Person as Bridge to the Manager-Leader Divide

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In his classic HBR article, What Leaders Really Do (1990)[i], John Kotter differentiated leadership and management: “Management is about coping with complexity.” Without management, chaos ensues, threatening the “very existence” of the firm. By contrast, leadership “is about coping with change.” Leaders motivate and inspire people. They align their actions, get them moving in the right direction. Both are vital “systems of action” for practicing executives.

Management contributes stability. It produces results reliably, using repeatable processes and practices to meet predictable demands. Sound mechanistic, even boring? Perhaps, but it’s just this monotonous regularity of performance over time that pays for the more visionary, inspirational work many find more exciting. Kotter argues that the answer to the dilemma is a hyphen: “Smart companies value both… They try to develop leader-managers.”

I believe a simple and truer answer goes beyond the hyphen. And I differ with Kotter’s suggestion that the either-or focus[ii] only becomes critical as people are promoted to executive positions. My quarrel with this solution is that it divides conceptually the role-based patterns of thinking, action, and relating to others which live and have impact through the intentional behavior of one person. Intention in this context implies purposive action and in-order-to motivations.

An Example May Help

Jane, whose job it is to implement a new program designed to improve patient safety, asserts influence through the quality of her personal presence (i.e., authentic, inspiring, credible, trust-worthy, likeable, etc.). Her authenticity is earned. She’s been willing to admit what she does not know. She acknowledges her mistakes. She’s willing to take risks based on her judgement and confidence. Her leadership won’t be worth much unless or until she has demonstrated these qualities.

But that means she has also already demonstrated managerial competence. If all that others have seen her do is spout big ideas and pump sunshine, they won’t trust her competence, credibility, or capacity to get things done; she’ll be written off. And let’s get real: Their trust concerns her maturity, judgment, and skill, qualities cultivated over time. These qualities better be in evidence long before seeking an executive position. This development implies changed ways of being as a person.

It’s More than Ears-Up Learning & Skill

There may be merit in distinguishing skills of management (efficient systems) from skills of leadership (aligning people). But aren’t maturity, judgment, trust and credibility equally relevant to management and leadership? And aren’t these basic qualities of the person known to us as much by our felt sense of them as by any intellectual or observational acts of mind? What does that tell us? I believe it tells us that there is a kind of underlying personal development that generates leader-manager maturity.

It’s that maturity that we must understand and encourage early in a person’s career. How do we do that? It’s a matter of noticing, knowing, and understanding[iii]applied to ourselves and others. We do this by starting with self-awareness: “What’s my personality? What’s my temperament? What are my interpersonal needs and styles? What is my ‘take’ on these questions, and how do others view me?”

It’s only from doing this that we learn to raise similar questions about what we notice, know, and understand about others. Moreover, it is not a one-time thing. This kind of personal development is helpful whenever we find ourselves at an “inflection point.”

What we learn from this development is that there’s another system of action that is even more basic than management and leadership, i.e., communications and communicative action. Kotter points out in his original article that the work of leadership occurs through “informal” patterns of interaction. He believes that management is more formal. And other management scholars[iv] have called attention to how reliant we must be on the art of conversation in leadership.

Person as Bridge

I believe that informality and conversation are equally essential to management and leadership. I also believe that an informal and conversational style is rooted the person and his or her way of being. We must notice how these ways of being make the most difference in our individual roles and real-world situations. New situations and challenges will make new demands. We can notice our felt sense of readiness or un-readiness if we know enough to pay attention.

Knowing enough to pay attention involves recognizing my feelings: “this could be an inflection point in my growth and development as a person.” Beyond noticing this, I can then inquire about what this feeling is telling me with an attitude of curiosity and while suspending judgment. This way, the full and "messy" meaning becomes available for inquiry and understanding. It helps to have the help of a well-trained other. It accelerates your learning and focuses your efforts at adaptive change.

