Monday 28 November 2011

Leaders balancing freedom and control

Leadership is not all about control. Nor is it all about democracy.

Leaders are called upon in equal measure to hold the space for others in the group, and to give direction to the group. In other words, leaders both facilitate the emergence of leadership in their teams, and give guidance and direction to their teams. Put more bluntly, leaders hold empowerment in one hand and control in the other.

Most of us are better at one or other of these, and I for one will own up to powerful desires for both: I do like to control the world around me and I passionately desire the empowerment of all. It feels quite normal to move between one and the other, yet easy to second-guess oneself about what is appropriate at any one time.

I observe many leaders who show strong preferences either for control at all costs or for democracy and empowerment at all costs. Yet holding the paradoxical balance between empowerment and control embodies what I believe is the most powerful form of transformational leadership.

Giving direction to the group is the kind of leadership we are most familiar with. Many people are attracted to the open and effective wielding of power – “making things happen.” Who hasn’t complained about potholes or non-working traffic lights “why doesn’t the council just get the job done?” Yet I find a lot of leaders and potential leaders shy away from stepping into their capacity to give direction. Most of us fear the abuse of power – and rightly so. Yet direction is essential in all organisations.

I find a lot of leaders think this is by definition “the corporate way,” yet many of the most effective leaders know they must ration the amount of control they exert for the good of the organisation. Hurt, anger and vitriol are quick to explode when the power and control exerted by a leader starts to feel like abuse.

Great leaders are those who know when to give direction, and when to let direction emerge.

Holding the space for others is about allowing the energy of the team to emerge. Great space-holding leaders are often distinguished by the way their team members shine. Every time you ask your team “what needs to happen here?” you are holding space for their leadership to emerge. Every time you ask a subordinate “what is your objective?” you are inviting him or her to set some direction. In times like this, you are leading in a way that makes space for leaders to emerge. It’s less obtrusive and has been out of favour in the era of messianic CEOs with nicknames like “chainsaw Al”. Yet it is the key to bringing balance with that harder-driving leadership. It’s the key to leading diverse teams.

I’m grateful to Michael Boyle who taught this framework to me as “form and void” in the context of a leadership programme of The Mankind Project, and also Olivier Mythodrama who brought these concepts to my company, Praxis Computing, in 2008. I acknowledge the inspiration from both these sources; I’m responsible for the interpretation above.

Saturday 19 November 2011

The higher you go as a leader, the less you can control

This is about what changes as we go up the leadership ladder in organisations.

Everyone faces the challenge of personal leadership. We are all challenged to find our true purpose on this earth and then channel more and more of our energy into manifesting our particular gifts to our world.

Some people become leaders of teams. The first level is usually leading doers, the operational people who are probably doing what you recently excelled at, and now you have to make the huge shift to achieve results through others. There are a plethora of situational leadership styles, but the bottom line for most of us is that as a team leader, I value my people and my will prevails. Whether exercised in a more directive way or a in a more nurturing way, team leaders have a lot of control and are valued in organisations for exactly that: getting the job done well.

A few people take on senior leadership of large organisations. Some try to hold onto the control they had when leading teams or in middle management: they become the control freaks who feed our stereotypes of ogrish corporate and government bosses. Others – the most successful leaders in my view – realise that the higher up in an organisation you go, the less you can control.

As a senior leader, your job is to lead leaders. This is a fundamentally different task to leading doers.

The people you want in your top team in a large organisation are not the kind who like being bossed around and controlled. They are inspiring, they are creative, they have their own particular talents and vulnerabilities, their energies are precious. Your task is to inspire and guide them. Enough that they align their energies and those of the large teams they in turn are leading with your overall organisational direction.

As the head honcho, you effectively have a small and precious amount of control available, and you need to use it like the gold it is. My rule of thumb is that the top leader can control two or three major strategic initiatives, and make two or three major rules. Even better if you can condense these down to one of each! For the rest, leave it up to your team. Let them set their own strategic goals. Let them make the rules that suit their strategic vision. If they can’t or won’t do that, then they probably aren’t the right people for your top team, or you are cramping their style by bringing too many of your own initiatives and rules to the system.

