unbelievable!!!

This really got me thinking… “What went wrong?”  What seemed to work so brilliantly initially was obviously not working now.  This is a macro example of what I continually see in businesses and organisations.  Every time things are not working in an organisation, or there are issues occurring within teams it generally always comes back to leadership, or lack thereof!  Reflecting on the Lonmin situation I began to ask myself a whole heap of questions:

  • What makes a great leader?
  • How can we sustain positive change into the future?
  • What causes things to go pear shaped with catastrophic results?
  • What do we need to do differently to have a better outcome?
  • How can we use dialogue to shift values and gain greater cultural alignment?
  • When will we move from exploitation to empower people to equality and Stage IV leadership?
  • How do we value human life?
  • What is the role of leaders in creating and sustaining a better future?
  • How can we educate existing and emerging leaders to create our preferred futures with a global vision to peace and prosperity for all?

Lots of questions…  Rather than provide answers, I thought I would present some thinking from seminal and contemporary writers in the leadership field for your contemplation and reflection.  Leadership is difficult to define, in part because the experts can’t agree on what leadership means, how to do it, or what it looks like when people get it right.  Warren Bennis stated that “it is almost a cliché of the leadership literature that a single definition of leadership is lacking” (American Psychologist, January 2007).

What I am sure of is that we need leaders at all levels who are authentic, personally evolved and committed to excellence, and who are able to facilitate positive change to a shared vision of what is possible, being people with them.

Margaret Wheatley in her book Leadership and The New Science, says that “in this chaotic world we need leaders.  But we don’t need bosses.  We need leaders to help us develop the clear identity that lights the dark moments of confusion. We need leaders to support us as we learn how to live by our values.  We need leaders to understand that we are best controlled by concepts that invite our participation, not policies and procedures that curtail our contribution (2006:130).

Joseph Jaworski, in his latest book Source, says that the world needs what he refers to as Stage IV leaders – “those who exhibit a capacity for extraordinary functioning and performance.  At the heart of this quality of performance is the capacity for accessing tacit knowing, which can be used for breakthrough thinking, strategy formation, and innovation, including envisioning and creating the kinds of institutions or society we desire” (2012).

Jaworski describes some of the attributes of Stage IV leaders from the experiences of a Vietnam veteran and POW, Wing Commander Airborne Stockdale.  These are:

  1. Integrity – dedication to the truth
  2. “Glib, cerebral and detached people can get by in positions of authority until the pressure is on.  But when the crunch develops, people cling to those they know they can trust – those who are not detached, but involved – and those who have consciences…”
  3. Assumption of responsibility and discharge of one’s obligation and duty
  4. Duty is absolute character rather than duty based on reference to external law or to compulsion, Divine or human.
  5. Self-discipline and the delay of gratification
  6. “Self-discipline is vital to self-respect; self indulgence is fatal”.  Undertaking daily practices is essential to mental and spiritual health.
  7. Love and community

While a POW in North Vietnam, Stockdale said that what kept him going was “the man next door” (in the next prison cell).  “This love, this unity, this mutual trust and confidence is a source of power as old as man, one we forget in times of freedom, of affluence, of fearful pessimism”.

So how can we achieve this?  Jaworski states to grow businesses and organisations into Stage IV organisations requires a number of actions:

  • Focus on the growth of the senior team and create a critical mass of change leaders;
  • Refine and reaffirm the organisations guiding ideas and assumptions;
  • Focus on the critical 3-5 shifts needed to unlock the potential of the organisation and give coherence to the process;
  • Magnify the positive attitudes, behaviours and practices that already exist and facilitate an expanded view of individual and organisational potential to do more of those, and;
  • Cascade opportunities for personal growth and development throughout the organisation.

This is very congruent with the work of Peter Senge and the five disciplines he describes in his seminal text, The Fifth Discipline.  Senge presents a systems theory approach to addressing the challenges within organisations today.  The five disciplines represent the theories and methods for developing three core learning capabilities – fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity.  Each of these disciplines has to do with how we think, what we truly want, and how we interact and learn with one another.  Just to recap on these disciplines.  The five disciplines are:

 1. Systems thinking – businesses and other human endeavours are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which influence each other.  These influences can often take years to fully manifest their effects on each other, and because we are part of the system it can be doubly difficult for us to see the pattern of change.  Most people tend to focus on the isolated parts of the system and wonder why their deepest problems never seem to get solved.  Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools developed to make the full patterns clearer, and to assist us in seeing how to change them effectively.

 2. Personal mastery – the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.  The roots of this discipline lie in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, and also in secular traditions.  This begins by clarifying the things that really matter to us (our values), of living our lives in the service of our highest aspirations.

3. Mental models – are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.  These mental models are often unconscious and therefore we are not aware of their affects on our behaviour.  The discipline of working with mental models begins with looking inwards to uncover our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them to rigorous scrutiny.

 4. A shared vision – the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create.  When there is genuine vision (as opposed to a vision statement) people excel and learn, not because they are told to but because they want to.  The practice of shared vision involves unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance.

5. Team Learning involves harnessing the intelligence of the team and where teams develop extraordinary capacities for coordinated action.  The discipline of team learning starts with dialogue – the capacity of the team to suspend assumptions and enter in to a genuine “thinking together”.  Dialogue differs from discussion in that discussion is a “heaving of ideas back and forth in a winner-take-all competition”.  The discipline of dialogue also involves learning how to recognise the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning.

At the heart of the learning organisation is a shift of mind – from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something “out there” to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience.  I wonder if these had been applied by the new CEO whether the situation at Marikana Mine may have been prevented or averted.

Kate Hayes, a graduate from our Transformations Leadership program has just emailed me with a quote she remembers when we studied Joseph Jaworski’s book Synchronicity.  She reminded me that “relationship is the organising principle of the universe and that leaders should consider less what they should do and rather more what they are…” – the dynamic of personal excellence and mastery.

Leaders today must understand and live from their purpose, practice their values, lead with their heart, establish connected relationships and demonstrate self-discipline.  When we can rethink our values and lead from a position of authenticity and care we respond to complex problems with generativity and wisdom.

“If we begin to listen to our inner voice that helps us as our journey unfolds and we trust in the playing out of our destiny, then we know that whatever we need at the moment to meet our destiny will be available to us.   It is at this point that we alter our relationship with the future” (Jaworski, 2008).

True leadership is about creating a domain in which we continually learn and become more capable 

of participating in our unfolding future, collectively listening to what is wanting to emerge in the

world and then having the courage to do what is required – Jaworski.

I would be delighted if you would share with me your thoughts on the complexities of leadership.  Please email me at c.egle@ilad.com.au

Posted in On Leadership