It’s this noticing, knowing, and understanding process, pursued with a curios non-judgmental attitude that feeds our development. It takes us to who we are, our habitual ways of being, the “pinch-points” that signal needs for change. And as persons, we must learn to treat these pinch-points as our friends; they’re seeking to awaken us to opportunities for growth. And this growth is fundamental to whatever we do or wish to do as managers or leaders. 

END NOTES:

[i] This article was also republished by Harvard Business Review in 2001 as an HBR Classic.

[ii] Kotter erects as something of a “straw man,” the view that people tend to best at one or the other but not both, i.e., that we are not born leaders, that leadership can be learned. I would say, neither are we born managers. Both are learned, and, as I argue later, both rely on something even more fundamental, personal development.

[iii] This link will take you to an article I wrote on personal development, which elaborates what the noticing-knowing-and-understanding consists of.

[iv] See “The Power of Conversational Leadership” in Harvard Business Review (23 July, 2012) by Boris Groysberg & Michael Slind. 

Finding & Following the Leading Thread

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I use the metaphor of “finding the leading thread” as shorthand for getting directly to the heart of the matter. It’s not easy, but when it succeeds it has great power. This way of searching for meaning can be just as valuable for managers as it is for a psychologist.

Leading Thread – an example

An up-and-coming professional, new to leading a team, demonstrates mental acuity and eagerness to problem solve. He welcomes others’ involvement and invites a lively back-and-forth exchange of ideas, that is, so long as it aligns with his “great” ideas.

However, if members of the team or collaborators outside the team suggest an alternative strategy, one which does not align with his ideas, he becomes rather rejecting and closes discussion. That’s an issue for his boss and others, and he’s assigned a coach to address it.

It turns out that the same force of presence that can be energizing and promote confident action in his team, can also become a force for shutting down others. It’s his high need for control and insecurity in relying on the thinking of others that arouses his defenses.

The leading thread in this case is the felt sense of insecurity. He’s given this feedback, and it’s difficult for him to accept. It feels like a weakness, and he wants only his strengths to show. His reactions to the threat of losing control manifests in his tone of voice, his facial expressions, and his impatience.

Because he is competitive and views success as a zero-sum game, he sees others as competitors. He attributes motives of wanting to win, claim credit, even if it occurs at his expense. Again, these are difficult feelings for him to accept. It implies selfishness, and he thinks of himself as team player.

Finding and following a leading thread reveals a single theme clearly, i.e., a felt sense of insecurity when his ideas are challenged. It reveals other themes and issues too. He does value a team ethic, but he also fears a loss of standing if his ideas do not prevail. His sense of worth is attached to being smart.

What’s Next?

Observations: First, we must notice that it was necessary suspend judgment about his behavior to see it clearly and make sense of how it works. Second, it required a second person, an expert, to assess and reframe the situation and behavior to obtain new insight. Third, the leading thread takes us to a snarl of threads or competing values and interests that must be sorted out.  

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A reflective quality of thought and conversation is necessary to lay bare this complex picture of how our behavior is motivated. The feelings, thoughts, and actions that we are immediately aware of (above the line) often are triggered by others that operate outside conscious awareness.

To make our insights practical they must be situated within our field of action. We do this by examining how key themes are revealed in the daily course of work. Examples illustrate how difficulties occurred. We analyze them very much like a coach and player might review game film after a football game to see how things happened and how they might have been dealt with differently.

This next-step analysis might be done between coach and developing leader initially, but the intent is to bring the insights and conversation into dialogue with the person’s manager. This is the locus ongoing developmental dialogue. The coach is a bridge and support resource.

How Does It Help?

The developing leader learns to trust his primary experience. He learns to listen to it without judgment, to understand what it has to say about him, the way he perceives things, and how his perceptions affect behavior. Treating his experience, especially his emotions, as data becomes a source of freedom!