So if you want to be a senior leader, start refining your understanding of what really matters. You have probably already worked out that it is more about outcomes than inputs. Have you realised how much of your time needs to be focused on ensuring your team have the three essentials? Resources, direction and space to act.

If you already are a senior leader, how much of your time is spent nurturing the energies of your top team? How well tuned is your gut to what unlocks the full flow of their energies? Have you done the excruciating work of reducing what you control to the bare minimum, that gives this huge organism both room to exercise its powerful energies, and enough direction to focus these energies in a good way?

Welcome to the exhilaration of guiding and trusting your people with true empowerment.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Burning off the fluff

I’m just back from five nights alone in the hills of Retief’s Kloof in the Magaliesberg mountains and feeling deeply refreshed, energised and alive to new possibilities. There is something about alone time that burns off the fluff, helps get down to what is really important, and flushes out some of the chaotic complexities that lurk inside all of us. And I find it helps me review the year gone by, and reassess my plans for the year ahead, from a new and valuable perspective.

It’s a big part of leadership, too: knowing yourself and preparing every inch of body, mind and soul for the one “cubic centimetre of chance that pops out in front of our eyes from time to time” quoted and explored by Joe Jaworski in his book Synchronicity: the inner path of leadership. What I find is that alone time tends to allow out both my biggest dreams and their concomitant fears. Leadership and resilience are about living with both the light and the dark of being human, and continuing to choose a good path in full knowledge of who we are.

Four or more days completely alone, at least once a year, preferably in natural surroundings, is highly recommended for all adults. It’s a time to ground to the rock bottom facts of life, who you are and what really matters. Eat very simply, or better still (with appropriate experience and/or support) just drink water . Let it be a time of “inside out” rather than “outside in” with the voices of TV, phone, email and even books and loved ones be quiet, except for a journal to write in and/or draw.

Ancient rhythms of the earth - Retief's Kloof, Magaliesberg, South Africa

Spending a few hours just watching the stream wear away the rock of a waterfall, or musing about how a tree came to survive on its crag and grow in such extraordinary twists and shapes, can inspire and support our determination, resilience and appetite for change.

You owe it to your soul.

The bottom line if you are thinking of taking a few days alone:
  • Prepare thoroughly, identify in advance some of the big questions facing you at this point in your life
  • Find a safe area to spend the time, and make sure somebody you can rely on knows where you are going, when you are due back and will both hold the space for you energetically and act if you need practical help
  • Arrange a way of sending a daily message to your helper so they know you are OK, and a set time after which they will come looking for you if you don't check in
  • Remember to allow time afterwards to re-integrate – don’t rush from the mountains to your city desk without at least a weekend to make the transition
  • Turn off your phone, computer, internet and get far from the likes of TV and go inwards.

Most of the world’s religions have built this kind of time of prayer and meditation into their rituals, and whether or not you adhere to a formal religion, you can benefit from this practice. It helps to include your preferred way of going within, be it prayer, yoga, exercise, meditation, art or contemplation.

Taking quiet time alone can work wonders for strategic clarity, grounding and resilience. Daily practice is also of huge value – even five minutes of meditation a day works wonders! – and I got the idea of a regular longer solo time from Steve Biddulph, the wonderful Ozzie author of Raising Boys, who recommends taking a few days off alone around the time of your birthday.

It can go much deeper, if you choose to explore the powerful spiritual potential of this work. There are many ways to do this, and what I offer here is the route that has worked for me. I learned to fast and experienced huge and transformative life-changing growth on a Vision Quest facilitated by Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris. With gently powerful preparation, utterly reliable support on every level, and careful deep listening after the solo time – a kind of debriefing that opens new vistas, they hold a small group through each one’s own personal solo journey that includes four days fasting alone in the wilderness.

I highly recommend Judy and Valerie’s Vision Quest near Cape Town in South Africa; nearer Johannesburg, I can equally recommend Kevin Rudham’s Circles of Stone, and internationally you can learn more and find other opportunities through Steven Foster and Meredith Little’s School of Lost Borders. Or explore the indigenous culture of your area – I believe that long ago, this kind of practice was widespread in almost all cultures.

Note about fasting during your alone time:
I don’t recommend that you fast for more than a day without thorough preparation and support. You may get this through your spiritual community, or your physician, or through specialists such as Vision Questers.