The person’s manager learns the same lesson, as it applies to his direct reports and as it applies to him. When he finds himself getting frustrated, annoyed, or losing confidence in his developing leader, he seeks to understand what he (manager) is experiencing, and he treats his feelings and thoughts as data. It enables him to broach dialogue and get to the point (the leading thread) more directly.

As dialogue between developing leader and manager becomes more able to achieve this quality of interaction and insight, a deeper quality of trust emerges. Also, the quality of attachment changes. They learn that they can safely reveal their vulnerabilities and repair strains more readily.

Beyond using this approach for leader development, they discover how it applies to handling so-called “difficult conversations” and resolving chronic patterns of conflict. Using reflective dialogue to treat our feelings as data and to search for meaning in our experience becomes a powerful tool for leadership and organizational development. 

Fear, Self, and Thriving

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Noticing, knowing, and understanding are the source of wisdom. Wisdom is a special kind of insight that informs good judgment and guides right action. This “wisdom effect” holds for almost anything in our field of experience, even (or especially) the things that evoke fear and cause us to question ourselves.

The wisdom and insight that arise from noticing-knowing-and-understanding may be implied in Nietzsche’s words, “what does not kill you, makes you stronger.” It is even more explicit in the less dramatic language of our own John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”

In any case, the specific turn of mind that enables us to generate this insight stems first from a distinct attitude. It’s one of “looking with fresh eyes.” It steps out of and shakes off the negative mood and attitude that travel with fear. It frees us to see what the fear is about. It’s an attitude of dispassionate curiosity.

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This attitudinal turn of mind (not mere intellect) is aptly described by the Persian poet, Rumi, in Guest House. He suggests that we treat all “unexpected visitors” (feelings and concerns) as guests. We are to welcome even our troubled feelings as messengers, for “each has been sent.” They come bearing purpose and meaning.

For many, fear is among the most poignant of debilitating feelings, especially when we awaken to its grip upon us in the morning. Our immediate thought is, “How unbearable. I must get away from this, gain control over it!” The flight response. Of course, it does not work, at least not for long.

Welcoming Fear (the leap of faith)

Especially when our fears and worries become recurrent and disruptive, we must ask ourselves “What have I got to lose by welcoming them as guests who may have a message for me?” In the mere asking the possibility of an attitude shift emerges. It’s aims is humble: “Let me simply see what this is really about. That surely will not 'kill' me, to invoke Nietzsche, and perhaps I’ll learn something.” Rather immediately the feared object becomes bearable as an object of reflection.

What’s happened affectively? Moments earlier fear possessed me, bodily, mentally, emotionally. Now, as it’s transformed into an object of reflection, it softens into lower-intensity anxiety. And as I begin to examine it, it reveals itself more fully. I notice prejudgments, assumptions, and beliefs, many of which now look rather exaggerated and out of proportion, that explain the alarm I felt. In this new light, their absolute facticity and truth become suspect.

The self I was then – overwhelmed, in jeopardy – turns out to be a momentary “state” of being. The tragic, ill-fated trajectory I imagined was only one possibility. I may properly feel challenged by the issues and concerns that emerge from reflection, but I may also find reason to frame them differently, to address them rationally, and to seek help to support my efforts. We discover that a big part of the intensity with which fears register is attributable to the cloak of secrecy that hides them.

The fearful, worried self is often a self in isolation – even if others are physically nearby. When fears grow and are concealed as a regular means of coping, we lose perspective. We may find justification for buffering and re-framing a challenge that might otherwise overwhelm those we lead. However, we can err in overestimating our personal capacity to bear such worries, and we can underestimate the capacity of others to cope and help solve our problems.

Thriving

By mindfully opening ourselves to experience, we’re better positioned to notice, know, and understand. Noticing concerns registration, it’s our sensory capacity to recognize what registers as noteworthy. It includes that which deviates from the familiar, manageable, bumps in the road. We feel it before we know it. But when we notice what we feel, we can immediately treat it as something important to know, to specify for what it is. And as we come to know it in this way, understanding (of implications) deepens.

In arriving at this changed relationship to the feared object, we recognize our malleable capacity for adaptive learning, growth, and development. Our narrative self is anchored in a stock of knowledge. It projects our intentions and conditions our perceptions and actions. Vital self, on the other hand, is much less obtrusive, it's who we are as a live, experiencing subject. It is us as we awaken and evolve in the face of new demands and challenges, and as we discover the limitations of the narrative self.

In this way, vital self thrives and narrative self is continually updated – “Every morning a new arrival.” The settled ways of knowing and understanding (narrative self) provide stability and continuity until they don’t. At that point, we may find that we come up short on ways to adapt. In its more acute form, we feel this moment as fear. It may not feel like a welcome guest initially, but as we notice it rather than act on a flight response, it will tell us what we need to know and understand to thrive. 

What is Your Vitalizing Practice?

What is a Practice?

We all have ways of doing things, ways of going about life and work. They become most easily available as "ways" when they become habitual. Some are acquired in childhood and others are learned as improved ways of being and doing in adulthood. The word “practice” signifies such an approach that is cultivated with deliberate intent, for a purpose, because of its superior virtue.

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Servant Leadership practice, for example, is intended to promote the virtue of service. Moreover, it does this with a distinctive quality of humility that involves using one’s positional power to invert a traditional hierarchy, which is too often intended to serve those in senior executive positions. But senior leaders working from this model of practice see themselves as duty-bound to empower and enable others.

To do so also requires a virtue of moral and emotional maturity, prudential judgment, and practical wisdom. Why? Because those practicing servant leadership must maintain an active sense of their fiduciary duties as corporate officers. They are responsible for preparing individuals, managers, and leaders to act effectively and responsibly with the power and autonomy they’re given in such an organization.

As you can see, this practice involves more than a mere loosening of controls; it involves cultivating a different set of controls. The controls are superior because they free more people at all levels to realize their fullest potential to contribute and make a difference. But it does not simply happen; it’s arguably a more complex way of leading. And it expects more of those to whom power and authority are granted.

A practice, then, is a cultivated way of doing something, an enlightened way of being in one’s role in relation to oneself and others. It implies a rather holistic quality of maturity (intellectual, emotional, social, and moral) that produces practical wisdom and sound judgment. This maturing does not make us infallible, if anything we become more conscious of human fallibility and see the importance of resilience.

What is a Vitalizing Practice?

Let’s observe at this point that any individual person may have reason to cultivate multiple practices to enhance his or her way of living, working, and being. We might have a physical fitness practice that is right for us: it fits our life style; it’s sustainable; it’s flexible enough to accommodate changes in our daily routine, etc. We may also have a parenting practice and work and leadership practices. 

I don’t mean to suggest that every aspect of our lives must be governed by a practice. But insofar as we are reliant on habit to guide much or our actions in life, we may wish to ensure that those habits are virtuous, yield the results we want, especially in our most important life roles. Having said that, a vitalizing practice is the most fundamental of all practices, and it underlies and enhances everything else.

...to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever “model” we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.
This is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.
— Wendell Berry

I choose the term “vitalizing” deliberately. Vital means related to life, vitalizing means to infuse with life. The word “life” here is intended to convey not mere subsistence, but fullness of life. It denotes the realization of our potential, qualities of excellence that enable us to live out most fully our essential nature. Whence come these infusions of vitalizing energy for excellence and virtue in living?

The answer, I believe, is from without and from beyond. Therefore, a practice that makes of us a portal for receiving these vitalizing energies is what I would call a vitalizing practice. For me it is a mindfulness meditation practice. For you, it might be prayer or yoga. It could be a practice that operates within a context of religious or spiritual beliefs, but it is not reducible to dogma or philosophy.

What makes a vitalizing practice life-infusing is its capacity to help us realize the felt presence of life. Ritual behaviors and symbols are instruments and prompts. It's the in vivo experiences and the transformative qualities of their felt effects that are the truest markers of vitality. They open us. They calm us. They reveal meaning and possibilities beyond our own invention. They yield insight and understanding without judgment.

Our vitalizing practice may be redemptive insofar as it brings us back to a path of virtue and right action, but the moral effects are free of moralistic judgment. We return to life with greater humility and greater compassion for others. We’re then able to join this grounded sense of being and living to our role and our role-based responsibilities for others. Our other practices are more aligned with virtue and wisdom. 

Right Speech & Good Leadership

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In the 5th century BC, Buddha in the East (India) and Socrates in the West (Greece) were asking "difficult" questions about the meaning of life in pursuit of enlightenment. Both in their own ways discovered that the path to enlightenment requires insight and proper action based on that insight.

To acquire insight, they believed we only need to use our minds, broadly conceived as the capacity for seeing and being curious about what is given in experience. It’s all there if we only remove the blinders of “doing” (habitual action) and simply notice it and examine it with openness and acceptance.

I know, you may be thinking, “That sounds like philosophy, not business management or leadership.” Yes, you are right – well, sort of. It is a philosophical attitude. Attitudes are mental mindsets we can adopt and use for a purpose, in this case, to achieve a considered understanding of something.

Put that way, I suspect most executives and corporate fiduciaries would see some practical relevance for adopting this attitude, especially when addressing important decisions affecting their stakeholders. But then what? We call some managers executives because we expect them to guide action, execution.

Right Action

Both Buddha and Socrates were ultimately quite practical, that is, if we appreciate what it really means to be “practical”, i.e., oriented toward “good” or “skilled”[i] practice. Mindful of this, the practice of a responsible leader at any level, in any role, must be aligned with what is good, right, and proper.

In Buddhist psychology, the practice of skilled leadership leads to good Karma, a pattern of virtue that elevates us. As an example or model for others, such leadership promotes an elevated level of practice in others, which influences culture. And among the most important actions of leadership is speech.

Why? Because almost all action (mental, physical, technical, organizational) is mediated by language and speech. And ancient wisdom offers some particularly good guidance on the unskilled forms of speech that can cause harm and impede effective functioning as a social-organizational system:

  1. Lying – It diminishes our ability to trust relationships, to trust ourselves. When we examine with curiosity the motives behind such unskilled action, we open the way for courageous choices and right action. We thereby place truthfulness at the center of our practice.
  2. Harshness – Words can cause harm. When we speak reactively from feelings of anger, we must discover what lies beneath them. Perhaps we feel hurt, offended, frightened, and/or impatient. We cause others to defend themselves. It divides rather than connecting us.
  3. Backbiting – Whether it’s gossip about others or invidious comparisons that are self-serving, this is an all-to-common temptation in social-organizational settings. As Joseph Goldstein reminds us, we have choices, “words need not simply tumble out of our mouths.”[ii]
  4. Useless Talk – Why is it that we can feel compelled to talk without having anything to really say? It’s frivolous, but its effects are not benign. Our words can quickly become worthless to others and to ourselves when they lack some considered intention, timeliness, and relevance.

As we characterize these patterns of “unwholesome” speech, we find ourselves evoking a reflective pause. We see more clearly what they are, where they come from, and the consequential effects they have upon ourselves, our practice, and others. But we only see and understand if we “accept”.

Acceptance is not resignation. It is not complacency. Rather, it is a compassionate acceptance of our vulnerabilities to imperfect, reactive behavior. It’s acknowledgement that we have “feet of clay” and the opportunity for learning, growth, and further realization of our virtue as a skilled practitioner.

For more on noticing unwholesome speech and unskillful action and making wise choices that promote adaptive development see my paper: Developing at the Inflection Point.  

[i] Socrates was essentially a moral philosopher and would characterize virtuous practice as “good”, while Buddha was a spiritual guide and would characterize virtuous practice as “skilled”.

[ii] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (2003). New York: Harper One. I’ve drawn on his work in this article and have adapted it for use in my practice as a psychologist.